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Lesotho drough wool
Moholei at his home stead. At his back is sheep kraal and corrugated sheets-turned drinking points. Photo: Moorosi Tsiane.

Lesotho’s wool industry: a rare success amid climate pressures

Tšeliso Moholei joined the wool industry back in 2001. He received his first four sheep as his daughter’s bride price. He lives in Ha Motemekoane home, about 35 kilometres south of Lesotho’s capital Maseru. “I noticed that one could make a good life for his family selling wool,” Moholei said. 

Climate change is a big threat to Lesotho’s wool industry, as El Niño-induced droughts are a daily struggle. Because of this, wool farmers have trouble obtaining food for their livestock. 

Today, Moholei is one of the estimated 40,000 Lesotho wool and mohair farmers depending on rangelands to feed their livestock.

Lesotho, an enclave of South Africa, is the world’s second and fifth producer of mohair and wool respectively. Despite the effects of climate change, the nation produces around 14 percent of the world’s mohair, according to the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD).

The climate-smart section of the Wool and Mohair Promotion Project (WAMPP) introduced by the government and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in 2017 has successfully taught Lesotho farmers about rehabilitating degraded rangelands and holistic grazing.

Severe droughts

Moholei’s family entirely depends on wool farming for living. As he pours water in the drinking points for the return of his 62 sheep from the fields, he laments: “It has not been raining for months.”

“The biggest challenge for me is climate change. The land is very dry and there is no green grass for my sheep to feed on,” Moholei continues.

The farmer bemoans massive soil erosion caused by flooding when it rains. According to Moholei, farmers have no choice but to overgraze degraded rangelands.

“They don’t produce quality wool if they don’t eat well, so droughts and erosion negatively affect profits.” Indeed, according to Moholei, some of his sheep died during extreme drought. 

Lesotho wool drought
Moholei’s Sheep at the grazing fields. Photo: Moorosi Tsiane.

Less than 100 metres away from Moholei’s home lives 49-year-old farmer Mateboho Nkhahle, who owns 41 sheep.

“My husband died in 2018, leaving me behind as the breadwinner. Life was already hard before his death. We were no longer making good money from wool,” she explained. 

According to Nkhahle, their family started experiencing cash flow problems at the end of 2015. “For the first time in our lives, we made less money because our product was as good as in previous years,” Nkhahle stated. 

Nkhahle blamed these issues on climate change. “The year 2015 was the hottest year, there was no grass on the field and we did not have extra money for animal food. We did not foresee a year without rain. Our village was already low on water supply and the dam became almost dry.” 

The Wool and Mohair Promotion Project

Since 2014, Lesotho’s wool and mohair farmers have benefited from the Wool and Mohair Promotion Project (WAMPP), a climate-smart project that assists communities to deal with the difficulties brought by climate change. IFAD designed and partially funded WAMPP.

“The livelihoods of the smallholder producers of merino sheep and angora goats are threatened by degradation of the rangelands and the compounding impact of climate change on this fragile mountain environment,” read the IFAD report that led to the approval of WAMPP by the Lesotho government.

In addition, according to the report, farmers overstock grazelands with sheep and goats by 40 to 80%. Importantly, the overstocking results in decreasing production performance, including poor reproductive rates and low yields of wool or mohair.

“Climate change will make this problem much worse due to increased intensity of rainfall and greater climate variability,” stated the IFAD report.

In 2017, WAMPP introduced Lesotho wool and mohair farmers to climate-smart tools.

WAMPP’s Climate-smart Rangeland Management Manager ‘Matieho Maseka says rangelands are the primary feeders of livestock. She stated that only appropriately-fed animals can produce quality wool and mohair. 

“There are varieties of grasses in virgin rangelands that have all the nutrients that sheep and goats need to produce quality wool and mohair. The grass species that animals love tend to decrease on degraded rangelands. This negatively affects the quality of the wool and mohair,” she explained.

“Rangelands are the lifeline of sheep and goats. Even the best veterinarians in the world will not help livestock produce quality wool if those don’t feed from rich rangelands,” Maseka continued.

In order to ensure that Lesotho rangelands survive the effects of climate change, WAMPP trains farmers on holistic grazing. 

“I use two of my fields to plant food for my sheep, using seedlings from WAMPP. I ensured that only pregnant sheep eat from these fields,” Moholei explained. According to him, this practice has had a positive impact on the quality of the wool.

“WAMPP also advises us on how to best take care of our livestock, including treating the animals with medication when needed.”

Nkhahle agreed: “WAMPP is of great help. I made M16,000 (around US$1,110) of profit this year because the quality of my wool has improved since I started working with WAMPP.”

Lesotho wool drought
Mountain range in Lesotho. Photo: Rudi Von Staden/Flickr.

Animal food supply

In the absence of reliable rainfall, Maseka indicated that  the farmers’ greatest challenges are lack of food and drinking water for their animals. 

“This is why a bigger portion of the project fund tackles these challenges. Farmers’ associations present comprehensive action plans, budgets for support and learn about holistic grazing to rehabilitate and preserve rangelands,” said ‘MatiehoMaseka.  

According to Maseka, “WAMPP provides farmers with seedlings to plant animal food for grazelands rehabilitation.” 

The seedlings allow farmers to have at least a three-month food supply, an appropriate measure to encourage them to stay away from preserved rangelands.

WAMPP encourages farmers to preserve seedlings after harvest for future use, particularly after the project has ended.

“These seedlings not only produce animal foods but also help rehabilitate the soil,” Maseka said. The project teaches farmers not to overgraze rehabilitated rangelands. Allowing the land to recharge helps increase nutritious grass. 

In addition, the project aims to involve farmers in every step. “The idea is that they take ownership of the project as primary beneficiaries,” Maseka pointed out. 

However, Maseka affirmed that some farmers refuse to stay away from preserved rangelands. On the other hand, the parliament passed the current rangelands regulations in the 1980s, and many regard them as outdated.

“Grazing in preserved grazelands presents a big challenge. It is why farmers demand a law that governs rangelands use. This would help us rein in suspected criminals who graze on preserved rangelands,” affirmed Maseka.

“Currently, there is a M2.50 (US$0.17) fine to farmers for each sheep found on preserved rangelands. Therefore, those with money just graze because they can afford to pay,” stated Maseka.

Coming to an end

WAMPP will conclude in June 2022 as scheduled, seven years after its implementation. However, the government plans to discuss a renewal of the project with IFAD.

“While some farmers will feel the pinch,  others will not even notice that WAMPP has ended,” the Climate-smart Rangeland Management Component Manager said. 

The Agriculture and Food Security Minister Likopo Mahase affirmed that the government is happy with the impact that WAMPP has had on the farming industry. 

Mahase added that  Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro is donating merino rams and ewes to herd-boys. This forms part of an effort to encourage all stakeholders to work together in the preservation and rehabilitation of rangelands. 

“Herd-boys are key stakeholders because they deal with rangelands directly and daily. If you don’t have their buy-in, the project will not succeed,” Mahase stated. 

According to Mahase, some projects were delayed because of movement restrictions and an increase in prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Despite COVID-19, Lesotho remains a good lesson for other countries. This project has shown the success story of involving beneficiaries in climate change mitigation strategies.