Corona crushes women farmers

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By ‘Majirata Latela and Kefiloe Kajane

The agriculture sector has not been spared the brunt of Covid-19, and women who make a living out of commercial agriculture are out there stranded, contemplating alternative sources of income as the pandemic tightens its grip on Lesotho’s economy. 

Women at Kao village in the Botha Bothe district which is about 40 kilometres town are at their wits’ end after Covid-19 disrupted their lives and they find themselves dealing with the reality of losing a fortune of their hard work.

‘Manalane ‘Molefi, a commercial farmer who owns six hectors of land where she grows maize, peas, beans, and different types of vegetables (meroho) which she sells to the community around Kao and to Kao mine in particular, is reeling from the devastating effects of the pandemic.

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“I can’t even begin to relate the losses I have made since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. My life and that of my family has changed drastically since the first national lockdown in March 2019. Since I am a commercial farmer, my life revolves around agriculture, I grow vegetables to feed my family and shepherds.

“I am also a wool and mohair grower, I have a lot of sheep and goats. Five of my sheep perished during last year’s lockdown last year because I could not get them the right medication on time. We usually get our medication from South Africa because they are affordable and always available in different varieties.

“But since the lockdown and accompanying restrictions, we have not been able to go to SA and veterinary shops in Butha-Buthe have also run out of stock of some medications. When the PM declared the second lockdown, I felt like my whole world was falling apart because I have lambs and kids that I need to vaccinate against worms. But I can’t now because the borders are closed and transport in the village is not available during lockdown,” she said with sadness distinct in her voice.

‘Moleli added that she the only one who is feeling the pinch; her farm helps are also suffering because there is not much work after her market collapsed.

Reports indicate that 80 percent of the population depends on subsistence farming; productivity is said to still be low and with Covid-19 the chances of an immediate recovery are remote.

The International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD) shows that the agriculture sector in Lesotho accounts for about 17 per cent of GDP. It is the primary source of income, or an important supplementary source, for more than half the population in rural areas. Only about 10 per cent of the country’s total land area is classified as arable.

Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA)’s report on the impact of Covid-19 on women’s customary land rights and livelihoods in Southern Africa states that even though Lesotho was the last country in Africa to record a Covid-19 case, it put in place stringent Covid-19 regulations well before recording any case, including being one of the first countries in Africa to close its borders for fear of importing the disease from South Africa.

With a state of emergency declared on March 18 2020, various regulations and legal notices were subsequently promulgated over time. One of the notices specifically stated that supermarkets and grocery shops would remain open but mentioned no other places such as open markets and vending sites that normally sell food and food products. It also stated that ‘special operations like agriculture’ would remain operational.

“Although the special operations were not defined in this particular Notice, subsistence and small-scale agriculture which is undertaken on customary or rural land would hardly fit that description. It therefore follows that the initial Legal Notice missed, neglected or deliberately left out specific provisions that would protect rural women farmers and agricultural produce traders in the context of Covid-19.

“Efforts by the small-scale farmers and informal food traders to continue with their business would therefore have been a violation of the lockdown regulations. The conclusion that can be drawn from all these regulations is that they failed to protect rural women’s customary land-based livelihoods, hence the need for the regulations to be reviewed to ensure protection of these rights,” the report reads.

Business adviser Robert Likhang indicated that the informal sector which also includes the agricultural sector is one of the sectors that contribute the most to the economy of the country and it seems like since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are the most suffering sector.

He said the reason why Lesotho’s economy suffered a lot since the beginning of Covid-19 is the unpreparedness the country economically, for anything that could happen.

He said the country should have prepared itself after the first Covid-19 wave although that is what it should have done a long time ago before even Covid-19.

“We are always depending on our donor partners who we run to every time something happens. But now countries are starting to be more interested in themselves, which is a problem for us as a country that depends on donor partners; we are vulnerable because we did not prepare in time. So, just imagine if we did not have donor partners.

“Also, imagine the United States not coming to the party with the Millennium Challenge Cooperation. Imagine AGOA is gone and imagine the United Kingdom no longer cares about us. We should have imagined these things and come up with some strategies to help ourselves should our donor partners not be there.

“Every year when drawing up a budget, we always include borrowing money instead of improving our ways of generating wealth within the country. We end up as a country that owes a lot of money, to a point where when we have real problems, we cannot ask for loans because we owe too much. We are here now today economically because of lack of preparedness,” Likhang pointed out. 

He suggested that Lesotho has never really had a long term plan that it would follow should the country experience something like this pandemic. He added that Lesotho had Vision 2020 which ended up gathering dust, thanks to politicians’ lack of commitment to it.  

“The country should focus more on economic reforms. It is a pity that the current reforms pay too little attention to the economy. The country should build its own bilateral business with South Africa as a neighboring country without SACU or SADC partnerships, in order to boost its economy. The business relationships in SACU and SADC are important too, but Lesotho also needs its own with South Africa.

“Covid-19 will hit us hard even if we impose lockdowns because we cannot even afford them with such a small economy and over-dependence on the informal sector. Many families depend on the same woman who sells fruits on the streets and that man who sells maize by the roadside. So, if we did not even have an alternative when they go home, it gets difficult.

“Any Covi-19 wave that comes has negative results on our economy; we do not have reserves to shoulder the impact of lockdown. One wonders what will happen if they keep coming. since they arrive to an already fragile economy,” he explained.