Derelict farmers’ centres up for grabs

TEBOHO KHATEBE MOLEFI and

MATHATISI SEBUSI

MASERU – Controversy shrouds the largely derelict state-run Farmers Training Centres (FTCs) across the country after Public Eye discovered there are clandestine plans to auction them to chosen cabinet members. Should that happen this could be viewed as illicit stripping of state assets.

Contacted for comment, agriculture and food security minister, Tefo Mapesela, denied any knowledge of the alleged government plans to sell several state-run FTCs across the country. There are six such centres throughout the country. Public Eye had dug up information indicating that the government has such a project on the cards, indicating the agriculture hubs are already earmarked for sale to some government ministers.

In the main the FTCs were set up during the Chief Leabua Jonathan era to train ordinary aspiring farmers, who were housed at the centres at very little or no cost at all during training. It was at these centres that important knowledge about crops and plant varieties, where to buy seeds and chemicals, how to get high yields, and how much various crops are fetching in the market, was passed on to hands-on farmers.

The centres imparted a wide range of farming skills and were regarded as the cornerstone of the country’s strategy to support small-scale farming as a business. When the centres were established each was staffed with extension agents. FTCs are also meant to provide a wide range services, farmer training and extension services on improved farming techniques through training courses, exhibits, agricultural demonstrations, field days, farmer-to-farmer extension, market-oriented information and advisory services, as well as meeting and communication facilities.

Approached to shed light on the policy direction the ministry was taking in light of the developments the Mapesela rubbished the claims that the FTCs were being sold or would be leased to private companies. “That is not true. Those allegations are all lies, there is nothing like that going on in the ministry. We are neither selling nor leasing the centres…they are all lying,” Mapesela said in an interview with this publication this week.

On the other hand, this week the ministry’s Principal Secretary, Makara Nchakha, told this paper that the ministry was not selling the centres as suggested but “leasing the properties to an independent company.” “Because of a dwindling budget, the FTCs are not executing their mandate well. They are now a liability to the ministry bringing in very little if any revenue,” Nchakha said. He revealed that one company has already been awarded the contract.

Public Eye has established over some time in its extensive inquiries into the planned move that a private company was engaged by the Ministry of Agriculture to evaluate the FTCs and assess their value ahead of their being put up for sale. A report has been compiled, the paper has been made to understand, for the project to proceed and be given the thumbs up by the ministry.

However, further developments have been halted due to the current COVID-19 situation in the country which has forced the country into various lockdowns that limit movement and other processes leading to finalising the process. Former Director of Field Services at Ministry of Agriculture, Sello Thulo, whose responsibilities included servicing the FTCs, has advised government against selling or leasing the centres.

Thulo worked with the FTCs beginning 1998 to 2005, and highlighted that the under-threat agricultural centres were initially built to train upcoming farmers and youths who failed to enroll with the Lesotho Agricultural College (LAC) – either because of funds or lack of entry requirements. He said selling or leasing of centres for purposes other than farmers training will be a big mistake “especially now that government has invested so much money in the agriculture sector.”

“The government has already invested a lot of money in agriculture, so it makes no sense to remove the FTCs from the current management of this relevant ministry where they have to facilitate the training of young people so that they produce good quality products. All that could be done is avail funding to renovate them or at least privatise them so that they continue serving their purpose,” Thulo suggested.

“FTCs do not even need a lot of money to operate as they generate their own funds,” he said. Lesotho has FTCs in Mohale’s Hoek, Qacha’s Nek, Mokhotlong, Leribe, Thaba-Tseka and in Maseru. According to Thulo, in their heyday FTCs used to offer theoretical and practical training for upcoming farmers and youths interested in farming but could not afford or qualify for entry into the LAC.

He said even though the centres did not award any certificates, they acted as pre-entry courses into the country’s agriculture college and admitted young people who held even a minimum Junior Certificate qualification. He said the centres also offered six months’ intensive training on agriculture, nutrition and home economics with a guarantee that whoever had undertaken the course would make it to tertiary level.

Thulo added in all the years that the FTCs were operational, they were generating their own operating funds, but sadly “the funds were taken into government coffers and the centres were in turn offered way less than enough to keep running.” This shortage of funds, Thulo continued, collapsed the FTC programmes and they were eventually closed as farmers training facilities.

Thulo further pointed out that before they were shut down, the management of the FTCs was politicised so much that during school holidays they were used for political workshops and events not related to the agricultural courses offered. He said during his service at the ministry, they even proposed that these centres be privatised so that they can remain focused on offering core agricultural courses.

The idea was at the processing stage when he left, but it too got shrouded in politics and was never effected. Thulo noted, however, that FTCs facilities have fallen into disrepair and need renovations, observing further that during the current COVID-19 crisis the country is facing these centres could best be used as quarantine centres. Former small business development minister, Chalane Phori, has also derided the idea of government selling the FTCs.

“During my tour of duty as Minister of Small Business, I set up a Market Centre at Tsikoane, in Leribe, which was planned to buy produce from young farmers in our rural areas…local farmers who are supposed to be trained by the same centres. Selling these institutions that train farmers to equip them to produce quality products is reckless and senseless,” he said. The outspoken former minister asked: “How do you sell the same institution that train farmers to produce quality goods and still expect them to produce. This kind of decision is irrational and has evidently been made by people who can’t comprehend even simple logic that cheese comes from milk.”

 

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