Lesotho: Declining crop production sparks food crisis

Mamatsuri with two of her five children. A widow, she has not been able to gather a harvest for two years.

Lesotho is facing a serious food crisis. Due to a series of floods, late rains, and early frost, more than 725,000 people – one-third of the population – will be short of food. Agricultural production has dropped 70%, resulting in Lesotho’s worst harvest in 10 years.  

“Crop production has declined during six of the last seven years,” said Michelle Carter, Country Director for CARE Lesotho. “People’s reserves and safety nets have been exhausted, and with another poor harvest the situation has become an emergency.”

No income

Mamatsuri Mamatsuri, a 33-year-old widow, was not able to harvest this or last year. Currently she has no food in reserve. Her family’s only income is the settlement money she receives from a neighbour who was found guilty after killing her only horse. This provides just enough to feed her children, but the settlement payments will end next month. That will leave Mamatsuri with no income – and four months until the next harvest.

Like Mamatsuri without her settlement payments, most of Lesotho’s farmers are subsistence farmers. They rely on what they grow as their main source of food. This year, however, domestic agriculture will meet only 10% of Lesotho’s cereal needs. The country is dependent on imported food, but many are unable to afford it.

Among poor households incomes have fallen over 30% in the last year. The poor harvest has meant little demand for hired labour on the larger farms. During this same period food prices have been rising, causing further problems for poor families.

Malnutrition, HIV and AIDS

Chronic malnutrition is already extremely high in Lesotho. More than one in three children under five are stunted (short for their age due to poor nutrition). The current food crisis has the potential to increase this, especially among very young children.

Almost a quarter of people in Lesotho are living with HIV. Food shortages – and the shortage of adequately nutritious food – have especially negative consequences for these people, as their medicines may not work properly. This can mean that they are less able to earn a living and pay for food. People living with HIV may be forced to make choices between feeding themselves and their families and continuing with life-saving medications.

Sex trafficking risk

Emergencies like this one can push families towards dangerous coping mechanisms which can place women and children particularly at risk. In Lesotho this could include withdrawing young boys from school, and sending them to work in distant communities, trafficking girls and women to South Africa to work as labourers or sex workers, and increased pressure on women and girls to engage in sex work or transactional sex, which also puts them at increased risk of HIV.   

Lesotho is a very small country, and media and humanitarian attention has been slow to arrive - perhaps in part due to the focus on high-profile crises in the Horn of Africa and across the Sahel. While these large crises require a great deal of attention, there is a risk that countries like Lesotho and families like Mamatsuri’s may be overlooked.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.