The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has been feeding people in Lesotho since 1965, yet the tiny mountain kingdom is still not much closer to achieving food self-sufficiency. Time to overhaul the approach, aid agencies say.
WFP generally only ships and provides food in crisis situations like civil conflicts and natural disasters. Programmes sometimes linger on after the emergency has passed, when food aid used is to help communities rebuild, but the goal is usually to move out.
"Something needs to change," said Bhim Udas, WFP Country Director in Lesotho, the only southern African country to harvest less in 2009 - around 86,000 metric tons (mt) of cereals - than in 2008; maize production, the country's staple, would be about 10 percent lower, the UN food aid agency projected.
The Lesotho Vulnerability Assessment Committee (LVAC) said between 400,000 and 450,000 people would be in need of food assistance before the next harvest in April 2010. "That's a quarter of the population," Udas told IRIN.
Part of a worrying trend
Annual per capita cereal production in Lesotho has been shrinking since the 1970s. According to WFP, domestic cereal production met about 80 percent of the national requirement in 1980, but this dropped to 50 percent in the 1990s, and by 2004 only 30 percent was being produced locally.
The worst drought in 30 years hit in 2006 and 2007, sparking a further drop in production; by 2008 maize prices had risen more than 35 percent. "This year  production was even less [than in 2007], even though there was no crop failure or drought," Udas noted. WFP's food flow mix has changed dramatically since 1988, reflecting the drop in food security.
Over the years, "programme" assistance - food aid usually supplied on a government-to-government basis - practically disappeared, and "project" aid - in support of specific poverty-reduction and disaster-prevention activities - declined steadily, while "emergency" food aid - for victims of natural or man-made disasters - started climbing.
Continued food and agricultural support, coupled with falling production, have led some to believe that aid might actually be at the root of the problem. A common complaint, often with specific reference to WFP assistance programmes, has been that food handouts create disincentives to produce.
If only it were that simple, Udas said, pointing out that lowered local production was not a matter of choice. Lesotho had a shortage of arable land, and a lack of agricultural inputs and poor farming practices meant the quality of already scarce farmland was deteriorating too.
Photo: Tomas de Mul/IRIN
|WFP statistics show that since 1988 the mix of food assistance to Lesotho changed gradually from predominantly programme and project aid to emergency food aid|
Increasingly erratic weather patterns and the impact of HIV/AIDS on farming families – the 23.2 percent prevalence rate is one of the highest worldwide - all but crippled the country's agricultural production capacity.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has been supporting agriculture in Lesotho since 1983. "A convergence of several issues [is] causing the decline," said Farayi Zimudzi, the FAO Acting Representative and Emergency Rehabilitation Coordinator in Lesotho.
"In rural areas families manage to produce, on average, three to four months' worth of food supply – that's in a good season. The rest is aid, or is bought [with money made] through [basic] employment opportunities," she told IRIN.
Location, population and too little land
Lesotho is barren, mountainous and dwarfed by South Africa, which completely surrounds it; most of its two million people live in rural areas, where 85 percent eke out a living from agriculture. "It's the type of topography, and pressure from population growth," Zimudzi said.
Less than 10 percent of the country's total area of 3 million hectares is arable - which equates to less than a single hectare of suitable farmland per rural family - but soil erosion and urban encroachment have brought down the quality and quantity of land available for growing food at an alarming rate.
Government estimates put the loss of soil to erosion at 40 million tons annually - equivalent to more than 2 percent of the country's topsoil. Years of poor farming practices have added to the problem. "People extract the nutrients but don't put them back through adequate fertilizing so they start from a lower fertility point every year," Zimudzi commented.
The country receives adequate rain on aggregate, but its mountainous topography means runoff is exceptionally high and water had little chance to seep into the soil. Rainfall distribution - usually a large amount over short periods, with long intervals – was also problematic, "because the window of opportunity to plant is very narrow".
WFP's Udas said the soaring prices of essential inputs added to farmer despair. "Because of the high prices of fuel, fertilizers and seeds, farmers could not buy inputs in time ... so they decided not to plough; most of the arable land was left fallow." FAO estimated that since 2007 the price of maize seed has gone up by 60 percent, and fertilizer by a whopping 170 percent.
A heavy dependence on South Africa - Lesotho imports over 60 percent of its food requirements, livestock and almost everything else from their only neighbour - has often been blamed for stifling the local economy, with farmers unable to compete with huge commercial farms across the border. "There is no way to ignore the overhanging presence of the ... country next door. They do it bigger, better and cheaper," Zimudzi said.
Importing food has also become much harder: prices in South Africa have rocketed in recent years, while spending power in Lesotho has plummeted. Retrenchments in South Africa's mining sector, where many Basotho men worked as migrant labourers, and an ailing textile industry - the cornerstone of Lesotho's tiny industrial base – delivered another blow to food security.
Not for lack of ideas
Zimudzi called for a shift in strategy. "Lesotho will have to look for a competitive advantage," she said. Focusing on niche crops like seed potatoes was one option, because "due to the altitude and climate there is an absence of disease."
Udas suggested growing high-value crops like beans, apples, grapes and peaches, "that would benefit from the specific climatic conditions - they don't have to produce everything they need, as long as they have other resources so they can pay [for what they need]."
Zimudzi noted that harnessing Lesotho's water resources would be key, but "irrigation schemes require heavy investment, [so] crops need to provide adequate return."
The Lesotho Highlands water scheme, which supplies much of South Africa's industrial hub, is located high in the mountains and bringing water to where it was needed for irrigation would not only be extremely difficult but also financially unviable.
Farmers were already exploring alternatives by planting crops like sorghum, which are more resistant to changing weather patterns, instead of maize. But whatever the crop, "there has to be a fundamental and revolutionary change in the way that agriculture is practiced," Zimudzi said.
Improved farming practices like crop rotation, and the more novel concept of conservation agriculture - which minimizes soil disturbance, applies more precise timing for planting, and utilizes crop residue to retain moisture and enrich the soil - would need to be widely promoted.
The promise of agriculture
Boosting agriculture and food production are major components of Lesotho's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, but despite the introduction of the Lesotho Food Security Policy in 2005, "agriculture has not received much support," FAO's Zimudzi commented.
Photo: Tomas de Mul/IRIN
|Basotho farmers struggle to produce enough|
WFP's Udas agreed: "They have the policy and an excellent plan, but now it needs to be implemented; if that is done then most of the problems would be solved - but that would require the right budget allocation."
Therein lies the problem. In 2003 the Southern African Development Community leaders met in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, and committed to allocating at least 10 percent of their national budgetary resources to agricultural sectors, but Lesotho has only managed to allocate around 3 percent annually towards meeting the target set in the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security.
Lesotho's representatives will go to the World Summit on Food Security in Rome from 16 to 18 November with an eye to garnering more donor finance for agriculture and food security programmes. "But that would only be realistic if the country showed a genuine commitment to implementing their own policies," Udas said.
In the meantime, FAO will continue supporting agricultural development, and WFP will keep feeding people through its "Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation" and "Development Project" - but only the most vulnerable.
"We don't feed everyone here; we provide food assistance that is targeted," Udas said, to the chronically poor, and food insecure beneficiaries like orphans and vulnerable children, and those involved in prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission, antiretroviral therapy, and tuberculosis treatment in remote, mountainous and inaccessible areas, and there is also a school feeding programme. Altogether the schemes benefit some 244,000 Basotho.
Udas did not think WFP would leave Lesotho anytime soon. "The country still faces too many problems - that's why Lesotho will always need donor support - but you cannot talk about [donor] dependency when it's an issue of life or death for people."
IRIN tried to contact the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security in Lesotho but no one was available to comment.