By Tšepo Thibankhoe

Lesotho’s planting season for maize, the country’s staple crop, rums from September to mid-December.

By December 15, all the seed should be in the ground.

This allows plants to survive what farmers call the stress month, January, when extreme heat and low rainfall test the ability of plants to survive, which then grow to full size before the winter frosts start in late April.

But farmers cannot plant maize if the soil is too dry and too hot.

This is the planting season, which means that as soon as the ground is prepared, farmers can do little but wait for the rain

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), the start of the 2019/20 rainy season in Lesotho and other parts of Southern Africa is most likely to be late and below average.

Also, given the poor harvests experienced for two consecutive years in Lesotho, farmers will be financially constrained in their ability to purchase inputs for the ploughing season.

These mean farmers will not manage to plant their crop on time.

That will make maize all the more expensive, as buyers predict a shortage, driving up the price of maize meal in Lesotho.

FEWS NET price projections indicate that prices will likely rise in October as lean season peaks.

Created in 1985 by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), FEWS NET is a leading provider of information and analysis on food security.

Lower-income Basotho, who spend much more of their total earnings on food, will be the biggest victims of the increase in maize meal price.

Estimates from recent survey indicate that poor households were spending more than 50 percent of their income on market food purchases.

“With current widening food consumption gaps, the number of people in food crisis (IPC Phase 3) is growing with the approaching lean season,” reads the FEWS NET’s Remote Monitoring Update on Lesotho published last week.

After September, it is expected that most households in Lesotho will be in food crisis.

Much of Lesotho’s hopes rest on its closest neighbour, South Africa, to which it is tied economically.

But South Africa is expected to have a below average surplus in 2019/20, however imports will likely offset any domestic deficits in Lesotho.

Availability of staple food is therefore expected to remain stable through January 2020

Most of Lesotho’s population live in rural areas and rely largely on subsistence farming as their main source of food.

Ordinarily families sell their surplus maize production for extra cash. This year though, most had to dip into that surplus just to survive.

Traditional safety nets programs such as Government Public Cash for Work (locally known as Fato-Fato), are helping provide incomes especially to the poor households. Given increasing food insecurity, households are prioritizing food purchases, and this is likely to continue until the next harvest in 2020, according to FEWS NET report.

According to the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) II 2018/19 to 2022/23, an estimated 39 percent of households in Lesotho remain vulnerable to food insecurity.

This is despite implementation of agricultural support programmes including input subsidy and crop sharing schemes supported by the government.

The NSDP II further shows that food insecurity affects nearly 70 percent of the population in rural areas who depend on subsistence farming.

“Food security is exacerbated by low productivity in agriculture and the absence of other economic opportunities. Poor agricultural productivity is a result of low adaptation of high-yielding technologies, poor adaptation to climate change, and land loss due to erosion,” it reads.

In July, The Night’s Watch first reported that nearly a quarter of Lesotho’s population (around 350 000 people) were facing severe acute food security between May and September 2019, and required urgent humanitarian action.

These included around 69 000 people being in Emergency (Phase 4) and nearly 280 000 people being in crisis (Phase 3).

Almost 470 000 people are also in stressed conditions and require livelihood support.

The Night’s Watch further revealed that even more bad is that the situation is getting worse.

It reported that between October 2019 and March 2020, it was projected that 30 percent of the population (over 430,000 people) would likely face severe acute food insecurity.

At fault is a combination of dry spells and high food prices.

In 2016, the government of the then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili was forced to subsidize the price of maize meal, beans and pulses, reducing the retail prices for consumers by 30 percent for a period of one year, starting from 1 June 2016.

Mosisili’s government allocated over M1 million for the subsidies, with the aim to ease access to basic food commodities.

This was after prices of domestically-produced maize meal rose by 17 percent between February and March in 2016 and were nearly 40 percent higher than a year earlier.

The increases were mainly the result of high maize prices in South Africa, which supplies the bulk of the country’s consumption requirements.

Poor production prospects for 2016 cereal crops due to El Niño associated dry condition, which prompted the government to declare a state of emergency in December 2015, also provided upward pressure. NW

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