New farming methods set to improve yields

 

STAFF REPORTER and EIF

MASERU – Mama Kotoane grows red cabbage, sweet peppers, mushrooms and more on a small plot of land in Berea. The 56-year-old started growing these in 2007, having put most of her efforts before that into the raising of pigs and chickens. Today she has her brand, Piggery & Green, gesturing to where she started and where she is now, cultivating a host of vegetables and supplying local supermarkets, schools and restaurants.

But she also has bigger plans. “I am thinking to build something unique. I want to produce throughout the year,” she said, referring to her current seasonal harvesting. She also has a plan to sell farming equipment like tillers, which are hard to come by in her neighbourhood. What Kotoane grows has shifted over the years, with a major change happening when she received greenhouses and hail netting as part of international support projects for agriculturalists in the country, including through a partnership between the government and the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF).

“I remember in 2012 I lost a lot of money. I expected a lot from my watermelon harvest but due to climate change I lost it. I didn’t give up, and then I was introduced to protected farming,” she said. “I got the first greenhouse in 2018 and my life changed,” she added. Kotoane was able to increase her yields and tried growing new items, including mushrooms, spinach and lettuce. Her next two greenhouses came via the World Bank, and she now has three employees and a delivery car.

Lesotho’s economy relies on agriculture, with about 45 percent of employment in the country depending on it, and almost all rural households with access to land are involved in some form of vegetable or fruit production. It is a must for Lesotho to support small rural farmers in order to improve the landlocked country’s limited economic prospects. That support can range from provision of the needed equipment, like Kotoane’s greenhouses and hail nets, to the development of an infrastructure so as to meet export standards, and, improving marketing and branding.

These efforts aim to link agricultural value chains to enable trade to flow smoothly from fertile soil to supermarket shelves across borders. “We are trying to get there by using our institutions. So we are trying to build up our standards. We have local projects concerned with infrastructure deployment and we are trying to diversify our markets,” said Mosiuoa Tello, M&E Officer with EIF’s implementation unit in Lesotho.

EIF has distributed 150 greenhouses and hail nets to small farmers, and hosts trainings on topics ranging from how to package vegetables to business development. Kotoane attended a few of these trainings, including how to keep records and how to cultivate with a greenhouse. But being a farmer always has its challenges, she noted, from her current struggles with snails to access to water. She wishes she had a better irrigation system than her method of using storage tanks and watering cans.

She has competition too, with others who are privileged with larger plots and hundreds of greenhouses, and market saturation because all Lesotho’s produce is seasonal. “Covid-19 hit me in the stomach, but it helped me to think like an entrepreneur. I thought if I could preserve these vegetables during the pandemic maybe I could have worked much better. I think I need to have a processing or a preserving project,” she said, reflecting on solutions to the losses in her sales due to restrictions on movement.

It is this kind of forward thinking that has brought her to where she is today. A recently concluded training for small greenhouse operators covered record keeping and business management, as well as post-harvest handling. Participants requested more support related to determining pricing.

Tello said: “We are trying to commercialise production,” referring to the government and EIF’s work to help transform agricultural items to exports. Training sessions across many of Lesotho’s districts mean to spur a business-oriented mindset, even if that might only mean a small increase in production, a reduction in post-harvest losses or more sales at local markets.” Mama Kotoane is continually trying other products, from okra to cucumbers, and looking to make her own farming process easier and more efficient. “I focus on horticulture because I love it,” she said.

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