The dignity of labour

The dignity of labour

Butha-Buthe – FOR almost 11 years Chaba Mokuku, 52, had shouted his voice hoarse on the need to grow a strong private sector in Lesotho.
Mokuku is head of the World Bank-funded Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project for Lesotho which seeks to facilitate “increased private sector investment by improving the business environment and diversifying sources of growth”.
So it is not a surprise that he has passionately “shouted from the rooftops” about the need to strengthen Lesotho’s private sector to emerging businessmen, government officials, villagers and other development partners.

Yet at some point, Mokuku says he began to feel uncomfortable.
He was beginning to sound a bit pharisaic.
Here was a man who was pushing for greater involvement of Basotho in private sector initiatives yet he was sitting comfortably in his air-conditioned office at ’Matanki House in Maseru.
The “hypocrisy” was astounding.

The “do as I say and not as I do” attitude left him feeling sick to the bones.
And that was when Mokuku realised he had to do something to move from the theoretical framework to the real world of work by getting his hands dirty, literally.
The result is a sprawling, lush green four-hectare farm in Tlokoeng in Butha-Buthe some 125km north of the capital Maseru.
It is here in Tlokoeng, a dirt poor village some two kilometres south-east of Butha-Buthe, that Mokuku is seeking to transform the lives of Basotho by leasing land from villagers in return for purchased grain or cash equivalent during harvest season.

“I wanted to walk the talk; this is a social enterprise that is not driven by the need to make money. The spin-off of course is that we will eventually make a profit,” he says.
At least nine families, who have all signed 10-year contracts, gave up their fields under the programme.
And they have not regretted their decision.

“We pay them what is equivalent to what they would have harvested under ideal conditions,” he says.
“Poverty takes away your dignity. You feel helpless. But this project has brought back people’s dignity. Families that had nothing to eat are now able to put bread on the table,” he says.
The farm, which is sited deep in the valley on the foothills of some majestic mountains of Butha-Buthe, is a revolutionary project that has already transformed the lives of some nine families.
A healthy crop of cabbages, spinach, beetroot, carrots, butter-nut, watermelons, maize and green beans are at various stages of growth.
A sophisticated irrigation system ensures that the crops have adequate water supplies.

The water is piped some 300 metres from Moroeroe River which runs throughout the year.
It is an exciting project that if replicated throughout Lesotho could help improve the lives of 1.8 million Basotho, the majority of whom live on less than one United States dollar a day, according to aid agencies.

It could also spell an end to the thoroughly embarrassing practice by Lesotho of importing almost every basic food item such as vegetables from across the border in the Free State.
Instead, we could soon see a reversal of roles with Lesotho beginning to export vegetables to the Free State and later to the European Union (EU), generating much needed foreign currency.
Mokuku says plans are already afoot to start exporting vegetables to the sprawling Fresh Produce Market in Bloemfontein.
“They are willing to take 1 600 heads of lettuce a week. We want to penetrate that lucrative market,” he says.
Mokuku believes once they begin exporting to South Africa that will be a game-changer for Lesotho.

“Our labour costs are low and we have plenty of water in Lesotho giving us a competitive advantage over our neighbours in the Free States.”
At least 30 000 cabbages are under cultivation at the farm with another 20 000 having been already ordered to ensure the chain of supply is not broken.
Even here at home, Mokuku believes there is a huge untapped market for their products.
He says at present, Lesotho’s farmers are only able to produce 10 percent of what the market needs with the rest coming from South Africa.
“The market is huge,” Mokuku says.

“Our target is to push to 40 percent of market share.”
They have already begun supplying big retail shops such as Pick n’ Pay, Shoprite, Fruits & Veg, U-Save supermarket and some restaurants in Maseru.
Mokuku says for decades agriculture was looked down upon as “backward”.
Those who worked the land were seen as if they were under a curse as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.
The back-breaking work associated with tilling the land was frowned upon.
That narrative was wrong, Mokuku argues.
There is dignity in tilling the land, he insists.

“That is why I am working with young people who are dynamic and are willing to till the land. The project is addressing the issue of youth unemployment.”
Mokuku says their goal is to strengthen the farming enterprise through strategic partnerships.
“Only then can we make a bigger impact in creating jobs and pushing for economic development.”
With his vast experience in setting up and supporting projects, Mokuku is viscerally opposed to the idea of the government getting involved in business.
He wants to see a limited role of government in private enterprises.

Mokuku argues that most projects started by the government often collapse “because they lack the commercial dimension”.
“They bring together people with no business interest and this makes it very difficult for the projects to succeed,” he says.
“There is also a lack of ownership. The risk is high when you put nothing. For businesses to thrive, you need a sense of ownership.”
Mantsane Selebalo, 36, used to run her own fruit-tree production project in Butha-Buthe. The financial rewards were small and would come after years of patient endurance. Sometimes the rewards would not come at all.

“It takes two years for a fruit tree to mature to 65cm and above when it is ready for sale. But here at the farm I get paid every month. The income is consistent,” she says.
Selebalo is the assistant farm manager.

She says she is now able to feed her family and send all her three children aged between six and 16 to school, thanks to the project.
“There are no jobs in Lesotho but for us our hope now lies in tilling the land,” she says.
Mokuku says the idea is to roll the project to nearby farms and double the hectares within the next five years.

“We want to be an anchor project and have satellite farmers. We will provide them with technical support so they meet the required standards and then source from them,” he says.
It is an ambitious programme that could transform Lesotho’s agriculture.
The farming project is a joint venture between Mokuku and David Dunn, an American national.
The two hold a 50 percent stake each.

In 2016, Dunn, who was still the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s mission chief for Lesotho, visited a number of projects run by the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project for Lesotho. He was blown away by the beauty of some of the projects.
“He asked me to think of an intervention that could help alleviate some of the poverty that he had seen. And that is how we later registered a company to address the challenges of poverty in Lesotho,” Mokuku says.

Abel Chapatarongo

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