Her promotion to the top job in Lesotho’s Smallholder Agriculture Development Project (SADP II) raised eyebrows and questions, especially after the job requirements were lowered to suit her qualification and experience.
‘Malichaba Nkhethoa started working at the SADP in 2014 as a deputy competitive grant officer, and has risen steadily up the ranks. In 2020 she was made a matching grants manager after positions at the SADP were restructured under circumstances that some staff questioned. She then enjoyed a short stint as acting director from April 2021 before being officially crowned director in December the same year.
Colleagues remember how, towards the end of 2020, while she was still an officer, Nkhethoa could not afford to pay a shared lawyer who was engaged to help with their reinstatement.
“I felt sorry for her and helped her out with the M1,000 share of the bill, you could see she was stranded,” an anonymous source inside the SADP told MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism.
Circumstances improved for Nkhethoa in 2021 when she started acting as SADP director following the resignation of Retšelisitsoe Pheko. A few months later, she was officially appointed director.
Job requirements re-written
In 2021, the ministry of agriculture placed two advertisements in local newspapers for the position of SADP director, the Sunday Express on 14 March and The Post on 18 March.
This advertisement stated that applicants were required to have a master’s degree in a relevant field as well as 10 years professional experience, including five years at a senior management level. [see below]
Nkhethoa, who was acting as director at the time did not meet these requirements. She was enrolled for a master’s degree at the National University of Lesotho and she did not have the required experience. MNN understands from sources in the SADP that there were applicants with the required qualifications.
A week later, however, the original advert for the position was withdrawn with the ministry of agriculture stating that it “unreservedly renders its apology for the inconvenience caused as a result”. The withdrawal advertisement was placed in the Sunday Express issue on 28 March and 3 April 2021. [see below]
MNN sources in the SADP told MNN that the advertisement was allegedly withdrawn so that the requirements could be adjusted to make Nkhethoa eligible. Revised adverts for the position appeared in newspapers from 10-16 June. [see below]
The new adverts for the position of SADP director required applicants to have either a master’s degree with a minimum of five years in project management and three years in a donor-funded project or “a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of seven years’ experience in project management and at least five years of specific experience in a donor-funded project”.
While MNN cannot confirm that the changes in requirements were made so Nkhethoa could apply, it can confirm that Nkhethoa was not qualified for the position when the original advertisement was posted. MNN can also confirm that Nkhethoa had exactly seven years of experience in 2021 when she was acting director, which exactly matches the experience required by the revised advertisement.
When MNN questioned Nkhethoa about her appointment, she responded saying that she had the required seven years’ experience working for the SADP: “I have been working for the ministry of agriculture under the SADP project since 2014,” she said.
Tefo Mapesela, who headed up the agriculture ministry at the time, told MNN that the principal secretary in the ministry, Nchakha Makara, recommended Nkhethoa for the position of acting director.
Makara declined to comment when given the opportunity to explain why he had recommended Nkhethoa and why the qualifications were modified in her favour for the director position.
MNN has also learned that the panel that recommended Nkhethoa’s appointment was made up of the director of human resources and politicians from the All Basotho Convention, including Makara, former cabinet principal secretary, Kabelo Lehora and principal secretary of forestry, Kamoho Matlama.
Matlama told MNN that he was appointed by the ministry to assist with the recruitment process, describing it as nothing new. When asked if Makara was the one who had specifically asked him to help, Matlama asked why Makara was being brought into the mix.
Matlama ended the interview with MNN saying he felt he was being interrogated. He asked that MNN set an appointment to discuss the matter in person at a later stage. MNN agreed and asked about Matlama’s availability, but he vaguely said “we will see”. In spite of numerous attempts to take the conversation up again with Matlama and in spite of explanations that the story would soon be ready to publish, he has yet to respond.
Lehora also said it was not unusual for principal secretaries to ask for assistance for such processes, indicating that he and Matlama were the only ones available at the time. He said they were invited onto the panel because “the director position is quite senior”. Lehora said he could not remember the appointment process in detail as it was a long time ago, but recalled the director of human resources Mphahla Metsing was present.
Although Metsing attended, sources told MNN that she did not play an active role as an integral part of the recruitment process, as Lehora put it “she was present indeed as she had ensured that the panel had water”. MNN could not trace Metsing as she has been moved to a new portfolio in a different ministry.
“I cannot remember exactly which candidate had a master’s degree and who had a first degree among the three or four we interviewed, but I do remember that we made it a point to assess each individual’s qualifications as they entered,” Lehora explained, and then told MNN that he could not remember the required qualifications for the position.
Lehora says he and Makara had not been close outside of work which, in his view, indicated that Makara would not have told him to appoint a specific candidate.
In stark contrast to the politicians that made up the Nkhethoa appointment panel, the panel that appointed her predecessor (Pheko) as SADP director included the director of human resources, director of livestock services, the director of planning and policy analysis, the director of field services and a Lesotho National Farmers Union representative.
Makara ignored numerous attempts to give him his right of reply, neither answering calls nor questions sent via WhatsApp. The MNN team went to his home in vain. No amount of calling from the gate and the car hooter was enough to get a response.
When he finally answered his phone, Makara quickly hung up after accusing the MNN team of “writing allegations about him without his consent”. At this point, MNN had not published any story involving Makara, the only written form were questions sent to Nkhethoa via email weeks earlier.
On MNN’s second successful attempt to talk to him, Makara said he should not be contacted directly, saying “we will meet elsewhere” before ending the call.
Nkhethoa, on the other hand, said she needed authorisation from her employer to provide evidence of her qualifications and the recruitment process that led to her appointment.
The lavish lifestyle that Nkhethoa enjoys has raised questions about how she finances it all on a senior civil servant salary. While she has confirmed that it is her salary and budgeting that pays for the assets and lifestyle enjoyed by the family, MNN was unable to establish what her annual salary is.
Although the SADP is overseen by the ministry of agriculture, which is an institution financed by taxes and donor funds, there is no public record of salaries earned by officials. MNN was able to establish however that director positions in Lesotho’s civil service earn around M70 000 a month.
As a deputy competitive grants officer, Nkhethoa rented a duplex in one of Maseru’s townships and drove a Volkswagen Golf. Within a year of being in her new post as director, Nkhethoa bought a big house in Maseru and upgraded her car, adding to her collection an Audi A3, a Volvo and a Toyota Fortuner. [see below]
Nkhethoa, now known for her designer clothes and accessories, lives between Khubetsoana in Lesotho and Waterkloof, Rustenburg in South Africa. While her friends have told MNN that she owns the house in a security estate in Rustenburg, MNN could not establish this as fact and could not establish what her husband does for a living. MNN can, however, confirm that she lives in a house on the estate with her husband and children. The children attend a private school in the area. MNN visited the security estate in Rustenburg and saw the property in question. [see below]
The estate’s website shows that a house with similar specifications to the one Nkhethoa lives in costs M2.3 million. MNN posed as a buyer and contacted an estate agent working in that area. The agent asked MNN for a pre-approval/pre-qualification certificate to determine how much it qualified for to purchase a house. MNN was also asked for sources of income, to match income against expenses and for a credit score before taking the inquiry further.
In response to questions about her lifestyle, Nkhethoa told MNN that she finances the family lifestyle and said her vehicle, house and children’s school fees are paid for directly from her bank account as “my current salary and good budgeting skills are able to accommodate them”.
Those closest to her have been told “this is all me, I pay for all this”.
MNN has exposed how Nkhethoa ran a fraudulent get-rich-quick scheme from her SADP office using donor funds to enrich her friends, leaving farmers little chance to benefit from the grant funding and unable to grow their businesses.
A report by an anonymous group of SADP workers, noted misuse of SADP vehicles which are allegedly used for the director’s personal trips. For example, one of the SADP vehicles with SADP stickers still intact, was seen running personal errands in Rustenburg. The vehicle is allegedly used by Nkhethoa to transport her friends and family between Maseru and Rustenburg. When asked if this was part of her official perks as director, Nkhethoa said that she needed authorisation from her employer to disclose her employment benefits and which policies allow them.
While sources at the SADP share experiences of the parties that Nkhethoa regularly hosts at her private residence, her friends have told MNN how she brags about spending thousands at restaurants with her husband.
Thanks to these reports as well as official complaints lodged against Nkhethoa by SADP employees as well as the farmers who are supposed to benefit from the SADP grants, the donors who fund the SADP, including the World Bank and Japanese government are starting to ask some questions. These may be difficult for Nkhethoa to answer, especially as it seems that the political protection she may have enjoyed in Lesotho seems not to be there anymore. See MNN story.