MASERU – Unlike her peers who run around with brown envelops seeking employment, Neo abandoned that route a long time ago and is making a living out of tilling the land to grow crops on a commercial basis.
In her early thirties, Neo Semolomolo, has carved a name for herself in her community through her hard work and dedication to farming, notwithstanding the worrisome climate change that compromises food production and security.
After she graduated from the Lesotho Agricultural College (LAC) in 2010, Semolomolo spent the next year on the streets of her home town Butha-Buthe in search of a job.
When her efforts came to nought, the agriculture graduate thought hard about how to keep hunger and poverty at bay and ended up resorting to the very craft she studied at tertiary.
She first planted seedlings on her in-laws’ plot in Butha-Buthe but the enterprise failed dismally because of the unrelenting drought.
But the hurdle never deterred the young, courageous woman from trying over and over again.
Instead, it inspires her to think more practically about how to approach her small farming business.
One of the first things she had to determine was the reason why the local community was not particularly keen on buying her seedlings even though most of the people often starved and lived in abject poverty.
Since most of her community’s challenges revolved around drought she decided the solution lay in finding ways to grow vegetables under any weather conditions.
Her plan was to supply the community with quality vegetables that would raise enough income to sustain her struggling family.
As she struggled to get her business on its feet, her passion for farming also grew and she started seeing numerous productive opportunities, which she had never perceived before.
She then built small scale plots and, with the skills she acquired at the LAC, she turned the minute vegetable gardens into a huge success.
Today she sells top quality green vegetables she produces such as tomatoes, chili, all kinds of peppers and spinach to schools and surrounding communities.
Semolomolo shows that the project grew so successful that she decided to partner with some community members in a bid to share farming skills and ideas with them.
“In no time, we were able to supply the entire district with vegetables and we managed to contribute a little towards job creation.
“This was a way of sharing my farming skills and knowledge with the community by helping them do something that puts food on the table, instead of always complaining about unemployment.
“The partnership has helped all of us to grow as both farmers and entrepreneurs and our products very popular in Butha-Buthe. I later left the group and went to establish my own company called Neo Seedlings based in Khanyane, Leribe.
With her successful farming business firmly on the ground, there was no need to look for her and her colleagues to keep going out there in search of employment elsewhere.
Semolomolo adds: “Farming has not just become my way of life but is now my way to empower youths in the community as they come to the farm in great numbers seeking employment and guidance on how to succeed in farming.”
Her experiences are however far from a rosy fairy tale.
She acknowledges that like other farmers who are troubled by bad weather conditions every now and again, her produce is not always up to scratch and, in the process, she runs serious financial loses.
But the ministry of small business development has since come to her rescue and supplied her with essential farming tools that include shades to protect her vegetables from harsh weather conditions.
“Worrying about the poor quality of vegetables is now a thing of the past and I now supply communities of Butha-Buthe and Leribe, schools and street vendors with my produce.”
She adds: “I am so passionate about farming that in the next five years, I want to be one of the top female farmers in Lesotho, I also plan to venture into both poultry and dairy farming.”
Apart from selling farm produce, her family consumes the vegetables and only buys what she is unable to produce yet.
The happily married mother of two children’s passion for farming has rubbed onto all members of the family who now see great life in the soil.
“Working hand in hand with my husband towards a clear goal of ensuring a bright future and leaving a legacy for our children is one of the things that motivates me,’’ she says.
The satisfaction she gets when she sees young people getting their hands dirty by tiling the land and producing food is overwhelming.
As a way of improving her farming skills, she normally attends farmers’ workshops and clinics to keep up-to-date with the new technologies, information and strategies.
She later shares the information with other farmers in the area to ensure that they also do not remain behind.
The ministry of agriculture and food security’s Principal Secretary Malefetsane Nchaka says the fact that agriculture is the back bone of every country’s economy is a reality that can never change.
Nchaka says if agriculture is well budgeted for, there would be no need for the government to commit huge sums of money to the ministry of health to provide medication to ill people when they have sufficient, healthy food to eat.
He says it is high time the electorate forced the government to prioritise agriculture and ensure that their money is spent where it is needed most.
Apart from that, he notes that the government does not offer much assistance to farmers who are, in turn, accused of the deplorable state in which farming is.
Nchaka argues farmers should take a stand and strive to farm and produce quality products as they have the ability to do so.
The ministry, he says, went to Mapoteng, Berea 10 years ago and brought farmers together to produce high quality grains and beans which were sold to World Food Programme (WFP) and fetched millions of maloti.
He encourages farmers to work hard while the government is still able to subsidise their endeaviurs with seedlings and fertilisers.
This he, however, believes will soon to come to an end as the ministerial budget continues to deteriorate each year.
“What government is putting in through the agriculture ministry is far from being enough,” he says, further revealing that 4 000 hectares of land will be planted in Butha-Buthe, Leribe, Berea and Maseru.
Government has identified a company that will plant that land working together with the farmers while also engaging in share cropping with farmers that are unable to plant their fields, he reveals.
According to him, a vegetable production project will soon be started in Ha Tikoe at the market centre where, through the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC), an investor will establish an anchor farm along the Phuthiatsana River.
The out-grower model to produce vegetables and also train farmers from Makhalaneng and Ha Maama to produce the same product that will be marketed on the local market to be ready for importation.
Minister of Finance Dr Moeketsi Majoro in his budget speech earlier this month noted that Lesotho experiences extreme poverty and hunger, high rates of unemployment and a high food import bill, yet it is endowed with rich soils that can feed all Basotho.
Majoro notes as a result, the government has taken a decision to promote and invest heavily in commercial farming as a strategy to address food security and unemployment.
Government, the Treasury boss says, will expand commercial farming and horticulture for both the local and export markets to optimise the use of productive agricultural land and will support formalisation of land titles while scaling up an existing model that promotes consolidation of small holdings into commercial anchor farms for production of high value vegetables.
“These anchor farms will evolve to serve as mentors and aggregators to support and create a reliable market for emerging farmers by sourcing produce from their small, satellite farms,” he notes.
He adds that the model could ultimately mature to incorporate some elements of an out-grower scheme whereby the anchor farm provides agricultural inputs to a network of small farmers in addition to mentorship.
“The government at the moment is implementing financial and business support to help start-ups and other small businesses.
“The Small Holder Agricultural Development Project (SADP) has during its life issued 757 small grants to 22 agricultural businesses, 22 associations, and nine cooperatives.
“Most of the recipients remain in business and will expand their operations in future,’’ Majoro says.
He adds that the enterprises targeted for support include piggery, vegetables (tunnel and shade nets), slaughtering plant and abattoir, fruit seedlings and production, poultry, sheep and goat production, woolshed equipment, processing and fruit drying, honey packaging, fish production and duck production.
He says the ministry of agriculture and food security will continue in its endeavours to attract investors in commercial agricultural production, adding that block farming on wheat appears to have been very successful during this cropping season.
He notes that both the WFP and the agriculture ministry have launched a local purchase programme which will guarantee markets for small producers of grain and producers.
“However, since the country experienced episodes of dry weather and heat waves which hit hard on crop production, poor agricultural harvest is expected this year and, as a result, it is estimated that 491 000 people will require emergency food assistance.
“But government will continue to subsidise seedlings and fertilisers to farming community.”