The Lesotho Parliament has agreed to scrap a controversial ban on the export of locally produced wool and mohair – but there is no end in sight to the woes of the country’s 40 000 mainly poor producers
The decision by MPs followed a sustained campaign by farmers, their association and opposition parties, alleging that the ban served a small group of politicians but had devastated the industry.
After an investigation, a National Assembly ad hoc committee decided that a section of the wool and mohair agricultural marketing regulations of 2018, prohibiting export, should be amended.
Worth M800 million, wool and mohair, in the hands of small holder farmers, is a major factor in injecting cash into rural communities and addressing poverty in Lesotho and is the fourth biggest industry after water, diamonds and textiles and garments.
However, Lerata Pekane, the principal secretary of small business, cooperatives and marketing, confirmed to the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism that the regulations decried as draconian by farmers “still stand”.
He explained: “Government, in line with the parliamentary decision, has requested that the regulations be reformulated to allow people to sell wool and mohair to the places of their choice.”
The ban would only be legally reversed once the amendment has been passed.
“An amendment has been drafted and discussed with parliament and will go through normal drafting procedures, parliamentary counsel and so on,” he said.
The farmers may eventually try to reinstate Port Elizabeth-based BKB, which was their broker of choice over 40 years.
This prohibition of export resulted in the disturbance of the 40 year relationship between the farmers and their preferred broker, BKB.
BKB’s general manager Isak Staats has told the centre his company is ready to resume doing business with the farmers.
But the shearing season is already under way and time has run out for a quick solution, meaning that for the second year in a row, payment will be delayed.
Their only immediate hope, newly licensed broker Maluti Wool and Mohair Centre, had farmers worried after its recent mohair auction, as payments were stalled.
Maluti’s second auction, targeting wool, has been delayed until mid-December.
Farmers say the company, based in Masianokeng, suffers from inadequate systems and a lack of warehousing space.
The controversial wool and mohair sale localisation policy, adopted last year, saw Chinese national Stone Shi’s Maseru Dawning Trading become the only brokerage company licensed to sell Lesotho’s wool and mohair.
However, Shi failed to pay farmers on time, apparently because of a lack of an adequate payment system. The Minister of Small Business, Cooperatives and Marketing, Chalane Phori conceded that 584 were still owed M4.4-million.
Shi could not be contacted for comment.
The regulations imposed on farmers by minister Phori, stated that “a holder of an export licence shall not export wool and mohair unless it is prepared, brokered, and traded and auctioned in Lesotho”.
The parliamentary decision forcing Phori and his officials to go back to the drawing board followed a protracted campaign by the 40 000-member Lesotho National Wool and Mohair Farmers Association.
The association staged a lengthy media campaign, petitioned parliament in May, boycotted Shi’s company and only backed down when government threatened to use police to force farmers to hand over their wool and mohair to Maseru Dawning.
The International Wool Textile Organisation and other international bodies, including diplomatic missions that include US embassy Maseru and Delegation of the European Union in Maseru, were asked to intervene and urge Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s government to reverse the localisation policy.
Association chairperson Mokoenehi Thinyane condemned the policy as being intended to “enrich Shi [and] a corrupt politicians’ cabal, and impoverish farmers”.
Phori has rejected Thinyane’s claims as false and misguided, saying his intentions had been been to ensure that Lesotho and its farmers earn more from wool and mohair sales.
Mataelo Seokho, a wool and mohair farmer and member of the Qoaling Wool Shed told MNN in an interview there is much uncertainty among farmers since the first auction facilitated by the Maluti Wool and Mohair Centre with the help of South African broker BKB.
“Only one auction has been held, and when we used to sell our produce through South African brokers like BKB we would have received the proceeds by now.
“We would have sheared our sheep in August and received our money from December until end of January.”
Seokho also complained the Maluti Wool and Mohair Centre does not have adequate bulk storage to facilitate the proper inspection, testing, cataloguing and auction of wool and mohair from the thousands of farmers who have turned to it.
“We’ve been told that the national association is working hard to find space for all our wool,” she said.
She said the Maluti Wool and Mohair Centre’s director, Lehlohonolo Matee, promised farmers what was due to them within 21 days of the mohair auction.
However, this had not happened. Seokho had told them that some people had not provided confirmation of their bank details, making it hard for payments to be effected.
“We were told that if a wool shed has 72 farmers registered and one of them has not delivered their bank confirmation, then everyone will suffer a delay in payment,” he said.
Attempts to get comment from Matee failed. Questions sent by email over a month ago were not answered and a request for telephonic interviews was denied.
However, Maluti Wool and Mohair Centre shareholder Thato Ponya confirmed the company faced hurdles in processing payments to farmers who auctioned their mohair through it in October.
“We are waiting for Post Bank to make payments to the farmers. But the challenge has been that 85% were found not to have active bank accounts,” Ponya said.
“The bank offered the use of its mobile money transfer system. This would have been quicker but carried risks, such as the possibility of children accessing their parents phones and making withdrawals without their knowledge. Most rural people depend on their children when using mobile technology.
“So we’re working on ensuring that all farmers have bank accounts and that the bank will not deactivate their accounts if they don’t have money,” said Ponya.
He also said South African brokers were able to pay farmers quickly as they had built up a database for the payment of the farmers over time.
Ponya said the company expected to start auctioning wool in the second week of December, by which time all mohair farmers would have been paid for their produce.
A local wool and mohair trader and veterinary doctor, Mohlalefi Moteane applauded parliament’s decision to repeal the ban on exports.
Moteane said Phori and his officials licensed local brokers but failed to ensure there was the required 9 000 square meter operating space, sampling equipment, a data collection system, and wool and mohair handling equipment