The ‘hot’ potato business

The ‘hot’ potato business

QUTHING –THE easier option for many Basotho these days is to simply pack their bags and head for South Africa.
Many Basotho have gone to this most industrialised economy in Africa, a powerful magnet for jobseekers and other fortune hunters.

But it is not so with Zenani Peete and his colleagues at Mantša-Tlala, a thriving potato-growing cooperative in Quthing.

Rather than join the well-beaten track to Bloemfontein or to the more famous Johannesburg, they chose to stay behind and try to literally grow success from Lesotho’s soils.

The gamble seems to be paying off, with Peete telling thepost a fortnight ago that the vision now was no longer to simply provide employment for members of the group but to grow the project into a multimillion- maloti organisation working to reduce poverty and hunger in Lesotho.

Of course, one can question whether Peete and his group are being realistic when they talk of wanting to transform their operation into a multi-million maloti agribusiness.
But in all fairness what one cannot doubt is their commitment and determination to put in the hard work towards their lofty goal.
After all their life story, from their humble beginnings way back in 2013 up until they became the vibrant farming cooperative that they are today, bears testimony to that.

Starting out as an outfit of 10 people who, besides grim determination to succeed, had basically nothing – neither the funding nor adequate farming knowledge – Peete and his partners were natural candidates for failure.
But that did not deter them.

To raise cash to boost their project they started a money lending operation handing out loans to people which was paid back with an interest.

The innovation did not end there and soon they established shops where they were selling manure and farming equipment to generate more cash.

The money raised was used to buy seeds for members, but Peete says they struggled to have meaningful harvests as an organisation because each member was operating as an individual farmer instead of the whole group pooling resources together to ensure bigger and better yields.

But soon that blind spot in their production model would be rectified and the group that now numbers 85 people decided to work together as a collective and to focus more on commercial production of crops.

According to Peete, the organisation that started with vegetable production then expanded into potato cultivation.
He says the venture into potato growing was in part because of contact they had with an official from Co-op Lesotho who convinced them of the viability and immense benefits of the tuber as a cash crop.

Taking up potato production was not as hard as when they first began the project because now they had some funds saved from previous operations, including cash raised through their money-lending operation.

In addition to an easier cash position, this time round technical help was also available to Mantša-Tlala through the efforts of Co-op Lesotho, which is the main umbrella organisation of farming cooperative societies in the country.
Peete says once awakened to the fact that potato was highly in demand in Lesotho and that most supplies were being imported from South Africa, they would never look back again, embracing the new opportunity with both hands.
In October 2018, they started planting potatoes on 10 hectares which are set to be harvested by the end of the month into early April.

Prior to that, the organisation never planted potatoes.
The interaction with Co-op Lesotho that had first opened Peete and his colleagues’ eyes to the value of potato would also bring another major boost to their operation, when the cooperatives society organisation adopted Mantša-Tlala as a pilot project under an internationally-backed initiative to promote cooperative farm production to tackle poverty in Lesotho and across Africa.

Co-op Lesotho is looking to boost production of potatoes and poultry as part of the cooperative farm support project that, according to the association’s Chief Executive Officer, Neo Theoha, is backed by the International Cooperatives Alliance (ICA) and the European Commission.

Theoha says as part of efforts to help Mantša-Tlala they had engaged Potato Lesotho Association (PLA) to assist the cooperative with the technical expertise to produce better yields.

Theoha, who called on the Ministry of Small Businesses Development to ensure that there is a market for local agricultural produce, says they were looking to assist in the mechanisation of production processes at Mantša-Tlala as a way to improve product quality.

“Our plan is that the potatoes should be processed by machines,” says Theoha, adding: “cooperatives have more opportunities in the country.’’

The chairperson of PLA, Mahasela Nkoko, says the ultimate objective in supporting groups like Mantša-Tlala, was to ultimately revive farming and grow it back to its old glory days when most Basotho families lived off the land.
He says the initiative will see all available skills and technical knowledge mobilised to transform farming cooperatives into high producers and in the process boost agricultural production.

The National University of Lesotho (NUL) and Lerotholi Polytechnic were being roped in to offer necessary expertise, while the Basotho Enterprises Development Corporation (BEDCO) and the South African supplier of potato seeds were also being engaged.

Commenting on the work of Mantša-Tlala, Nkoko says: “The potatoes produced by Mantša-Tlala, are the fifth generation of good quality.’’

He says that after harvesting the current potato crop, the cooperative was going to plant other crops such as beans, wheat and the livestock feed, lucerne.

“We decided on the production of lucerne since it has potential to generate a lot of profit because there are a lot of animals in Lesotho,’’ he says.

The Quthing Cooperatives Commissioner, Mohalenyana Moshoeshoe, urged Sepabala villagers to join the Mantša-Tlala, and to also venture into other businesses such as production of potato-based foods and products.

The Principal Secretary of Small Businesses, Lerata Pekane, describes farming as a pillar of the country’s economy, while he urged Basotho to buy locally produced potatoes instead of imports.

“Imported potatoes (cost more) but if we buy potatoes produced in Lesotho, we are going to spend less,” Pekane says.
It was a point echoed by NUL economics lecturer Leseko Makhetha, who said groups like Mantša-Tlala should get all the help they need to increase output and help save the country a huge chunk of the M3 million spent on importing food.

But even more than saving money, increasing production of potato and other food crops by groups such as Mantša-Tlala is virtually a matter of life and death in a country where according to the agricultural census of 2016, 46 percent of households reported ‘subsistence farming’ as their main source of income.
The census also said more than 95 percent of those households cannot produce enough to meet their own requirements.

“Even for those who have adequate land, home grown food often lasts for less than five months of the year, even in good years,” it said.

That potato could easily help reduce food insecurity in Lesotho is probably beyond questioning. However, any effort to boost production to the required levels must first address the difficulty in getting seed.

According to a report by the Agricultural Stats Lesotho (ASL) published by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2017, the country produces 125 tonnes of seed potato against a demand of 500 tonnes.

“This has a negative effect on our economy as approximately 375 tonnes has to be imported from South Africa where the seed is expensive and not always available in the planting season,” ASL said.

But for Mantša-Tlala all potato seed shortage or not their target to become a top producer of the crop is set and they are on the march.

Peete said they are certain to encounter challenges along the way, but their group is now a lot more stable than before and feels it has what it takes to overcome.

It is the kind of determination that if more of Lesotho’s potato growers were to adopt would certainly not resolve shortages of seed and other problems but would for sure go a long way in boosting yields of this important food crop.

Refiloe Mpobole

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