Church project keeps hunger at bay

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MOHALE’S HOEK — Reverend Thabang Moletsane, 53, of the Lesotho Evangelical Church, says they are farming in God’s way.
Quoting liberally from the Bible book of Genesis, Rev Moletsane says God planted a garden and the first couple on earth, Adam and Eve, “had a relationship with nature”.
Rev Moletsane is heading a conservation agricultural project in Maphutseng in Mohale’s Hoek, about 120km south-east of Maseru, dubbed Grow Nations.
The project is an initiative of the Lesotho Evangelical Church that seeks to boost agricultural production in the country while conserving the environment.
The project, which began in 2007, started with an experimental grain production scheme and has continued to grow from strength to strength.
“We realised that conservation agriculture is cost effective and easy to do,” Rev Moletsane says.
Conservation agriculture is built on three principles — minimal mechanical soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover and diversified rotation of crops.
The practice basically involves using a simple hoe to dig holes (basins) for the seed.
Agricultural experts say conservation agriculture can offer a powerful option for meeting future food demands in poor economies while contributing to sustainable agriculture and rural development.
Rev Moletsane told the Lesotho Times last week that the project was already bearing fruit three years after it was introduced to the community.
So impressed is the church that it has now approached the Ministry of Agriculture to duplicate the project in other districts to fight hunger and poverty.
The Maphutseng project currently has 12 hectares under maize, beans and vegetables.
Rev Moletsane says the idea was not to disturb the soil as much as possible.
“When you plough, you should disturb the soil as little as you can. When you till the land soil loses nutrients, its structure and microorganisms.
“The soil should be covered so that compaction can be avoided, soil should be permeable,” Rev Moletsane says.
“Our production has increased every year.”
The reverend however warns that everything should be done on time.
Pests and weed should also be controlled to ensure high production.
Rev Moletsane says it is disappointing that Africa is one of the poorest continents yet it has vast fields where food could be grown.
He adds that rampant corruption continues to undermine economic growth in many spheres, especially agriculture.
A consultant seconded to the project from Ladybrand in South Africa, Jaap Knot, says Lesotho used to produce food for export to South Africa but this has changed because of poor agricultural policies.
He says conservation farming still has the potential to help transform the country’s agriculture if local farmers are given support.
“Farmers need support. Africa is still lagging behind in food production and this has to change,” Knot says.
He says following the success of the Maphutseng project, they were now trying to spread the concept of conservation farming to other districts throughout the country.
This winter farmers at the project sold more than 300 bags of maize and are still harvesting more.
District crop production officer in Mohale’s Hoek, Itumeleng Nkeli, says the success of the Maphutseng project had come as a relief in an area where crop production is expected to decline this year.
“There have been prolonged and excessive rains which caused soil erosion. Weeds grew so much that crops suffered.
“When there is too much rain it affects the yield,” Nkeli says.
She adds that the district is headed for yet another season of hunger due to food shortages following poor harvests.
“The economy is already in the doldrums and low yields are going to worsen the situation.”
Although the national grain production is expected to increase from 120 000 tonnes to 138 000 tonnes this year, Nkeli notes, they are encouraging farmers to engage in conservation agriculture.
According to an agriculturalist from the National University of Lesotho (NUL), Dr Makoala Marake, conservation agriculture offers high returns on investment.
“This mode of agriculture is very cheap. There are no labour expenses as chemicals are used for weeding,” he says.
“A farmer in Ladybrand, South Africa, has reported saving up to 45 percent on fuel consumption when using this mode of growing crops.”
Marake however says conservation agriculture, which is now done commercially in South Africa, is not a new practice.
“It was practised a long time ago by our elders in the past,” he says.
The resuscitation of this mode of agriculture is being inspired by heavy soil erosion that has created dongas all over the country.
The climate has also changed dramatically so much that there is a need to find ways of ensuring food security.
“Soil has to be covered so that essential nutrients are not lost when it rains. Normal soil cultivation is expensive as it requires breaking soil lumps and using a seeder,” Marake says.
Another advantage of conservation farming is that almost all the crops can be grown in the lowlands and highlands.
Organic fertilisers can also be used but inorganic fertiliser such as compost manure is preferable in order to get high yields.
“Crop rotation, soil cover and minimum soil disturbance are a good combination in ensuring high yields,” Marake says.
Conservation agriculture is now being promoted throughout the country in districts such as Butha-Buthe, Teya-teyaneng, Mafeteng and Qacha’s Nek.
But it is not everybody who can benefit from this type of farming.
Matlakala Mofelehetsi, 65, from Ha-Ramokhele is struggling to look after her five grandchildren.
She says it is a pity that she cannot practise conservation agriculture because she does not have a piece of land.
“I have no fields or livestock. We were promised pigs and chicken by some non-governmental organisations sometime ago but to no avail.
“It is hard to bring up orphans especially when they only receive M100 each in government grants,” Mofelehetsi says.
“If I had a piece of land I would be able to farm and feed my grandchildren.”

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