WITH Lesotho currently experiencing one of the worst droughts in recent history, coming across a patch with a healthy vegetable crop thriving under these extreme conditions is a huge relief.
Seroto Farm, a fresh produce facility located at Tlokoeng valley in Butha Buthe, is defying all odds to produce healthy spinach, lettuce, cabbage, sweet corns and other crops for the market.
A brainchild of Chaba Mokuku, who is the project manager for the World Bank-funded Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project, the farm has ditched the old practice of planting cereal crops and introducing high value cash crops that can be planted multiple times a year.
The farm, which seeks to transform peoples’ lives from poverty, was established by leasing land from villagers in return for grain or cash equivalent during the harvest season. The pilot project is expected to continue for 10 years.
The products are being supplied to formal markets such as PicknPay, Shoprite and Avani hotels. The farm is currently harvesting spinach and lettuce.
Project manager at Seroto Farm, Theko Letsema told the Sunday Express that the farm is lucky to be close to a stable stream of water which comes handy for irrigation to counter the harsh effects of drought.
He said while they currently use generator powered sprinklers for irrigation, work is underway to connect to the power grid in order to simplify their work.
With drought posing a serious challenge, Mr Letsema explained that they have resolved to irrigate at night to minimize moisture loss.
The farm also employs mulching, a practice of covering the ground around crops to minimize moisture loss through evaporation. Although some use dead vegetation including grass for mulching, at Seroto Farm they use black plastic sheets.
The farm currently employs 12 permanent workers while it has also employed 60 temporary workers from the surrounding communities during the earlier stages of development.
The farm also covers part of its four hectare area with shade nets. Were it not for financial constraints, the entire planting area would be all covered.
“In the extremely hot weather conditions, the net is very important and also for hail,” Mr Letsema said.
“As you can see, part of the farm is yet to be covered with the net and our spinach crop was recently damaged by hail. This delayed the crop to get onto the market as we had to prune the damaged leaves and wait for fresh leaves to grow.”
Mr Mokuku told the Business Journal that the project was influenced by high levels of poverty especially in Tlokoeng, where his father was born. It is a personal project that he runs on the sidelines while doing his full time job.
“This is a social enterprise project that was driven by the need to alleviate poverty. It was motivated by the need to create sustainable jobs for the people. When a person does not have a job, they become hopeless and somehow degraded. It is a sad situation.”
Highlighting the impact of the drought, which is also ravaging other Southern African countries, Mr Mokuku said their produce is in a good position to benefit as it is attracting interest from abroad.
“Our products have the opportunity to be exported abroad. Recently I was in Ladybrand where I learnt of the demand for our lettuce from one of the big chain stores. This shows the level of desperation that has been created by the drought and the potential this project possesses.
Mr Mokuku said while the farm is still in its first year, its success is attributed to the hard work and dedication of the staff. The plan is to double the current production area on the next five years.
“We have committed staff who treat the project as their own. I believe this is because they see the potential that it has to improve the quality of their lives if it succeeds.
“If it succeeds, the plan is to expand it to other areas so that it can impact positively on the lives of more rural people. This is a model that as a country, we should be looking to adopt.
“The project has the potential to transform Butha Buthe and the country at large. We want a situation where we will export vegetables to neighbouring countries and import less.”
Lesotho imports close to 90 percent of its agricultural consumption. In 2014 alone, the country imported an average of M15, 5 million worth of cabbages from South Africa.
Seroto Farm has 30 000 heads of cabbage which are due for harvest in early March 2018. Part of its 10 000 heads of lettuce has already been taken to the market while 8000 sweet corn stalks are in their flowering stage.
Ntloheleng Moleleki, one of the employees at the farm, said her life has vastly improved since starting work at the farm.
“As a single mother with two children, my source of income was irregular and I was struggling to make ends meet. When I received the first salary, we did not have any food in the house so it was very useful.
“My life is improving from the income that I am getting here. I hope this project will go on for a long time in future,” Ms Moleleki said.
Another worker, Setsomi Selebalo, said he has great admiration for the developers of the project, for the difference it is making in the lives of the workers.
“I am grateful to the people who had the presence of mind to develop this project. I believe our salvation from poverty is going to come from this project,” Mr Selebalo said.