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Country profile - Lesotho


The Kingdom of Lesotho is a small landlocked nation with the distinction of being situated within the borders of South Africa. Due to its high elevation and mountainous landscape Lesotho has been dubbed 'The Kingdom in the Sky'. However, the unforgiving terrain means that only ten per cent of the land can be cultivated, making farming incredibly challenging. Despite these challenges, the government believes agriculture plays a major part in the fight against poverty.


Although the majority of Lesotho's population engage in subsistence farming, almost one-quarter are dependent on food aid and 70 per cent live below the poverty line. Maize, wheat, pulses, sorghum and barley are the primary crops grown but less than 30 per cent of the country's needs are met through cereal production compared to 80 per cent in 1980. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), declining agricultural production - caused by severe land degradation, reliance on rainfed agriculture and unfavourable weather conditions - is one of the principle causes of poverty in rural areas. A lack of investment in agriculture and a lack of income-generating activities are also major challenges.

Lesotho has been dubbed 'The Kingdom in the Sky' (© FAO/Gianluigi Guercia)
Lesotho has been dubbed 'The Kingdom in the Sky'
© FAO/Gianluigi Guercia

Livestock productivity has also declined, as has the proportion of households who own livestock. Theft of stock and degradation of pastures through overstocking and uncontrolled grazing have been identified as contributing factors. Rearing livestock - sheep, goats and cattle - is generally a subsistence activity.

Fewer than five per cent of households currently produce enough food to feed their families, making them very vulnerable to rising food prices. Lesotho imports 70 per cent of its annual food consumption, therefore soaring prices and the global economic downturn have hit Lesotho hard. Farmers have also been affected by the rising cost of seeds and fertilisers, forcing many to leave their land fallow. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the cost of planting crops rose by more than four times in 2009 as the price of seed and fertiliser rose.

With falling agricultural production, remittances from migrant workers have been vital to the strength of the economy. During the 1990's, remittances contributed almost 70 per cent of the country's GDP. However, a switch towards less labour intensive mining and an economic downturn has seen the number of migrant workers employed in South Africa decline from 125,000 in the 1990s to 35,000 by 2010. The resulting drop in remittances has pushed many households deeper into poverty.

Less than 30% of the country's cereal needs are met through domestic production (© FAO/Gianluigi Guercia)
Less than 30% of the country's cereal needs are met through domestic production
© FAO/Gianluigi Guercia

With the third highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world (23 per cent), average life expectancy in Lesotho has been reduced to 51 years. The disease has left a large proportion of the population unable to work, significantly reducing household income. With so many people affected, most families have to cope with the extra costs of caring for orphans and the sick.

Despite all of its difficulties, Lesotho is almost self sufficient in electricity, due to the multi-billion dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which also generates more than £30 million annually by exporting water to South Africa.

Environmental challenges

A strong and sustainable agriculture sector is vitally important, but farmers are facing severe environmental challenges. Increasingly erratic weather has resulted in a substantial loss of staple food crops. In 2007 Lesotho experienced its worst drought for 30 years and in 2010 heavy rainfall destroyed crops and washed away top soil and much needed nutrients, leaving fields waterlogged and farmers in urgent need of financial aid. As a result, farmers are increasingly switching from maize to sorghum, which is better able to cope with drier conditions.

Long-term soil erosion is also a major problem. Over-grazing of pastures has significantly reduced soil fertility and cultivation of marginal lands has also become common practice. Increasing deforestation has contributed to soil degradation, with trees no longer protecting the soil from erosive rainfall and high winds. According to the UN's Global Forest Resources Assessment, between 1990 and 2010 over 4,000 hectares of primary forest was deforested. However, incentives to encourage forestry activities have been proposed in an attempt to improve sustainable forest management.

Fighting poverty

Most land is underutilised (© FAO/Gianluigi Guercia)
Most land is underutilised
© FAO/Gianluigi Guercia

Although productive land is scarce, most is underutilised and almost half is lying fallow. The government is therefore promoting conservation farming, agro-forestry and organic farming to restore soils and productivity, and ultimately reduce poverty. With greater yields, farmers will need markets, so the government has made a commitment to develop better market linkages and improve infrastructure.

The Ministry of Agriculture is also targeting livestock production by encouraging households to rear chickens and goats, plant fodder trees and improve pasture management. Other key objectives include improving access to inputs, developing irrigation systems, and strengthening extension services.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, the European Union and FAO are also working to assist Lesotho's farmers by providing seed, fertiliser and tools. Some are also being trained in conservation agriculture and certified seed production. FAO has estimated that this assistance to over 36,000 farmers will lead to an additional 7,300 hectares of land under production and an extra 10-18,000 tonnes of crops harvested by the end of 2011.

Clearly, Lesotho's farmers face multiple constraints and external assistance will be needed in the foreseeable future. But Basotho farmers - women and men - are industrious and, if they can respond to the assistance of NGOs and the promised, new governmental initiatives, they will significantly strengthen food security for themselves and their mountain kingdom.

Statistical information
  • Country: Kingdom of Lesotho
  • Capital: Maseru
  • Area: 30,355 sq km
  • Population: 1,924,886 (July 2011 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 0.3% (2011 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 52 (2011 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: Sotho 99.7%, Europeans, Asians, and other 0.3%
  • Languages: Sesothos (official), English (official), Zulu, Xhosa
  • Inflation: 3.6% (2010 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$3.3 billion (2010 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$1,700 (2010 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 8.4%; industry: 33.9%; services: 57.7% (2010 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 10.87%; permanent crops: 0.13%; other: 89% (2005)
  • Major industries: food, beverages, textiles, apparel assembly, handicrafts, construction, tourism
  • Agricultural products: maize, wheat, pulses, sorghum, barley, livestock
  • Natural resources: water, agricultural and grazing land, diamonds, sand, clay, building stone
  • Export commodities: clothing, footwear, road vehicles, wool and mohair, food and live animals

Date published: October 2011


Have your say

My proposal to the farming fraternity in Lesotho. They shoul... (posted by: AUGUSTINE KGANAKGA)

What are the effects of livestock reduction in Lesotho? (posted by: LIBUSENG TANKA)


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