. . . expert lauds move but advises a holistic approach is needed
MASERU – With bumper harvests brought by a good rainy season, vegetable farmers will for the whole month of February enjoy selling their produce without competition from imported commodities. Like all other sectors of the economy, small scale agro-businesses have been hit by the negative COVID-19 impact. In regular seasons, farmers manage their produce by dividing it between subsistence needs, using it as seed for future cultivation and selling it at a minimum support price.
But the situation changed significantly this week with the ban on importation of of tomatoes, green beans and peppers for the month of February by the Ministry of Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing. Speaking to this publication Principal Secretary (PS) in the ministry, Tankiso Phapano, said they had to do make an unusual decision to give local farmers a chance to sell their produce “that they evidently produced in large quantities.”
Phapano said to ensure that the local market does not suffer and is well supplied with vegetables during the period of the ban, farmers will work together with his ministry’s marketing assistants based in all of the country’s districts who will be working as coordinators between farmers and buyers. “For years, the ministry’s marketing assistants have been working with farmers to ensure the availability of markets for their products. “The same thing will apply during this period, and they will go to individual farms and villages, inspect the produce and recommend to buyers,” he said.
He said with the help of farmers and the ministry’s assistants, they will be able to collect farmers’ data and their produce so that a local vegetable fresh produce market is established. Currently, the country does not have a market of this nature where farmers can take their produce and from where potential bulk buyers can purchase, but Phapano revealed that they were in the final stages of renovating a market centre at Tsikoane, Leribe, which will become a fresh vegetable produce markert. The market is projected to start operating by the end of next month.
To ensure the prohibited products do not find their way into the local market illegally, the PS has officially communicated with the Commissioner of Customs and Excise-Lesotho Revenue Authority informing them of the decision. “Commercial agriculture has been identified as one of the significance sectors within the National Strategic Development (NSDP) II in the Agriculture and Rural Development chapter. The Ministry of Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing is one of the crucial implementing ministries that facilitates agricultural commercialisation.
“The Ministry of Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing, through the department of marketing is, among others, tasked with the development of markets for smallholders engaged in agricultural enterprises and linking local producers with buyers. Pending the available horticultural commodities produced by local agricultural enterprises, the ministry of small business development, cooperatives and marketing has decided to restrict importation of tomatoes, green beans and peppers in an endeavour to facilitate market access for the selected fresh produce,” reads the memo.
Managing Partner at RL Business Advisers, Consulting and Chartered Accountancy Firm, Robert Likhang, said he does not have the figures on the supply capabilities of Basotho producers and the demand for the banned commodities to make an intelligent analysis of this decision by government. However, he said at face value local producers are set to benefit during this period in the absence of competition from outside. He noted, though, that this also depended on the size of supply versus demand, in that prices are likely to rise “especially if the producer cannot sustain the supply.” He observed too that relations between local importers and foreign suppliers were bound to be strained.
“The Ministry of Small Business could have value chain studies which have informed them about the potential risks that would need to be mitigated. “In my opinion, we need a long-term view on such produce; we need to ensure that we domestically build the horticulture sector capabilities so that we do not even have to import at any time. Short-term actions could disrupt prices and make this burdensome to consumers if not well managed,” Likhang added.
He continued: “I am just excited that the ministry seems to pay attention to domestic businesses, and I hope this should be widened into other sectors and that small business development would be well funded, especially institutions such as Basotho Enterprises Development Corporation (BEDCO), and that government’s fiscal policies should be seen to promote the sector. Without a holistic approach, small steps may not have meaningful impact.” Lesotho imports 90 percent of broiler meat and 80 percent of the vegetables sold in the formal market from South Africa while its production is focused on grains, primarily maize. According to a World Food Programme (WFP) report titled “Fill the Nutrition Gap” released in 2019, Lesotho is not self-sufficient in either meat or vegetables.
This is because Lesotho is focused more on production of grains 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 are 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 household level. “This suggests that currently many smallholders are not able to sustain their livelihoods through agricultural activities,” noted the WFP.
The international humanitarian body warns 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.