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‘You picked a fine time to leave me’

Ntsebeng Motsoeli

MASERU — Raphuthi Ntlaloe is not convinced the government is doing enough to improve declining crop production.
In fact, Ntlaloe — a farmer from Maseru district — is accusing the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security of being directly responsible for Lesotho’s worsening food crisis and continued dependence on food imports.
Ntlaloe is among a host of indigenous farmers recently sidelined from the block farming programme.
The programme is a government initiative introduced in 2006 to encourage commercial agriculture among locals through bank loan guarantees and subsidies on farming inputs.
Standard Lesotho Bank is one of the biggest funders of the project but non-payment of loans by the majority of farmers remains a challenge.
Ntlaloe is no longer a part of the ambitious project after failing to meet conditions of his loan repayment.
He, however, believes he has been unfairly treated and victimised because of a flawed vetting system.
He alleges the government has abandoned all but three Maseru block farmers insisting the decision — and its timing — was a big mistake that would worsen agricultural output this season.
Ntlaloe claims in September — just when they were preparing themselves for the 2009/10 season — the government made the shock announcement that block farmers were no longer being subsidised due to non-payment of their 2006-2008 loans.
“It was a shock to be told we were no longer being subsidised under the block farming scheme.
“We felt the government had sabotaged us because we could have been informed earlier for us to make other plans.
“As things stand families which depended on block farming have been left out in the cold.
“They are now going to starve because they have no money to buy inputs,” Ntlaloe says.
He attributes the failure to repay the loans to poor harvests which he blames on delays by the government in supplying farmers with seed and fertilisers.
“It has always been a problem when the government delays distributing seed and fertiliser.
“As a result planting was not done on time badly affecting production. Farmers were therefore not able to repay their loans.”       
Ntlaloe insists he was wrongfully blacklisted claiming “insiders” had informed him he had even repaid more than one of the three remaining Maseru block farmers.
He says the government has brought the block farming programme to its knees due to lack of transparency.
“I have managed to pay back 20 percent of the loans and yet I have been informed one of the three selected farmers has just repaid around five percent of the loan.” 
He says withdrawing support for block farmers will only worsen Lesotho’s food insecurity.
And, given the lack of inputs, chances are farmers will be producing even less this year — a frightening prospect after the World Food Programme announced that Lesotho’s crop production had declined by 10 percent in the 2008/09 season.
A senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture, only identified as Motsabisi who was contacted by the Sunday Express, refused to comment on the issues raised by Ntlaloe.
Meanwhile, the government has moved to ensure beneficiaries sign crop cession contracts which commit them to selling their produce to dedicated markets to ensure payment is channelled through the bank for loan settlement.
In addition, qualification for loans will now depend on the individual farmer’s creditworthiness.
In a statement released in September, the Ministry of Agriculture said the cropping programme that farmers should undertake should be viable to allow them to repay their loans.
“A farmer with commercially acceptable assets which can be used as collateral will always stand a better chance of obtaining a loan. We advise the farmers not to take loans that are beyond their capabilities,” said the ministry.
The ministry also said only farmers with irrigation infrastructure and are already engaged in irrigated crop production would be considered for the loan facility.
“They shall therefore be allowed to access loans under the said conditions only for the procurement of inputs.”
According to the ministry, cabinet has approved an arrangement for a bank loan guarantee with Standard Lesotho Bank amounting to M30 million for block farming for the current cropping season.
In addition, M59 million has been set aside to provide 30 percent subsidy to local farmers operating as individuals, organised community groups and block farmers.
The money is to buy agricultural inputs for the period April 2009 to January 2010.
There is also a Japanese non-project grant aid through which the government of Japan has provided fertiliser to be distributed as subsidies to farmers.
Lesotho was also allocated six million euros by the European Union to support government efforts to boost crop production and enhance food security.  
“It may be observed that agriculture with subsidy can go a long way in ensuring the majority of farmers go vigorously into agriculture,” said the statement by the agriculture ministry.

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