A woman who knows what she wants

A woman who knows what she wants

Picture a rural setting an African woman with a wrap around her waist, headscarf adorning her head back doubled over with a hand hoe tending to a crop under a scorching sun.

Often the crops selected for the photo op will be green and lush, showing signs of life and prosperity. This is the dominant imagery and representation of women in agriculture. Women make up the largest production resource in the agricultural value chain.

Yet with that, they remain on the lower ends of the value chain with little access to technology, machinery and productive resources. The smiling rural woman, hoe in hand, is one that is not necessarily far from the truth and her smile perhaps masks the hardships many women face in this sector.
This image is one beginning to be challenged by a youthful crop of entrepreneurs making their entry into the agriculture sector. ’Malerotholi Maseribane-Ntšaba presents such a picture.

Young, urbane, ambitious, stylish, sensitive, conscientious. Women like ’Malerotholi are determined to make an impact in this industry as entrepreneurs and business moguls, taking themselves beyond the subsistence agriculture and small-scale trading of their foremothers.
She also operates in a sector of agriculture that does not dominate the popular imagination as crop production. She is a livestock producer specialising in poultry production.

As Chief Executive Officer of Egg-cellent Farmers, she has developed what has long been a popular ‘side hustle’ among Basotho women into a viable business venture.  To call it a ‘side hustle’ may be unfair and diminishes the scale of investment women have made in this sector and the contributions this has made to the livelihoods and nutritional outcomes of many families, who are reliant of the resourcefulness of their mothers for survival.
And how this has not yet culminated into a multi-million maloti women’s consortium to rival the stream of imported chicken products into the country is a subject for another day.

’Malerotholi grew up watching her own mother rearing and selling chickens from their backyard. From her mother’s small-scale operation, she identified gaps that she could turn into a business opportunity. Her business started in 2013 with two hundred broilers on her farm in Naledi in Maseru.

She built the cages for the chickens herself, borrowed money from her mokhatlo and started with her operation. None of the groundwork she undertook, including overly cautious bio-safety measures, could have prepared her for when disaster struck and she lost all her chickens.
Not one to be defeated easily, she had to take responsibility and draw the strength to start over. Starting over is no easy feat, when the odds are against you with staff salaries to pay, loans to service and a life to continue living with a family who depends on you.
It is also in these dark moments when the reality and difficulty of the local business environment come to surface. The difficulty of accessing services, loans and other business support.
Not only do these external environmental factors come as an overpowering torrent but on a personal level, one becomes hacked by self-doubt and fear.
This is where the importance of social networks come in, family, the mokhatlos which not only provide a source of hassle-free finance unlike that of commercial banks, but also serve a as one-stop business development service offering: goal setting and planning, shared accountability, business-plan pitching, marketing and a self-confidence boosting pep-talk all in one.

With this support, she was able to find ways to start over again, as well as applying for business grants competitions. With adversity has come a more audacious vision, where she where she plans to upscale her operation and eventually open her own hatchery where she can supply day-old chicks to Basotho farmers.

Currently suppliers are agents who import chicks; there is no local production despite the demand for this.
One of the most striking aspects of ’Malerotholi’s character is her resolve and this becomes evident when she relates her experience as a Mandela Washington Fellow in the United States of America, where she spent six weeks at the Oklahoma State University on the business and entrepreneurship learning track.

She speaks of the experience of one as “reconstruction”. In the USA, away from the pressures of business and of family, she got to ‘deal with herself’ in ways she had never had a chance to before.

She reflects that growing up in Lesotho amongst patriarchy, coming from a family in chieftainship, being married, there are certain expectations that come with each of these roles she had been expected to fulfil. She was able to put these aside whilst in the US and truly come face to face with herself.
She recounts a simple exercise of introducing oneself. An action taken for granted, but something she as a visiting fellow and her counterparts had to do over several times in a day. She felt as if she were on display.

In her words “Introductions go beyond my name but goes back to myself, who I am and why I do what I do”. This is something she had not fully interrogated prior to the fellowship experience. This and connecting with her deeper meaning and purpose in life, whilst also gaining the practical skills to live that come out in her business have had a phenomenal impact on her life. This experience has been her becoming.

It has removed the layers of who she felt she was supposed to be playing up to be and to reveal who she really is. Returning home, seemingly different to others yet normal to herself, has been an interesting time of transitions for ’Malerotholi.

It has resulted in some relationships compromised but has also formed new arrangements and new opportunities to blossom. The names she chooses to call herself, for example (after having confused the Americans with the numerous configurations of her four names) is telling.
Being a married woman in Lesotho is a delicate exercise in word play. It comes easily to some who change their names in a heartbeat, with others it is a carefully considered action that affects identity, societal perceptions and social standing.

For ’Malerotholi, this has been a deliberate composition of the different parts of who she is coming together, rather beautifully, to complete the whole she is today. As she calls herself, “A woman who knows what she wants”.

Knowing what she wants is important to her, particularly as a mother to a young girl who is looking to her to guide her in this world. Her daughter is the inspiration for her foundation, Lintle for Women and the Girl Child.

Seeing the fragility and vulnerability of her daughter, she was compelled to create a foundation that would work with young women to equip them to face and change a world that does not always have their best interests as heart.

’Malerotholi’s vision is for young girls to grow up free of the challenges that their mothers have experienced. The Foundation works with women who have to advocate for young girls.

Their flagship programme is a dignity campaign for young girls in Quthing. Following research supported by the United Nations Population Fund, the foundation implements a programme to support young girls with sanitary products to ensure that they do not miss school days due to menstruation.
She hopes to grow the foundation to create a scholarship programme for girls and create a shelter that can provide a more comprehensive package of support services for women and girls in need.

It is often said that when you invest in a woman the dividends extend beyond herself. ’Malerotholi’s life and work are evidence of this. Not a surprising fact, but one certainly worthy of a reminder in women such as her.

Tebello Ralebitso

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