MBABANE, 25 March 2013 (IRIN) - It’s a chilly autumn morning and Ntja Mphale, 62, and his wife, Malehlohonolo, are hoeing a dew-covered field just outside their village of Machache, 43km from Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. They are among thousands of unemployed Basotho who depend on seasonal work weeding smallholder farmers’ fields to earn a little cash.
The job will provide some temporary relief for Mphale and his family. “Some farmers are generous - they can give you as much as 40 maluti (US$4.40) per day, while others give you only 20 ($2.20), but we cannot decline any money, no matter how small. We need to survive,” said Mphale.
Such work was scarce in the previous two planting seasons. Heavy rains and flooding during the 2010-11 season caused losses that were compounded by a prolonged drought at the start of the 2011-12 season. Many smallholder farmers chose not to plant at all rather than risk incurring further losses. The total area planted to maize, Lesotho’s staple crop, dropped by 40 percent, and piece-work labouring in fields dried up. “In previous years, the hoeing jobs were hard to come by because few farmers had the guts to compete with the weather,” said Mphale. “However, this time around I bought shoes for my four grandchildren with the wages I got from hoeing.”
Government steps in
Realizing that the 82 percent of Basotho who rely on agriculture for a living could not weather another poor harvest, the government declared the food security situation an emergency in August 2012 and called for donor support to help address the immediate needs of 725,000 people facing hunger, as well as the longer-term need to boost agricultural productivity. For the 2012-13 planting season, the government set aside 117 million maloti ($13 million) for agricultural subsidies, tractors and other related costs. In selected villages all over the country, the government paid the full cost of seed, fertilizer and tractors for ploughing. In return, they will receive 70 percent of the harvest, leaving farmers with the remaining 30 percent.
Early rains helped the government’s interventions and the result has been that thousands of hectares of arable land which had lain fallow in recent farming seasons have now been planted. The prospect of a greatly improved harvest has brought hope to thousands of subsistence farmers. “The last time my crops looked so healthy, it was a decade or so ago - I am so relieved,” said Tsepo Masupha, a farmer in Roma, 40km from the capital, Maseru.
“I am tired of buying mealie-meal [maize flour, a staple food] - it’s so expensive. However, this year I will even be able to feed my animals”. Informal traders in Maseru are already benefiting from this year’s better planting season. Ahead of the main harvest in May-June, when dried maize cobs are gathered for milling and turned into mealie-meal, some farmers sell green maize (corn on the cob) to traders like Thabang Seetsa. In recent years, Seetsa was sometimes forced to travel to South Africa to buy green maize because it was in such short supply in Lesotho, but now he can get it from local farmers at a much lower price.
Army worm outbreak
However, Sekhonyana Mahase, the Senior Crop Production Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, warned that the outlook was not as positive as it had seemed at the beginning of the year. Initial predictions of good yields were bound to be revised downwards after a lack of rain during February and an unprecedented outbreak of crop-eating army worms. The worms, in fact the caterpillar of a moth, eat the leaves of the maize plants, which are critical for photosynthesis causing the stalks to dry up, so no maize cobs are formed.
Reports about the impact of the army worms are still trickling in, but Mahase indicated that the government target of harvesting two tonnes of maize per hectare now looked unlikely to be met. “Roughly, the worms have destroyed over 30,000 hectares of maize crops all over the country [equivalent to nearly 25 percent of the planted area], including fields in the most fertile parts of the land,” he told IRIN.
The caterpillars started appearing in January 2013, forcing the government to hire helicopters for spraying from neighbouring South Africa at a cost of M4 million (US$444,000) in addition to the expense of hiring ground-sprayers in mountainous areas where the use of helicopters is too risky. According to Mahase, the crops that fell victim to the worms were those planted at the end of December 2012 and in early January 2013. “When the army worms came, they were successful in destroying those crops with soft and greenish leaves. As for those that were planted much earlier, very little damage was done,” he said.
Tsepo Masupha lost half of his crops to army worms, but hopes he will still be able to get a harvest from the maize he planted earlier. “Though I am very hurt with the loss, I did not plough my crops at the same time. In some of my fields, the crops are almost ready for harvesting; at least I will have something to eat.”
The lack of rain and intense heat during February caused more problems for farmers, but Mahase said it was still too soon to estimate the full extent of the combined damage from the army worms and lack of rain.