Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Tuesday, 3 June 2008 13:01 UK

Lesotho gardens relieve food crisis

As delegates at the UN food summit in Rome tackle concerns over food production, the BBC's Peter Greste visits Lesotho, one of the countries most at risk from climate change and global food and fuel price rises.

Woman tending her keyhole garden in Lesotho's central highlands
"Keyhole gardens" may have saved Mahaha Mphou's family from starvation

Lesotho's vast highland plains are spectacular places for tourists. Broad and treeless, they offer stunning views of the mountains looming over shimmering gold grasslands.

But they are terrible for farmers.

Decades of intensive agriculture have stripped the land of trees, and exposed soils to wind and rain.

Erosion has created countless miniature canyons that split the plains everywhere you look. The already thin mountain soils have lost virtually all their productive nutrients.

According to the Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, Efraim Lehata, a typical farmer in Lesotho's maize belt would be lucky to squeeze half a tonne of grain from each acre of land.

They should be able to produce more than 14 times that.

Global forces

The minister bemoans the fact that his country, which used to do well out of farm exports to neighbouring South Africa, now depends on food handouts from organisations like the World Food Programme.

He admits that a lot of the blame rests with the country itself. But with a population of about two million, tiny Lesotho is barely the size of Belgium.

The forces now shaping global food prices are way beyond its control.

Lesotho map

"The last summer season, most of our tractors couldn't go to the fields because of the cost of diesel. Now that the price has doubled, we're not expecting any to be able to go," Mr Lehata said. "It is very difficult."

In many respects, Lesotho is a microcosm of the problems facing so many parts of the developing world.

The mountain kingdom in southern Africa sits on a plateau mostly above 1,800 metres altitude, so the growing season is short and its vulnerability to climate change is acute.

With the country struggling with one of the world's highest HIV prevalence rates, many of its able-bodied workers have either died or been crippled by disease.

And in what is one of the poorest states in Africa, even the slightest increase in the cost of food or commodities hits painfully hard.

Keyhole gardens

But Lesotho cannot wait for the UN food summit in Rome to come up with ideas, so it has developed some of its own.

Family tend their keyhole garden in Lesotho's central highlands
(Mahaha's family) has three keyhole gardens and that's more than enough to supply all 10 of them with all the vegetables they need, and with some left over to sell - it's changed their lives
Ntsie Tlali, Care
Mahaha Mphou does not know much about global economics, but she does know how to grow vegetables.

She and the rest of her family of 10 have become some of the most enthusiastic evangelists for a home-grown idea that has almost certainly saved them from starvation.

They are now thriving on what have become known as "keyhole gardens". They are round gardens of about two metres in diameter and raised to waist-height to make them easy for the sick and elderly to work.

Inside, the garden-beds are layered with tin cans, mulch and ash which together provide the nutrients to make the gardens extraordinarily productive.

Ntsie Tlali from Care, the non-governmental organisation behind the gardens, believes they are revolutionary.

Women tending corn in Lesotho's central highlands
Lesotho sits on a high plateau and has a short growing season

"As you can see, (Mahaha's family) has three keyhole gardens and that's more than enough to supply all 10 of them with all the vegetables they need, and with some left over to sell. It's changed their lives."

Because they are protected by the stonework, the rich soils are safe from erosion.

They retain moisture far more effectively than land farmed by traditional farming methods, and they are compact enough to turn the tiniest plot of land into productive agriculture.

'Food is life'

Mahaha says they have also transformed the family's diet: "We're growing so many things, from beetroot to spinach, onions, tomatoes, carrots - everything."

Mr Lehata acknowledged that the gardens alone will not transform Lesotho, "but we've been really surprised by just how well they've worked," he said.

"We expected them to disappear after half a season, but you can see that although we have such cold winters, they are productive all year round. It's been really helpful to our people."

Even so, the one thing the minister wants from the Rome summit is urgent action on the cost of basic farm supplies like fuel, seed and fertiliser.

"Food is life," he said. "If we can't afford that, we're finished."

UN sets out food crisis measures
03 Jun 08 |  Special Reports
Country profile: Lesotho
06 Feb 08 |  Country profiles

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