The ‘hot’ potato business

The ‘hot’ potato business

SEMONKONG-IN the villages of Semonkong, people are getting their hands dirty, as the area buzzes with agricultural activity as the rain season gets underway and people plough their fields with hopes of high yields.
Next to the fields in the beautiful valley of Ha-Sechachane, ’Maletsunyane River flows quietly.

This valley will be home to Seed365’s Potato Farming project. Its rich soil is known for producing high quality potatoes. Seed365 is an agricultural company aiming to change the farming landscape in Lesotho.
On a recent hot day, tens of villagers gathered to witness the launch of a project they hope will significantly change their lives for the better.
One of those people was Molelejane Mohale of Ha Leteketa, who has been farming potatoes for over 10 years.

In 2004, Mohale left his job as an electrician and ventured into farming and even though he has farmed for years, the magnitude of the Seed365’s Potato Farming project is a first for him.
“We want to do more than produce potatoes, we have to add value to our products. We want to have facilities for the value chain and change lives of the people living here,” Mohale says
Producing high quality and quantity, he said, needs intense investment in agricultural machinery and until that happens commercial farming will remain a far-fetched dream.
Speaking at the launch of the project, Thapeli Tjabane, Director of Seed365, said it is time Basotho used farming to resolve some of the country’s nagging challenges like poverty, unemployment and food insecurity.
“Every day is a planting and harvesting day. Through collaborations we can produce more than enough for ourselves. We have rich soil and water, we just have to invest in irrigation technologies and climate resistant farming techniques,” Tjabane said.
He added that policy coordination and review is also important to create an enabling environment for farmers to produce high volumes.
Pita Mahlako, the councillor for Ha Sechachane, said villagers are hopeful that the project will change the lives of those in the valley and that villagers will not be exploited as has happened with projects that came before the Seed365 Potato Farming initiative.
“We have rich soils and often people come here with well-rehearsed scripts promising us a lot but in the end we are left with nothing. Our people have been taken advantage for a long time, please do not make us regret opening our doors to you,” Mahlako told project officials.
He said the valley has not seen any meaningful developments in a long time and locals are hoping that intense potato production will see tourists on their way to ’Maletsunyane falls stop by, while other people would travel from all over the world to learn about potato farming.
’Mamolula Makara, Chairman of the Potato Lesotho Association, said poverty and food insecurity should be alien to Lesotho given that the country has been blessed with fertile soils, a good climate and abundant water.
“We have serious potential and with potato being amongst the top five staple foods in the world we can never go wrong. Our potatoes produced right here are some of the best in the world and we need to work hard to become seed producers of the potato varieties we have here,” Makara said.
Potato production is still low and does not even meet local demand at the moment, she said, adding that demand from outside the country was also growing.
“We were contacted by a Canadian company asking us to supply them with 40 000 tons of potato seed because of the quality of potatoes produced in this country but we could not deliver. This was a clear indication of just how far we can go with potato production, we just need to collaborate and produce in large quantities,” Makara said.
According to Mahasela Nkoko, speaking on behalf of the Lesotho National Farmers Union (LENAFU), Lesotho imports M3 million worth of potatoes every month.

Though more farmers have been venturing into potato production, much more still needs to be done to ensure self-sufficiency and cut on imports.
“We are unable to produce intensively due to lack of funding to acquire machinery. We still plant using our hands, harvest and clean potatoes using manual labour… all this is time consuming and costly,” said Nkoko.

Nkoko applauded Seed365 for involving relevant stakeholders in planning the project to avoid unnecessary disputes that often erupt during the course of many projects.
The Principal Secretary of Small Businesses, Tankiso Phapano, said the government tends to pump in huge monies where foreign businesses are involved but fails to offer similar support to locals.
“Access to finance for farming is a nightmare in this country, yet we talk about agriculture being a priority sector and also talk about food security,” said Phapano.

Phapano said it is high time the government comes to the party and invest in irrigation facilities like boreholes across the country to enable farmers to produce better quality and higher quantities for local consumption and for export.
“If we take farming seriously and not wait for foreign companies to come and pump money into the industry we can solve some of the many challenges like poverty, unemployment and food insecurity we face as a country,” Phapano said.

He urged Seed365 and other farmers to strive to have their own properties for storage facilities as there is a tendency to use rented space.
“When they see you doing well they hike rent unreasonably or find a way to kick you out. As we focus on production, let us also look into building storage facilities,” Phapano said.

Lemohang Rakotsoane

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