Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Urban Agriculture in Lesotho

Lesotho Urban Ag

Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, is an overcrowded city located in the lower lands of this mountainous country. The night I arrived in the city I was only able to hear the incessant noises of taxis honking at pedestrians, as if they all needed one. But it was the first morning while driving around this city that I realize how most of the houses have productive gardens. It was amazing to see how Basotho are growing tomatoes, spinach squashes, and maize in pretty much any available space around their homes. In my neighborhood, Maseru East, eight out of ten houses grow different vegetable and fruits. This was a pleasant surprise as I was getting used to the typical North American house with huge unutilized lawns. After seeing the important role home gardens play in the cities of Lesotho, I decided to do my research on Urban Agriculture and how these productive gardens are securing Basotho’s food supply.

The Concepts of Urban Agriculture and Food Security
It is hard to imagine cities and agriculture together as most of us tend to see agriculture as a rural activity. In fact, urban agriculture is sometimes perceived as old-fashioned, temporary, and unsuitable, a view I found widely spread among the officials in Lesotho’s Ministries of Agriculture and Education. However, this common view ignores the fact that urban agriculture is a significant economic activity, central to the lives of tens of millions of people throughout the world. Moreover, in countries like Lesotho where hunger and malnutrition are predominately urban problems, home gardening can contribute significantly to reduce problems of undernutrition and food insecurity.

Although urban agriculture is a recent phenomenon in some parts of the world, traditionally different cultures farmed intensively within and/or at the edge of the city. In developing countries, where cities are characterized by having a large population of people migrating to the cities, home gardening is widely practiced. This can be explained by the fact that most of these people do not have other skills that would allow them to get jobs in the cities, so their income generating activities are very limited. With very little money to acquire food, the most basic need, people have no alternative but to grow their own.
This last aspect brings up the issue of food security: “access by all the people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life” Reutlinger. Food security can be expressed by an equation that compares the value of the food production deficit in a household with the income and liquid assets that a household has available to purchase food (Leather, Foster, 2004). In other words, you are food secured when you can buy or produce the same or more food that your body requires. If you do not have land to grow food or money to buy it, you will suffer from undernutrition. In Lesotho, with an unemployment rate of 45% many people don’t have the income necessary to purchase food so they have to produce it. Nevertheless, lack of money to purchase food is not the only incentives to grow food.

Overview of Lesotho’s Problems
Food insecurity and poverty have reached alarming proportions in Lesotho with ever increasing numbers of people needing food aid and or other forms of assistance in recent years. In 2004, the prime minister of Lesotho Pakalitha Mosisili, estimated that 600,000 Basotho are faced with starvation unless they are given food aid, mostly coming from international donors (Phororo 1999). This figure shows a steady increase as in 2002 the number of people facing starvation was 500,000. Part of this increase can be explained by important factors that have been taking place in Lesotho for the past two decades: First, the advent of HIV/aids related diseases and the repercussions these have in the much-needed labor force for the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Second, the diminishing household incomes as a result of limited job opportunities and job losses caused by the retrenchment of huge numbers of Basotho men from the South African mines. There are other important factors that have also contributed to the alarming food insecurity in Lesotho; An inappropriate land tenure system, aid dependency on foreign donors, land degradation mostly caused by erosion, and a perpetual drought that have been present for the last 5 years (Thabane, 1998). Each of these factors is very complex and required in-depth discussion that, due to space constraints, I cannot cover on this paper.
Urban agriculture can played an important role in tackling the problems mentioned above as it enables the people to produce their own food not only for their consumption but also for income generation. The availability of food that a home garden can provide ensures a balance diet, essential for a healthy labor force and vital for people infected with HIV/Aids .

Interview in Maseru East
Maseru East is a neighborhood located in the eastern part of Maseru. Most houses are situated on a hill that borders a stadium and air force landing field in the north, and a big water reservoir in the south. This reservoir provides a good portion of the water used in the gardens of Maseru East. My host family’s house is located in the middle of the neighborhood. My host dad, Ralikariki Molapo, has been living in that area for more than 10 years, so he pretty much knows everybody in the vicinity.
The interviews were rather informal dialogues I had with people on the area of Maseru East. I visited about 20 households from which only one did not have a garden. The questions ranged from the history of the families and the meaning of their names, to the money they spend on inputs and the crops grown in their garden.
Basotho, friendly as they are, like to talk a lot and rather than following a fixed questionnaire I listened most of the time as they were eager to tell me about all the things they were doing with their plots. Responders answered pretty much most of the questions, but for the yields harvest and the prices paid for inputs they could not remember the exact numbers. This can be explained as very few of them have an organized accounting system.
The economic status of the Basotho living inside the neighborhood is extremely diverse. These can be best seen by the types of houses. Ralikariki Molapo’s house is a three bedroom, one story house with western amenities, but right in front of it there is a hut built with aluminum siding very similar to those seen in the shantytowns of Soweto (see attachement A and B). Thabo, the owner of this hut, makes a living by crafting mud- bricks. He then sells them in bulk to construction sites around the area.
Both Ralikariki and Thabo cultivate a productive garden, yet they have different reasons for doing it. Ralikariki enjoys gardening and has been doing it since he was a kid. In elementary school, he and his classmates spent a lot of time in the experimental plot and in the classrooms taking about agriculture. As expressed by Libusena Berena, an estension agent at the Department of Field Services in Maseru “agriculture is a way of life we inherit from our parents”. On the other hand, Thabo practices agriculture to supplement income he gets from the sale of bricks. This does not mean that Thabo does not enjoys working in his garden; it rather means that he has no other option but to produce his own food.
Mamasello, another of the interviewees, is 70 years old but her hands are still very strong to till the land and to pull the carrots out of the soil. -The way you can tell the carrots are ready- she said –is by looking at the base of the plant and check whether the soil is cracked-. When the carrots are big and sweet the dry soil on top of them breaks, as it has to leave room for the expanding carrots. I met Mamasello the second day of my stay in Maseru East and it was thanks to her that I decided to do my research on urban agriculture. That morning Mamasello showed me how agriculture is so important for the Basotho. She also introduced me to other families who enthusiastically showed me their gardens.

Lesotho Tools

Urban Agriculture in Lesotho
Urban agriculture in Lesotho is practiced mostly by women. Most of them were married and head the household as their husbands often work in the mines of South Africa. They said that the main reasons they engage in urban agriculture are to supplement household food supply and to save money. Urban agriculture is then an important, but not main source of income. Salary wages and remittances from their husbands in South Africa are the main sources of income for these families.
I also found that the respondents engaged in home gardening consume most of the harvest yield leaving the surpluses for sale or barter. This trade takes place between neighbor as the quantities are small and the supply irregular. In addition, selling one’s vegetables can become problematic as many in the neighborhood grow the same crops and harvest during the same periods. These factors tend to reduce the prices making it difficult to make profit. However, there is some initiatives taking place to organize mini-markets, construct communal storage facilities, and get transportation so products can be sold in other parts of the country.
The main crops I found in the gardens were: Cabbage, tomatoes, corn, carrots, sepaile, spinach (Swiss chard), potatoes, green beans, pumpkin, turnips, peas, and rapa (vegetable with edible taproot and leaves). This diversity in vegetables ensures a balanced diet that can combat undernutrition. Vegetables like peas and rapa are good sources of protein, replacing the sometimes unaffordable meat. Corn used to make papa and to feed the livestock, is a good carbohydrate. Cabbage is the most widely grown vegetable both in summer and in winter because of its low productivity cost, high yields, and marketability. Unfortunately, their nutritional value is very low compared to other greens also grown in Lesotho like spinach, pumpkin leaves, and green beans. Cabbage is low in protein, iron, vitamin, A B1, B2, and Niacin (Ministry of Agriculture, 1994).
Common practices I found in the gardens included fencing, raised beds/terracing, manure use, composting, and intercropping. The fence is essential as it protects the crop from animal commonly found browsing around the neighborhood. Manure from cows, pigs, and poultry is often mixed with ashes left from cooking. This great natural fertilizer is applied to the crops, improving soil fertility and increasing the retention of moisture. Because the space is often limited, the intercropping must be intensified, preventing erosion from taking place.

Final words
The first day I visited a garden I found myself with big list of things people could do better, or more efficiently. Nevertheless, this naïve view changed as I spent more time with the people in their plots. That is how I realized that they are being as efficient as possible. For instance, I noticed that very few practice composting. But later I realized that every leftover is used to build, feed, or cure, and there is simply very little mulch to put in the compost. One thing that I still think can be done with the support of the government or the civil sector is the installation of water tanks so rain can be stored for the dry season. Although some houses have them, they are an expensive investment that very few people can afford. That is why the government or NGO’s need on be part on their promotion. Urban agriculture is therefore an important activity that needs not only to be recognized by the government of Lesotho but also encouraged, promoted, and supported. However, urban agriculture is not the panacea, as the income it provides is little and the labor requirement high. Home gardening is rather part of a solution that include major support to the farmers in the rural areas, elimination of the dependency on foreign food aid, food for work projects, and participatory approaches to rural and urban development. Thus, as expressed by Thabo, Ralikariki, and Mamasello the government needs to pay more attention to their needs and to those of the community.


Rethabile Masilo said...

Very interesting post. In my family (in Qoaling) the kids each had a plot that they tilled and cared for, and chose what was to be planted there. This tended to create "friendly" sibling competition so we ended up going out of our way to tend our plots.

We had a "letamo" or a small "dam" that filled up during the rainier seasons and allowed us to water our fruit and vegetables during the drier seasons.

We also reared animals. We used their droppings as fertilizer. Since we lived in a clay-filled area, it was either chemical fertilizers or domestic animal droppings. We used the latter which was abundant.

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