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Sorghum: A Ray of Hope in Lesotho’s Agriculture Amid Climate Challenges

13 March 2024 by Pascalinah Kabi

Est Read Time: 8 min(s) 29 sec(s)

Photo credit: Susie Blackmon

As the sun began to rise, casting a golden glow across the horizon, the rhythmic rumble of the tractor echoed through the field.

It broke the morning silence as it diligently ploughed 1.1 acres of earth, readying it for the upcoming maize planting season.

With the tractor’s work complete, the stage was set for the next phase of agricultural tradition.

A few days later, the cattle, guided by skilled hands, took their place in the field. With a familiar rhythm, they followed the furrows left by the tractor, meticulously planting maize seeds into the fertile soil.

It is August 30, 2023. Located at an elevation of 1,621 meters, Ha Katu is a village nestled approximately seven kilometers south of Mazenod in Maseru, Lesotho.

At the heart of this village resides 67-year-old Matsoso Katu, a local rural farmer who practices mixed farming.

“I decided to plant our first field of 1.1 acres on August 30th,” Katu told Uncensored News during a telephonic interview.

“I don’t know what prompted me to start early. In my village, it’s customary to begin planting seeds on November 15th, but this season, I chose to start on August 30th. I planted a maize variety called DKC, and it yields beautiful, fresh maize,” Katu explained.

Due to intermittent moisture in his field, Katu noted that the maize seeds did not initially thrive as he had anticipated. However, the situation took a positive turn when the rainy season commenced around November and December 2023.

“It grew uniformly and to various heights across the field,” Katu remarked.

“I will be harvesting this maize by the end of this month, as it is now fully matured and ready for harvesting. In fact, I am standing next to it as we speak.”

“It’s truly by the grace of God,” Katu continued, reflecting on the unpredictability of farming.

“There’s no perfect formula or brilliance in farming. When celebrating a successful harvest, it’s important not to ridicule others, but rather to express gratitude to God.”

Climate change-induced excessive heat creeps in

In July 2023, the World Meteorological Organisation announced the beginning of El Niño—a phenomenon where a part of the ocean gets warmer than usual, affecting the weather in various places. This can lead to increased rainfall in some areas and droughts in others. Presently, Lesotho is experiencing drier, hotter conditions due to El Niño.

The 2019 study titled “Climate Risk Assessment: Botswana and Lesotho” revealed that recurrent climate hazards in Lesotho significantly impact agriculture and food security.

It highlighted that these climate hazards result in delayed planting or farmers opting not to plant at all, reduced seed germination, crop failures, and increased food prices.

“At household level, these effects are felt the most,” read the report.

It cited the socio-economic household survey conducted by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which highlighted that households in Lesotho were “highly exposed to shocks, resulting from erratic climate variability over the last decade.”

Katu told Uncensored News the current heat has had a severe impact on farmers in Lesotho.

“The rainy season began on schedule, inspiring us to dive wholeheartedly into farming. However, just when our maize crops needed moisture the most, drought struck due to the excessive heatwaves,” Katu explained.

He referred to a Sesotho saying, “poone ea phutsa,” which signifies that maize crops do not complete their full life cycle, resulting in maize cobs prematurely facing downward.

“When a maize cob is no longer supported by the stalk, its ability to withstand the heat diminishes significantly. This leads to a considerable decrease in yield,” Katu said.

While Katu eagerly anticipates harvesting maize from his 1.1-acre field, he is concerned about the harvest in his much larger 9.4-acre field.

“On November 15th, we planted maize seeds on a 9.4-acre plot. The yield appears to be satisfactory, but the challenge lies in the excessive heat, which affected its development.

“Initially, the yield was promising, and I was poised to be the first farmer in my village to harvest. However, with the onset of heat, there is now considerable uncertainty surrounding this particular field,” Katu expressed.

Dr. Abiola Akintunde, originally from Nigeria, arrived in Lesotho 24 years ago as a teacher and later secured lecturing positions at the National University of Lesotho and the University of the Free State.

On March 1, 2024, Dr. Akintunde participated in a climate and environmental communication and reporting workshop organized by Research Project Lead – TAF Fellow 2024, Letsatsi Lekhooa.

In a separate interview with Uncensored News, Dr. Akintunde discussed the adverse impact of climate change in Lesotho, attributing it partly to the country’s challenging topography, which poses limitations on agriculture.

“It’s not the whole land mass that is arable in Lesotho. A small percentage of land is arable in Lesotho compared to the entire land. Now coupled with climate change issues, it is getting bad. And that is why you see like 70 percent of food is being imported from South Africa. We don’t produce enough in Lesotho,” Dr Akintunde said.

He emphasised that climate change was exacerbating the situation. Dr. Akintunde pointed out that in the past, farmers in Lesotho heavily relied on indigenous knowledge to predict rainfall patterns.

“They will prepare their crops; they will go to the field and things like that. It’s not like that now,” he explained.

He advocated for the need to educate smallholder farmers on climate change-related issues.

“I think awareness is very important,” Dr. Akintunde said.

“Farmers need to get expert advice, they need to be carried along, they need to be made part of the discussions so that they know, like somebody was saying there, some farmers think this is something that will come and go.

 “We need to let them know that it has come to stay and that whatever we are doing now to mitigate or to adapt, we continue with it. It’s not a one-off thing. All stakeholders need to work together.

“Farmers need to be assured that they can still do their farming in other ways. With time, they will get used to this and then they will be able to continue with their production,” Dr Akintunde said.

The ongoing heatwaves have scorched maize crops across the nation, prematurely turning the corn kernels yellow well before the anticipated harvest.

Fighting diseases

On November 9, 2023, Matsoso Katu, a farmer from Ha Katu, planted tomato seedlings and initially, everything seemed promising until the onset of the current heat waves.

“It brings, along with it, diseases,” he explained.

Katu opted to plant his tomatoes in a greenhouse, noting that while greenhouses offer protection from excessive heat, they can also serve as hiding spots for pests during hot weather conditions.

“Tomatoes are particularly vulnerable,” Katu continued. “They are often targeted by a butterfly called duda absoluda. Fortunately, my tomatoes have not been attacked by this pest this year. However, the second challenge is the disease known as blight – a plant disease that rapidly deteriorates plant tissues or leaves. Blight commonly affects tomatoes, potatoes, and beans, initially manifesting as brown patches.”

He explained that there is early and late blight. According to Katu, early blight can be managed with pesticides, giving farmers a fighting chance. However, late blight is much more perilous, Katu elaborated.

“I have heard from fellow farmers that it’s incredibly difficult to treat. I am currently grappling with this challenge,” Katu admitted.

“My tomatoes are in the fruit-bearing stage, but blight has taken hold with full force. The presence of blight means that my tomatoes are nearing the end of their life cycle. It poses a serious challenge for me this season.”

WhatsApp give farmers a fighting chance

Amidst the havoc wrought by climate change across Africa, timely access to information on adaptability becomes crucial for survival.

Over five years ago, the Rural Self-Help Development Association (RSDA) provided smartphones to District Farmers Forums, a collaborative effort among farmers focused on food production for market purposes.

According to RSDA Director, ‘Mampho Thulo, in a recent interview with Uncensored News, the introduction of smartphones facilitated the creation of WhatsApp groups.

Each district now has its own group administered by a designated leader, along with a separate WhatsApp group connecting leaders from all districts.

Thulo elaborated on how these WhatsApp groups function as efficient channels, likening them to cluster bombs that disseminate information to thousands of farmers within minutes.

“If we post in a Botha-Bothe group,” she explained, “members share the information with their resource groups and associations, ensuring rapid dissemination to a broader audience. Each group typically comprises between 100 and 200 members, allowing for swift feedback.”

She emphasised how these groups foster camaraderie among rural farmers by facilitating networking and information-sharing. “This strengthens friendships and connections,” Thulo explained.

Katu is actively engaged in these WhatsApp groups. “It’s incredibly valuable to us because it allows us to connect with our colleagues in different districts,” he explained.

“They inform us about how this challenge is affecting them, and sometimes they even offer helpful ideas on how to overcome it. We can then apply these strategies in our own areas.”

Sorghum: A climate-resilient crop

Amidst the sweltering rays, Katu strolled from church to his house in Ha Katu, Maseru. With each step, Katu marvelled at the steadfast resilience of the sorghum standing gracefully under the relentless sun in Koro-Koro.

This sight stirred memories of a 2019 warning by RSDA Director, ‘Mampho Thulo, urging Lesotho farmers to shift agricultural practices from predominantly growing maize to cultivating sorghum as a primary food source.

“I believe it was about three Sundays ago when I walked from church to my house. Along the way, I noticed about four fields of sorghum, unaffected by the relentless heatwave that has nearly decimated our maize crops,” Katu told Uncensored News in a telephonic interview.

He said: “This triggered old memories of ‘m’e Mathulo (Mampho Thulo) telling farmers about a study that warned that in 2030, growing maize in Lesotho will no longer be possible.”

When Thulo shared this with rural farmers, Katu remarked that the year 2030 seemed distant. However, witnessing the current state of maize crops, Katu now believes that 2030 may not be so distant after all.

“Sorghum has remained unaffected by this heat, unlike maize,” Katu remarked, expressing envy as he passed through the sorghum fields at Ha Rantsetse. “What’s happening with the maize crop is a national crisis.”

Although Katu doesn’t plan to immediately transition from maize to sorghum cropping, he intends to allocate a portion of his field to sorghum planting in the upcoming farming season starting in August.

“Maize is our staple food, so I won’t completely stop planting it,” Katu explained. “I’ll incorporate sorghum into my crops next season, alongside maize. Farming is tough and risky, but passion is essential,” he concluded.

As impacts of climate change are hard felt, RSDA encourages farmers to look at type of seedlings that can withstand effects of climate change. Sorghum, Thulo explained, is one of the climate resilient crops.

“The sorghum roots go really deep under the ground to collect moisture and, sorghum survives all weather conditions – flooding, drought and hailstorm. Additionally, we are looking at plants that can be ploughed twice a year like beans.

“Beans can be ploughed in August and January, that means you will harvest twice a year but during difficult times, a farmer will harvest once a year but one cannot harvest maize during difficult times,” Thulo said.

The Climate Resilient Agriculture Production Programme is a joint initiative between the governments of Lesotho and Botswana. It aims to conduct a climate risk assessment of sustainable agriculture and climate-smart agriculture (CSA) practices in both countries.

The program examines best practices from both nations, utilising the sorghum value chain as a reference case when needed. Funded by GIZ, the program is implemented by the Rural Self-Help Development Association (RSDA).

“Climate Risk Assessment: Botswana and Lesotho” a 2019 study born out of this project, indicated that though maize production is highly productive when rainfall is abundant, is very sensitive to drought.

“It is anticipated that the landrace varieties and more nutritious sorghum may do better under erratic rainfall regimes,” read the report.

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