MASERU — Agriculture and Food Security Assistant Minister Ramootsi Lehata has admitted he borrowed millions from the block farming scheme and is one of the farmers who have not repaid their loans.
A damning report by the Ombudsman, Sekara Mafisa, last week said Lehata was one of the three government ministers who had inappropriately benefited from the scheme that was meant to assist poor farmers.
Finance Minister Timothy Thahane and Forestry Minister Ralechate ‘Mokose are the other ministers the report said used their positions to get loans from the block farming scheme.
Both Thahane and ‘Mokose last week vehemently denied that they benefited from the funds and insisted that they were only acting as mentors to farmers’ groups.
Lehata has admitted that he borrowed from the scheme — but as a block farmer and not a mentor.
The report said Lehata got the second biggest chunk of the block farming funds.
It said in the 2007/2008 winter season Lehata’s loan accounted for 17.6 percent of the funds loaned to the farmers.
Lehata, the report alleges, borrowed M336 324. 71 for the 2007/2008 summer cropping season but only repaid M8 000.
That meant Lehata still owed M328 324.
It says for the winter cropping of the same year Lehata took a loan of M1 682 739, paid back M30 538 and was left with a balance of M1 652 201.
The deputy minister’s total outstanding debt is M1 980 526, the report says.
Lehata admitted in an interview with the Sunday Express that all these figures were correct but said the loans were not given to him in cash.
He said the scheme bought him inputs and paid for other agricultural services.
Lehata said he could not repay the initial loan because his crops failed after he planted late.
“In the first year I did not get the inputs. I planted late and my crops failed,” he explained.
“That is why I did not repay the loan.”
He paid only M8 000 of the M336 324 he borrowed.
“In the second year I got all the inputs on time but still faced problems because I had to repay two loans,” Lehata said.
Of the M1 682 739 he borrowed the minister only repaid M30 538.
Lehata said things went wrong in the 2008/9 season because officials in the “agriculture ministry changed the system and said those who still owed money from the previous seasons could not get any more funds until they cleared their arrears”.
“That meant I could not get any more funds,” he said.
“Because I could not continue farming there is no way I could afford to repay the loan.”
He said he would not be able to pay unless he is allowed to borrow from the scheme “under the original arrangements” so he can resume his farming activities.
“I was stopped from continuing with my farming,” Lehata said.
“I have no doubt that if I had been allowed to continue I would have been able to repay that loan.”
Lehata said he was not sure how much he owed under the scheme because he never signed an agreement with Standard Lesotho Bank, the financial institute responsible for disbursing the government-guaranteed loans.
“They say we are supposed to pay back the money but we (block farmers) did not sign anything with the government or the bank,” he said.