Of Lesotho’s total land area, just one quarter has agricultural potential. Less than half of this is suitable for arable farming, with the remaining agricultural land supporting livestock. Crop production accounts for 70 percent of agricultural GDP, and livestock production for 30 percent.
Farmers cultivate mainly maize, sorghum and wheat on about 80 percent of the total area planted. Maize is by far the most important and high-yielding crop accounting for nearly two-thirds of crops planted each year. Other significant crops include wheat, pulses, sorghum, barley, fruit and sweet potatoes. As most farming is rain-fed, productivity tends to be low.
Challenges to arable farming, such as unpredictable agro-climatic conditions, shortage of farm labour and lack of capital for inputs, have seen a decrease in the area of cereals planted over the past few years. Strategies being adopted to help revitalise the subsector include programmes encouraging block farming and conservation agriculture.
The concept of block farming requires farmers within a particular agricultural area to plant crops to ease the management of such crops. Introduced in 2005, conservation agriculture aims to increase crop yield and prevent soil erosion through the application of techniques that reduce interference with the soil, turning it once instead of the usual system of cultivating, disking and planting.
More than 700 acres were planted with maize and sorghum at Mohalinyane for block farming and over 100 acres with beans and sorghum for the demonstration of conservation agriculture at Tsoloane in the 2006/07 cropping season. About 300 farmers were engaged in the project, with agriculture inputs and machinery from the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Programme (SANReMP) and technical support from the Department of Agriculture and World Vision.
Despite the extreme drought experienced during 2006/07, the second phase of the cotton pilot project was successfully completed, proving that cotton is able to grow in Lesotho even in harsh conditions. With the first two phases having been confined to the Main Research Centre of the Ministry of Agriculture in Maseru, additional and more elaborate research is planned for different part of the country in order to determine cotton’s commercial viability.
The live stock subsector, which is includes cattle, sheep and goats, is also significant for rural livelihoods. However, a system of free grazing has led to pasture degradation and the situation is exacerbated by intermittent drought. Past projects designed to encourage an integrated poultry industry, encouraging genetic diversity within sheep flocks, and improved fish production through utilization of enlarged reservoirs. Lesotho also has a large export market – primarily to South Africa – that includes mohair, wool and hides.
While the shift towards manufacturing has worsened poverty in rural communities, particularly those that depend on food production, this has been exacerbated by mine retrenchment in recent years. HIV/AIDS – related illness and death have also affected agricultural production through diminished labour capacity and increased proportion of female and child-headed households, and the pandemic has been cited by the World Food programme (WFP) as the major contributory factor to food insecurity.
Furthermore, rising food prices are placing an even greater burden on poor households, which grow little or one of their own food and rely rather on their ability to purchase food. Analysis of prices at household level reveals a steep upward trend between 2005 and 2007, while the price of South Africa maize, which Lesotho structurally imports, has increased even more. With little or no purchasing power, the poor can neither plant food crops in the fields nor afford to buy food products in the shops. The food security crisis has deepened to the point where UN agencies estimate that 13 percent of the entire population is undernourished.
A state of food crisis
Lesotho’s government declared a state of food crisis on the 9 July 2007 following large-scale damage to crops caused by one of the country’s worst droughts in three decades. Crops and food supply assessments conducted by local and international organizations, including the WFP, the Disaster Management Authority (DMA) and the Food and Agricultural (FAO),as well as food production forecasts conducted by the Bureau of Statistics, all confirmed a food crisis for the 2006/07 cropping season.
The FAO and WFP, together with the Lesotho Vulnerability Assessment Committee (LVAC), estimated that 401 200 people would be in food deficit during this period. Taking into account the 7 000 tonnes of food aid already in the pipeline, it was estimated that some 30 000 tones of cereals and an additional 6 700 tonnes of non-cereal, or cash equivalent, would need to be covered through government and/or international assistance to meet the 2 100 calorie minimum daily requirement.
In a further effort to ameliorate the situation, the FAO under the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) provided assistance in the form of seeds,ferltilisers,basic tools and tillage to about 35 000 vulnerable farming households in different districts of the country to enable them to enable them to plant in the 2007/08 cropping season. An estimated 385 tonnes of seeds were distributed to farmers at agricultural input trade fairs, which took place throughout the country between August and October 2007.It is anticipated that around 5 600 metric tonnes of maize, sorghum and beans will be produced from assistance.
The way forward
There is nevertheless potential to improve farming practices to allow households to produce more goods and better their nutritional status. In response to the food security crisis of 2007, the Lesotho government devised a number of strategies to ensure national food security in future, including:
- Identification of agriculture as the key sector in the Poverty Reduction Strategy.
- Improvement of agricultural productivity and food security through maximum use of arable land, subsidized inputs, promotion and drought resistant crops and scaling up homestead farming/gardening.
- Promotion of block farming for incentive agriculture in rain-fed and irrigation conditions.
- Promotion of conservation farming and water control using the catchments approach.
- Establishment of Range management Areas to improve rangelands and natural resource management.