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Covid-19 hits potato farmers



  MASERU-IT’S a Monday afternoon and a group of young men are washing potatoes. Time is not on their side: the potatoes have to be dry and packed before sunset. They have been at it since 10am and 20 bags are ready. Not far from the sorting area is a heap of potatoes the man says “will not fetch much from the market because they have been damaged due to a delay in harvesting”. When the lockdown started at the end of March, the potatoes were ready but could not be harvested because of restrictions and lack of a market. According to Mahasela Nkoko, spokesperson of the Potato Lesotho Association, Covid-19 has seriously impacted them. “We usually supply restaurants, hotels and vendors with our produce. But due to lockdown, we had to delay harvesting since there were no buyers. This has resulted in a significant damage to our produce,” Nkoko says. The retailers that were opened during the lockdown were unwilling to take their produce, he says. “Only Pick n Pay was taking our produce and the rest did not do so because of issues of standards governing them,” Nkoko says. He says having a proper storage facility like a market centre could have helped as potatoes are able to survive for eight months in storage under regulated temperatures. “We do everything manually so it takes time, mind you there are machines in the market designed for these processes,” Nkoko says. However, they are unable to buy the machines because of lack of access to loans as their businesses are not insured. Nkoko further says they also tried to find out how they could access the agricultural relief fund that was announced by former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane to assist farmers in this crisis. “We met the former Minister of Agriculture Litšoane Simon Litšoane but he told us that the fund was not yet in existence but in planning stage,” Nkoko says. He says farmers have to come up with plans to deal with pandemics in the future to avoid damage like the one caused by the Covid-19. Meanwhile, Leribe crop, vegetable and poultry farmers are also trying to recover from the impact of the lockdown. Farmers in Leribe produce a lot of beans with the World Food Programme being their biggest customer as the agency supplies schools. Daniel Chakela who is a farmer and chairman of the Leribe farmers association says since schools are closed and they do not know when they will resume, they are stuck with beans. And they do not know to whom they can sell. “We fear they might be damaged by pests,” Chakela says. He says they had also produced a lot of maize with the aim of selling to street vendors for roasting and to raise funds. But due to the lockdown, they are stuck with their maize which has now dried up. “This pandemic has seriously wreaked havoc for us especially because those who were opened as essential services who could have rescued our produce, did not take our produce,” Chakela says. He says when the lockdown started they had just given street vendors who are their main customers, lots of produce on credit because it was month-end. He says they have been working on good terms with vendors in Hlotse and Maputsoe who usually take their produce even when they don’t have money. Chakela says it used be a practice that their clients take produce from them, sell it and pay later. And that was done so that no produce goes to waste without being consumed. He says their focus is to produce and not to sell. He says this working relationship has afforded them a chance to focus on production. However, this time around, Chakela says they haven’t been able to get anything for that produce as most of it went bad in sacks when some was consumed at home. Chakela says some of the produce they had was also given to vendors for consumption during the lockdown as they were aware that most were not prepared. “Their main source of livelihood was on hold but their families had to eat so we came through with different products that we produced to give so that they also had food during that critical time,” Chakela says. He also alludes to the fact that had the market centre in Leribe been functional, their produce could have been salvaged. He says the Ministry of Small Businesses had opened tenders for the management of the facility. Dairy farmers also felt the burden of the lockdown as it made feeding very costly. According to Lekhooa Pitso, a dairy farmer, the halting of alcohol production by the Maluti Mountain Brewery meant that they could not get malt to feed their animals. So this forced farmers to rely heavily on Lucerne and simili (mixed grain and animal feed) to feed their cows. But it was expensive. Pitso says the lockdown has taught them that malt from MMB is the basis of their animal feed and without it, they saw a significant decrease in the amount of milk produced. He says the milk was so little that they could only take it to the dairy in the morning and sell a few litres in the evening to the villagers. Now that things are back to normal, what should be addressed is the manner in which the MMB distributes the malt to farmers. “Access to malt has to be regulated properly so that all farmers are able to get it. We all need it,” Pitso says. Lemohang Rakotsoane

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