Basotho farmers struggle for markets

. . . as chain stores prefer SA suppliers

 

‘MATHATISI SEBUSI

MASERU – Smallholder farmers striving to grow their largely subsistence enterprises into full-time ventures are miffed at being snubbed by chain shops, especially South African-owned supermarkets.

Responding to a government call to increase production, the farmers accuse the chain stores of trucking in vast quantities of food from South Africa while their produce rots in barns.

Neo Semolomolo of Leribe has struggled to find a steady market for her vegetables despite approaching giant retail stores.

“Shoprite told me that Basotho farmers are not consistent and reliable so they do not take our produce,” she said in a recent interview with Public Eye. “At the moment I sell my vegetables and seedlings to surrounding communities and street vendors.”

Semolomolo thought her luck had changed when she struck a deal to supply a local supermarket but that was short-lived.

Most chain supermarkets cite lack of consistency and poor quality of the farmers’ output when turning local farmers away.

Although local farmers have the zeal to produce for the market, their efforts are often frustrated by either insufficient capital, patchy rains or lack of a market.

“We can produce more if the government meets us half-way, maybe with funding we can use climate-smart techniques like tunnels, green houses, shade nets and others to protect our products from the harmful effects of climate change.

“With such support farmers can produce high quality products, stay in the market longer and charge competitive prices to the market,” she said.

Semolomolo explained that before planting, she studies the market to avoid investing in unwanted crops.

Semololo’s break into farming comes on the back of government’s Smallholder Agriculture Development Project (SADP), which aims to help startup and subsistence farmers graduate into commercial farming.

Buoyed by this World Bank financed project, Basotho farmers want the country to stop importing vegetables and meat from South Africa.

The project has since 2012 supported smallholder farmers to diversify and break into the vegetables and broiler meat market.

Lesotho imports 90 percent of broiler meat and 80 percent of the vegetables sold in the formal market from South Africa while Lesotho’s production is focused on cereals, primarily maize.

Sempe Makhaola, Director of Maseru District Agriculture Unit Association, noted that Lesotho imports these foods because Basotho farmers do not have the capacity to produce the right quality and required quantities to meet demand.

He said because of persistent drought, local production has sharply deteriorated and, as a result, Basotho farmers’ cannot compete as they are forced to charge more than South African farmers to stay afloat.

“Imagine buying a head of cabbage for M10 and a broiler chicken for M80, how much will the supermarkets sell the products at so that they and consumers both benefit? Using local farmers at the moment when they still lack capacity does not make business sense.

“If farmers reduce their prices, they stand to run at a loss because they do not produce much,” he noted.

Makhaola explained that the difference between Basotho and South African farmers is that South African farmers produce in large volumes and, as a result, they are able to sell at lower prices.

“I once bought one head of cabbage in Clocolan for R5 and the quality was so good that if it was in Lesotho I would have bought it for M20.

“I believe this is because South African farmers are supported by their government to survive in the agriculture industry, unlike us,” he said.

Basotho farmers can only break the South Africans grip on the market if they pooled their produce but this alone will not be enough without government subsidies, training and homogenising yields.

“Standardising will be very important because as we speak, farmers produce different standards of vegetables and chicken – high quality, medium and very bad quality,” he said.

He has however placed faith in the SADP which supports smallholder farmers in targeted areas of Lesotho, with the goal of helping them exploit opportunities to diversify into market-oriented agriculture.

Under the SADP, government wants to help farmers increase production but this is only possible if farmers invest in partnerships to overcome market challenges.

“Working together as farmers can help us raise finances so that we can produce enough quality and quantity because we are struggling as individuals.

“With enough support from the Government and our determination to strive to succeed in the sector, we can come to a point where we supply the country and the country stops importing vegetables and broiler meat.

“It should not be the government’s responsibility alone to ensure that food production increases in the country but we as farmers should convince the Government that we want to be helped and have what it takes to make the industry a success, and with that the Government will be motivated to support us.

“With this ongoing SADP initiative, some farmers fail be part of it because they are unable to meet certain requirements which we can meet if we partner. Working together is the only way to succeed for Basotho farmers,” he noted.

Makhaola said the same applies to chicken farmers.

“The country does not produce enough chicken and, as a result, farmers not only fail to stay in the market longer but also sell their chickens at a price much higher than what the country buys with from South Africa.

“Lesotho’s chickens are expensive because farmers produce low quantities therefore charge in such a way that they can be able to cover what they spend on the chickens and get a little profit. Supply is low, quality and prices are inconsistent,” he said.

Pick ‘n Pay, fruit and vegetable manager Neo Ntene said the company sources its merchandise locally as long as the produce meets its high standards.

Pick ‘n Pay imports and draws from its reserves when local suppliers run out.

“Pick ‘n Pay takes local farmers’ products but there is a certain standard that farmers need to meet in order for their produce to grace our shop.

“Among vegetables that we have in store currently, spinach, eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes are from local farmers,” he said.

He, however, said quality and consistence are the main challenges facing local farmers.

“Most farmers do not produce much to stay in the market for some time and that forces us to change suppliers.

“The other challenge is quality. Local farmers need more training on how to produce good quality vegetables that are safe to eat without using dangerous chemicals in trying to control insects,” he explained.

He also said local farmers lack variety and often produce the same crops at the same time.

“There are a lot of vegetables that local farmers can plant that we import from South Africa. They can do research on how to plant them and send them to us.

“We do not buy anything from South Africa which is available in the country of the quality we need. Right now we are importing cabbage from South Africa only because there is no one to supply us with it in the country,” Ntene said, adding for five years the retail supermarket has struggled to get beetroot, cucumbers and carrots in the country.

On the other hand, Perishables Manager at Pick’n Pay Leeto Mosaase said they do not buy chicken meat from local producers because they don’t meet Pick ‘n Pay standards.

He said Lesotho does not have a chicken abattoir that they can visit and inspect to ensure that it meets their standard.

“Even individual local farmers do not have the quality and quantity that we need and therefore taking their products causes inconvenience as they do not last in the market.

“We buy our chicken from South Africa, specifically from among others, Supreme and Pick ‘n Pay distribution centre,” he said.

Mosaase said the only way local farmers can survive in the industry and supply them with chicken meat is if they come together and may be start something like a meat centre where all chicken farmers will take their chickens and Pick ‘n Pay and other retailers could buy from it.

Basotho farmers’ woes are compounded by an unfriendly topography and scant rains, especially in Mohale’s Hoek, Qacha’s Nek and Quthing.

According to a World Food Programme report titled “Fill the Nutrition Gap” released this month, Lesotho is not self-sufficient in either meat or vegetables.

This is because Lesotho is focused more on cereals, primarily maize although average yields remain comparatively low due to climate shocks.

In 2017, the country produced 986.8 kg per hectare of cereals and 467.7 kg per hectare in 2016 or five percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

This is despite 78 percent of productive land area being used for cropping, horticulture or livestock and 38 percent of the economically active population engaging in agriculture.

“Lesotho relies heavily on imports from South Africa for almost all commodities, with only 30 percent of all foods consumed being produced in Lesotho. The majority (91 percent) of fields for crop production is run by smallholder farmers for own consumption.

“These farmers often struggle to reach a subsistence level and in most cases, need to supplement their own production with purchased commodities, resulting in an overall deficit at the household level. This suggests that currently many smallholders are not able to sustain their livelihoods by agricultural activities,” noted the WFP.

The international humanitarian body warns that the trend is likely to continue, partly due to external factors such as climate change that cause increasingly long and intense spells of drought, but also due to poor farming practices.

The WFP report notes that farming inputs such as fertilisers and improved seeds are not widely used, and the government’s input subsidy programmes do not effectively reach smallholder farmers.

As a result, only a few smallholder growers make use of agricultural inputs to boost productivity.

“Less than 1 percent of the cropland in the country is irrigated and very few improvements have been made between 2006 and 2016, although recently more attention has been paid to improving irrigation practices.”

Lesotho has become a perennial visitor to international donors with a begging bowl owing to poor harvests.

Recently, minister in the Prime Minister’s office Temeki Ts’olo revealed that government was in desperate need of M203 728 million to buy food for 640 000 Basotho who are staring at food shortages.

The shortage was due to drought conditions the country experienced in the 2018/2019 agricultural season.

Ts’olo said the country has experienced punishing droughts since the 2016 farming season which, coupled with hail storms has left the country’s huge army of subsistence farmers without food.

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