Lesotho’s gardens of hope

A project in Lesotho's Mafeteng district shows HIV-affected families how to unlock the potential of keyhole gardens for greater food and nutrition security.

© FAO-Lesotho


The Kingdom of Lesotho is a mountainous, landlocked nation situated within the borders of South Africa. Most of its people live in rural areas, but women and men struggle to get by on subsistence farming and around 59 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, with some 40 percent living in extreme poverty. Over the last few years, severe land degradation, reliance on rainfed agriculture and hostile weather conditions have led to a decline in food production – a major cause of poverty among rural communities.

Lesotho also has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, with over 23 percent of the population believed to be infected. The disease has left many too sick to work and support for affected children and adults is left largely to families, an extra hardship that is frequently borne by women and girls who take on the role of primary family caregivers.

To tackle these challenges, FAO, UNICEF and WFP launched a project in Lesotho’s Mafeteng district, one of the country’s most affected sites in terms of the HIV epidemic, with 80 percent of the population living in rural areas and depending on subsistence farming. The project targeted families of HIV-affected children and focused on food and nutrition security, health, education and social welfare. 

As part of the project, communities were provided with equipment and seeds; they were also trained and mobilized for the construction of keyhole gardens, a labour-saving agricultural technique that can be successfully used to grow food in harsh climates, making the best use of poor soils. 

Keyhole gardens: Allies in the fight against hunger

In collaboration with Lesotho’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, the project engaged partners already working with the targeted communities, such as the NGO Send a Cow, the Lesotho Red Cross Society and the Rural Self-Help Development Association, to assist women and men in using keyhole gardens to produce a variety of vegetables, including local spinach, carrots, beetroots, green peppers and onions. 

Named for their distinctive shape, keyhole gardens can support the production of a wide variety of vegetables throughout the year, even in cases of prolonged water scarcity. They can be irrigated using household waste water, and through a dedicated central basket made with sticks and filled with grass and leaves, they reduce both water dispersion and the risk of contamination to the harvest. The gardens are built at waist height, with a small pathway leading to the central basket, allowing anyone to work the garden without unnecessary strain. This makes them especially suitable for children and for the elderly or sick, which is an important factor in communities affected by HIV. 

Matieho Matakalatse is one of the project beneficiaries from Ha Nooana Village. Although she is HIV positive herself, Mathieho has eight children to provide for as well as another adult suffering from the disease. She speaks proudly of her keyhole garden, which has helped to lift her family out of hunger:  “The advantage of this keyhole garden is that it is nearby,” she explains. “Even when I am sick, I can still pick vegetables. I don’t have to walk long distances.”

“It traps rainwater from the roof,” she continues, “and even if it is just a drizzle, this always keeps the soil moist for the vegetables to grow.”

To increase the positive impact on food and nutrition security for the recipient households, the project combined gardening interventions with other activities, such as rearing small livestock, growing fruit trees, hygiene and food processing interventions (for example, making use of fuel saving stoves and solar drying equipment), and nutrition education. School-based activities have also been implemented, with the setup of school gardens and nutrition education courses.

Mamohlami Letlailana, Chairperson of the Hlalefang Makaota Village Support Group, has been encouraging fellow women to make use of the solar dryers provided by the project in order to preserve fruit and vegetables.

“Inside this solar dryer, you won’t have bacteria. You’ll be able to have vegetables to feed your family for a very long time,” she says. “For example, vegetables are scarce during winter; because they wilt. But when you have these preserved vegetables, you’ll still feed the children. In addition, you can preserve fruits, especially these days, when it’s imperative to supplement our diet with fruit nutrients.” 

One of the great advantages of solar drying is that it maintains a high level of flavour and nutrients in the produce and, when compared with open-air drying, improves the product’s level of hygiene and quality by protecting it from rain, insects and dust.

The success of the project was clearly highlighted when implementing partners noticed families in neighbouring villages, outside the project intervention area, reproducing keyhole gardens on their own initiative. Compared to regular vegetable gardens, keyhole gardens require less labour, less water and no costly fertilizers or pesticides. They can support the production of at least five varieties of vegetables at the same time - thus supporting dietary diversity - and are so prolific that a single garden can generate sufficient produce to feed a family of eight.

This article was prepared in collaboration with FAO’s Nutrition Division.