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A hero has left us



…a tribute to Yasuo Konishi

MASERU – IN both professional and social life, there are people who leave an indelible impression on you.
I first met Yasuo Konishi 2005, by chance. Little did I know that would be the beginning of our 14-year interaction as both professional and social beings. Ours was an improbable of meetings.

Two years earlier I had joined the Ministry of Tourism and Environment as coordinator of a bilateral project between Lesotho and South Africa on the protection of biodiversity in the Drakensberg Mountains. Funded by the World Bank through the Global Environment Facility, the project’s focus was biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihood support for communities in the mountains.

In early 2005 the World Bank had approached me to help with another project they were starting under what was then known as the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Cooperatives and Marketing.
It was a daunting request in that it came with a curious caveat and what it entailed was completely incongruent to my expertise at that time. First, they wanted me to help facilitate the design of the project as a volunteer. That meant this was not a paid assignment and there was no promise that I would eventually get any role in the project.

Second, the main thrust of the project was to improve Lesotho’s business environment and enhance economic diversification. So I was being asked to donate my time to design a project whose areas of focus were far removed from something I had done and was doing.

Despite my anxiety I plunged into the assignment with zeal, doing my real job by day and moonlighting on the new project at night.
Just as I was about to complete my assignment on the new project I was called to a meeting at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security which was then led by the now late Minister Daniel Rakoro Phororo. I walked into an office at the ministry’s department of crops to find a ‘short’ and intense man chairing the meeting of three officers and four farmers. He was later introduced to me as Yasuo Konishi.

The meeting’s agenda was to discuss the possibility of launching commercial vegetable and deciduous fruit farms in Lesotho.
What immediately struck me about Konishi was that he looked Japanese but had a distinctly American accent (He later told me he was an American of Japanese descent).

While I was still trying to wrap my head around that paradox, I was immediately captivated by his passion and ability to articulate complex issues in simple language.
Then came what I thought was amazing generosity. He was suggesting that the government supports the farmers with seedlings, netting, initial operational costs and irrigation equipment.

At the end of the pilot project, Konishi proposed, the farmers would be allowed buy the irrigation pumps and generators at hugely discounted prices.
“And what were the farmers to put in,” someone asked. “Time and land,” Konishi said.

That to me was a great deal for Basotho farmers who I knew to be pressed for cash to start such capital-intensive projects.
At the end of the meeting I was assigned to come up with a sort of contract between the farmers, funders and the government. A prominent lawyer helped with me with that.

For the next few months Konishi would occasionally visit Lesotho while I went back to my project at the Ministry of Tourism and Environment. I thought my interaction with him had ended but I was wrong.
Towards the end of 2006 World Bank officials told me that the implementation of the project I had helped design had been delayed and they were concerned that it might not take off.

Their suggestion that I join the project came as a complete surprise to me but by that time my fears had somewhat eased because I had come to fully understand the project’s mandate.

I officially joined the project at the end of 2006. And as I began my new role, so did my 14-year journey with Konishi. He would become the cornerstone of the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project (PSCEDP), a World Bank-funded project of the Government of Lesotho under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Cooperatives and Marketing.

Over the years, Konishi contributed to the development of horticulture value chains, the codification of agriculture land leases, Lesotho’s first official cherry exports, our first GlobalGAP certification and up-scaling of commercial horticulture.

Together with Konishi, the immensely dedicated Ministry of Agriculture officers, the Project Management Unit and communities, we set out to work on the fruit farms. Our first assignment was to establish three pilot projects to understand which areas were ideal for which fruits.
At one point the project was stuck and donors were concerned that the implementation was too slow. Konishi worked with us to restructure the project to address the donor’s concerns.

That is how the Mahobong fruit project came alive. Thanks to him, the three pilot projects are still working and the subsequent three farms thriving.
Today, the pilot projects and the farms employ nearly a hundred people. They have transformed the lives of nearly 50 rural farmers who are shareholders in the companies that own the farms. Their families are better off.

Meanwhile their production of apricots, plums, apples and peaches is growing year on year. They are supplying to local shops, vendors and communities. Some have supplied South African supermarkets. The impact of the farms on livelihoods and the local economy has been enormous. Konishi has been an integral part of this process, diligently providing expertise and guidance.
He had a unique ability to combine theory and practice. One day he would be working on a concept and the next he would be driving its implementation.

Often, those who have the theoretical grounding are wanting when it comes to implementation. Not Konishi. A pragmatic intellectual, he could hash out a concept and seamlessly move on to the practical side.
Konishi was one of those rare bureaucrats with a knack for doing things the private sector way. He was always eager for things to happen fast and would sometimes be fazed when some insisted on sticking to the bureaucratic etiquettes. Incidentally, that was the main source of our occasional points of departure but eventually we always found each other and got the job done.
Konishi was a driven and spontaneous man. I recall how we would conceptualise an idea during our occasional dinners and instantly come up with the terms of reference.

By the next morning, Konishi would be ready with the whole concept of the project and clear implementation guidelines.
That is how the idea to commercialise herb and spice production in Lesotho came about. The African Development Bank (AfDB) agreed to fund the feasibility study which is currently being finalised.

On November 7 this year, Konishi submitted the business plan that would guide the process of bringing private investors to partner with the farmers in the three fruit farms.  He did this as the transactional advisor to the tripartite of the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC), the farmers and the investors.

Over the years Konishi supported sectors ranging from agriculture to industry. He was instrumental in strengthening Lesotho’s business environment, diversifying its economy, attracting investment, promoting exports and improving income opportunities, especially to farmers. Indeed, he laid a strong foundation for commercial agriculture in Lesotho.
He conducted the skins, leather and footwear value-chain study for Economic Diversification Project which was financed by the AfDB. The assignment identified investment opportunities and proposed ways to manage the environmental impact in the leather value chain while creating income opportunities for Lesotho livestock farmers.

That study coincided with Lesotho’s development of a red meat industry. Konishi also helped with the sustainable commercialized production of poultry and piggeries which, until then, were small operations mainly at subsistence level.

His is recognised internationally for his innovations and pioneering work in the field of development, particularly in bringing together corporations with international organisations to tackle market and supply systems challenges in developing and emerging markets.

Konishi had over 34 years of professional experience in private business, think tanks, and advising major international organisations like the World Bank/IFC, United Nations, EBRD and the Inter-American Development Bank.

His negotiation skills combined with technical expertise in small business development and foreign direct investments have proven beneficial to major corporations as well as local businesses in developing countries seeking market opportunities.

Konishi suffered a stroke and heart attack in Washington DC on November 28 and was recovering well when he suddenly died on December 1.
It’s a great loss to the entire world and leaves a huge gap in the field of development practice. We at the PSCEDP are greatly saddened by his passing. We grieve with his family, friends and colleagues.

Apart for this contribution to Lesotho, his intellect, passion and efficiency, I will remember Konishi for his rich sense of humour. Our nights in Maseru were filled with roaring laughter as he joked about his life, height, work and travels. He would fit in instantly and had come to be an integral part of the PSCED project. One day he would be enjoying his wine in a restaurant and the next afternoon he would be at a chisanyama.

Chaba Mokuku is Project Manager of the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project (PSCEDP).


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Lesotho’s own brandy



ROMA-“Go, eat your food with rejoicing, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for already the true God has found pleasure in your works,” so says the Big Book.

Driven by that divine, Mohapi Pule has gone a step further – by coming up with a new type of brandy – to make you merry.
The brandy, Mountain Spels Brandy, will make the heart of the dying man rejoice.
“The healthy nutrients in fruits that make brandy, end up in you when you drink it,” he said.

Pule studied nutrition at the National University of Lesotho.
His brandy is made by fermenting fruits into wine. The wine is then distilled into a brandy. It carries the flavour and the aroma of the original fruits.

The story began when Pule was born in Quthing, Mphaki. He was born to a hardworking mother who brew traditional beer like no other.
“She brew beer well before I was born. She is still making it to this day,” he said.

His passion for brewing was probably “born” even before he was born. Mothers have a hidden way of passing not just their looks but their passions to their children.

As he grew up, he found that he was still intertwined with his mom’s brewing business in one way or another.
“Mostly, I am expected to fetch water for the brewing process. That, I still do to this day when I visit home,” he says.
Two decades later, Pule found himself in the Roma Valley, doing BSc in Nutrition.

“At some point, I found that I had lost purpose in life. There was not a thing that I could say, well, I was passionate about this thing or that thing.”
That situation, of course, threw him into some serious soul-searching.
It brought him back to his roots.

“During this period, I recalled that when I was younger, I used to imagine helping my mom do the packaging of the beer she was making and helping distribute it countrywide,” he said.

From a young age, the issue of subsistence business didn’t appeal to him. But that imagination came and passed. Now here he was, worried that he might not amount to anything in life.

Then, boom! An idea came!
What if he produced an alcoholic drink?

He could have thought about anything to do as a business but, lo and behold! He thought about his mother’s passion!

One of the things he loves about alcoholic beverages is that they are popular.

“I haven’t seen products as popular as alcoholic drinks,” he said.
He might be wrong or right but the reality is, the rest of the world has for generations found delight in alcoholic beverages – some to the extent of overdoing it to their injury!

“Mabele khunoana ralitlhaku thabisa lihoho. Mabele u tsoa kae e le khale re u batla re sa u thole? Ueeeena mabeeeele!” (Loosely translated beer brewed from sorghum make men happy. We’ve been looking for you from afar, you sorghum. In short, this is a praise poem for the Sesotho sorghum brew).
But then came the most difficult part. Which specific beverages should he focus on and how would he do it?

He decided that he would focus on ciders. He realised that not many people in Lesotho were making ciders.

He started experimenting at home and realized how difficult the process was. He just couldn’t get it right. To worsen matters, he also did not have the right equipment.

But like most successful innovators, he just knew that he had to start his business right away.

Pule says he then learnt about other forms of beverages: the spirits. Spirits are very high in alcohol content. Here we are talking the likes of whiskey, vodka and brandy.

He was particularly interested in vodka. He went into one NUL laboratory and, with necessary permission, began testing a number of spirits and doing a lot of research about them.

He began saving some of the money he earned from the National Manpower Development Secretariat in the form of student allowance so he could buy equipment. Saving was not easy. The subsistence money was already not that much. Having to share it with a business was asking a little too much.

But Pule was so determined that he did it, bought equipment that allowed him to develop what he thought was “vodka”.

However, after buying the equipment he immediately realised that the equipment was to make brandy not vodka.

“Now I was forced to get into brandy by chance,” he said.
It was a mistake that he has never regretted having realised that there are very few individuals who were making brandy in Lesotho.

Pule had to throw himself fully into experiments. He read books about brandy production. He even enrolled for an online course on distillation.
In the end, he began to see some light.

“I began to feel some difference in the taste of my produce,” he said. “When I shared my produce with my lecturers, they were over the moon!”
With that encouragement, Pule began packaging his brandy and is now selling it to family and friends.

“My small equipment means that I can’t produce much. However, If I were to get bigger equipment, things would be much better.”

Own Correspondent

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Ready-to-cook vegetables



ROMA – ’MATUMANE Matela, a National University of Lesotho (NUL)-trained nutritionist, is an example of how a nutritionist should think and act.
Matela makes and sells ready-to-cook vegetables out of produce from her own farm or produce she preferably buys from local farms.
“When I make a dish, as a nutritionist, I make choices that ensure a typical package is packed with nutrition,” Matela said.

Today, we examine an interesting story of the lady who is determined to ensure that you eat healthy despite your busy schedule.
It started with her experiences in life.
She describes herself as an extremely busy woman.
She likes getting things done.
As the busy amongst us will say, the busier you become, the less you watch your diet.
She couldn’t escape the trap!

“My busy schedule meant that I ended up eating junk and I was gaining weight,” she said.
With time, she came to her senses.
As a nutritionist, she recalled that the best way to preach was to preach by example.
So, was she preaching what she practised?
Clearly, she wasn’t.
She had to find an option to maintain the busy schedule and eat healthy at the same time.

The beautiful thing about nutrition is that the healthiest foods are the closest to us: fruits and vegetables.
Some scientists even claim that our bodies seem to be designed to thrive on fruits and vegetables.
“Have you ever wondered why looking at a ripe raw peach on a tree is mouth-watering but looking at a fat cow isn’t?” asked one scientist.
Well, whether we were designed for fruits and vegetables or not, the truth is that they are good for our bodies.
That’s what good science tells us.

And we somehow “know it” too if you have heard about anything called intuition.
So one day she found herself increasingly eating fruits and vegetables.
It’s easier to change a religion than a diet, they say.
So it is commendable that she changed her diet at all.
“The idea was to chop as much vegetables as possible and put them in a fridge so that in future, I will just pull them out and cook.”
She wasn’t proposing something new.
Who amongst us doesn’t enjoy the convenience of just pulling up chopped frozen vegetables and cooking?

Little did she know that what she was doing was putting her on a path to a brilliant business.
It took a post on a social media to achieve just that.
“I took a pic of the chopped and packaged vegetables and posted them on my social media account. The reaction was swift. I began getting questions like, “how much?””
It immediately dawned on her that she could be sitting on a great business idea, after all.

So she gave it a try and started selling.
To her surprise, people started buying.
In fact, “I get orders for my products almost on a daily basis.”
That is how interested people really are.
This to an extent that her business now gets up to four irregular employees, she included, when the demand is high.
She said her training in Agriculture, Home Economics and Nutrition has helped her to give a thought into what she was doing.

For instance, where possible, she grows her own crops and sells them as first preference.
She has grown spinach, butternut, green pepper, onion, herbs and beans.
She is also in the process of renting more fields to grow more vegetables.
Then she empowers Basotho producers by requesting them to supply.
Going for foreign produce is the last resort.
Look at her packages and you realise something.
The “7 colours” proverb comes alive.

Those seven colours (several colours actually) may have been designed to appeal to your eyes but that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The colours of vegetables mean a lot in terms of nutrition.
Each colour gives you something different.
So, the more colours in one meal, the merrier.
To drive this home, let’s go a scientific route for a second.
Red, Blue and Purple: These vegetables contain substances that are good at reducing the risk of stroke, cancer and memory problems.
White: The likes of onion or garlic may help lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer and heart disease.

Orange and Yellow: Carrots immediately come to mind.
These vegetables contain substances called carotenoids which may help improve your immune system and help to improve the health of your eyes.
Basotho, it would appear, have long known a thing or two about the relationship between carrots and eyes.
Hence the famous saying, “o jele lihoete” (they ate carrots), often applied to good sportsmen or women with symbolically “good eyesight”.

Green: Green is life. Green vegetables come packed with chlorophyll, a chemical that scientists believe can boost your immune system, eliminate fungus in your body, clean your blood, lead to healthy intestines and give you boundless energy.
As a bonus, her Home Economics background is such that she is armed with a host of recipes for each of the packages she sells.
She has great dreams for the future.
“I want to see my products decorating the shelves of big supermarkets,” she said.
It’s time!

Own Correspondent

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A new, co-operative chain store



ROMA – ’MAKUENA Lesiea is spearheading the creation of a cooperative chain store that will sell Lesotho products only.
The store is being developed under the National University of Lesotho (NUL) Innovation Hub and it will be incubated by the Hub.
“Have you seen it? Basotho are producing like never before,” Lesiea said.
“However, their products are hard to see in the markets. We want to change all that.”

The store, she said, will open branches in all districts of Lesotho, starting from Maseru.
Visit any supermarket in Lesotho and check the products on the shelves.
You will be shocked to realise that, in general, just one percent of them are made in Lesotho.
The other 99 percent comes from elsewhere.
Is it because Basotho are not producing or can’t produce at all?

“Having worked directly with the NUL Innovation Hub and the Tsa Mahlale TV programme under the Hub, I have travelled the depth and breadth of Lesotho and I was amazed at the amount of work Basotho are doing,” she said.
What is the problem?
Basotho products are not given sufficient platforms to prove themselves.
“Credit where it is due, some shops are beginning to accept and sell Basotho products,” she said.

“However, they are barely making a dent because Basotho products, being at their infancy, cannot receive full attention unless by a store that is designed to give them full attention.”
Such a store doesn’t exist.

She said the idea is not to compete with any of the existing stores because “we are getting into a new territory altogether, we are addressing a different market”.
So listen to Lesiea as she presents some features of the store that will surely persuade you to join the bandwagon:

  1. Customer and producer confidence: The store, she said, will achieve two things.
    First, when they see masses of Lesotho-made products in one place, Basotho customers will slowly grow confidence in them.
    The confidence will shoot to the roof when the customers experience that many of the products made in Lesotho are already way ahead of foreign competitors in terms of quality.
    Secondly, the store will give Basotho producers an assurance that their products have, at least, one store that is willing to take them, dark or blue.
    More production will come from such assurance.
  2. Selling “everything”: The store will sell everything from fruits and vegetables to processed foodstuffs to clothing and building materials (if Thabure car will be in production by then, it will be on the shelves too).
    “Suppose what we want to sell is not locally made, we will never cross the border, any border, to find its equivalence. We will encourage Basotho to produce it until they do.”
  3. We mean business: whereas Basotho are beginning to produce, their products are still all over the place.
    You bump across them in some few willing stores, in expos and trade shows, or as being sold by individual resellers. Those are good efforts, but they are not enough. In fact, many in Lesotho have come to see producing and selling as being more of an art, a hobby, a therapy or a hustling than a business, “so we are seriously moving away from such a casual approach, we mean business this time around.”
  4. Ownership: So when you enter this store, you could be purchasing a product made by you in a store owned by you. What a difference!
  5. Reasonable standards: the store will only demand reasonable standards. As a struggling Mosotho, try taking your products to some of the local shops and you are, at worst, turned away without reason or, at best, given a long list of standards you must meet before they can take your product.
    “In our case, as long as your products are reasonably of good quality, you are in. NUL Innovation Hub is already testing many Basotho products. We won’t ignore quality, but we won’t use it as a way to prevent Basotho products from growing either.”
  6. A cooperative chainstore: From contributing as little as M50 per month, members will use a continuous financing model to ensure that the store doesn’t just end in Maseru but reaches the ten districts of Lesotho.
    Each branch will start at a medium scale in order to grow along with Basotho products. We won’t ask for investors to come from anywhere, “we will be investors ourselves.”
  7. An export launch pad. “We are often told to export our produce. The obvious question is, if you haven’t convinced your own people to consume your own products, how can you convince people in other lands to do so? Why should they take you seriously?”
    However, the store is not meant to be a local store forever.
    It will be a means by which we export our products to other countries in the future.
    When we export the store to Soweto, we export it along with products from Lesotho.
    Don’t say no because we have seen Chinese shops and Indian shops and, of course, South African shops, filled to the brim with Chinese products and Indian products and South African products in many countries.
    “If they can do it,” Lesiea ended, “so can we.”
    “Because if it is there in some of us, it is there in all of us.”

Own Correspondent

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