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A farming system for the mountains

The development of a particular farming system, especially designed for the hard conditions of the mountainous country of Lesotho, called “Kingdom in the Sky”, is proving to be successful in achieving food security and reducing poverty amongst rural communities.


10 / 2006

Lesotho, a mountain farming country

Lesotho is a small country in Southern Africa, completely surrounded by South Africa. It has a population of less than two million, with 49% living below the poverty line. 86% of Lesotho’s labour force is engaged in subsistence agriculture, and the majority of the small scale farmers are poor. About 30% of rural people live in extreme poverty.

Approximately 80% of the country is mountainous; the population of the foothills (plateaus) and highlands are significantly poorer than in other parts of the country. The primary cause for this is soil erosion, caused by over-grazing and bad land husbandry, which have lead to low agricultural productivity and food insecurity.

The Machobane Farming System has been especially designed for these conditions. The techniques it promotes are becoming more and more popular amongst rural communities in the country. This system has been proven to provide food security and income to farmers practising it. Stephen Ralitsoele, a retired plant pathologist, is the Director of the Machobane Agricultural Development Foundation, which is in charge of spreading the philosophy of the farming method.

Migration, land degradation and poverty in the mountains

Lesotho, as a small landlocked country, has strong economic dependence from its large neighbour. As such, Lesotho was a net exporter of human labour into the South African mines and industry in the past. This had a large impact upon mountain communities, as the migration of the male working force left females in charge of labour in households and fields. The lack of resources and the inappropriate farming techniques, such as monoculture, resulted in declining yields and therefore, food insecurity for many families in the mountains.

The increase in the density of livestock is causing land degradation all over the country due to the over-grazing of pasture. Over-grazing coupled with deforestation for firewood, has lead to severe erosion and associated loss of soil fertility. The result has been a great reduction of land available for agriculture. In a country with more than 80% of the population reliant on subsistence agriculture, this is having a large social and economic impact.

The particular situation in the mountains gets aggravating for the isolation of communities. Inherently poor communication and transport infrastructure make it more difficult for advice and extension agents to reach them. Then, people in the mountain remain unaware of alternative management techniques which could improve the fertility of their land and their food security.

A farming system to maximize the use of the available resources

The Machobane Farming System was developed by Dr J.J. Machobane in the 1970s, after 13 years research on the agriculture management techniques that Basoto smallholder farmers were using. The aim was to provide resource to poor farmers with a sustainable system that did not require expensive inputs, easy to implement, and supplied them with food all year around.

The Machobane System not only proposes a change in farming techniques, but demands a certain conduct from the farmers who want to engage in it. The philosophy and conditions required are based on: self-reliance without external assistance, appreciation of their own resources available, readiness to work hard, practical learning and teaching on the field and teaching other neighbour farmers for spreading the technology.

The System promotes organic fertilisers such as animal manure, ashes and organic waste, mixed in different proportions depending of the crop, to build and maintain soil fertility. It insists on having at least one animal in the household, which provides manure and food (milk, eggs, meat). It is important to reduce the number of animals grazing in the mountains, and better to have fewer animals of better quality and stronger; for this, the system recommends to have improved local breeds, rather than imported ones, which need more inputs and are less adapted to conditions in Lesotho.

A central aim of the approach is to produce crops along the year. Traditional farming in Lesotho only considers three months for growing crops, and it focuses on mono-cultures of maize, wheat or potatoes. Machobane System uses crop rotation, inter-cropping (mixing different crops) and rely-cropping (planting the same crop at different times, so is harvested at different times). It introduces species and varieties, adapted to different weather conditions, such as winter wheat, peas and carrots. This way, even a small garden can supply a family’s food throughout the year, the soil is covered with crops all the time, reducing erosion. The Machobane System also promotes cash crops, such as potatoes. In the mountains of Lesotho the conditions are excellent for this crop and, also, for the production of potato seeds of very high quality which, if certified and sold internationally, could raise incomes for mountain farmers.

The farming system designed by Machobane is labour intensive requiring labour input all along the year. The difference with the conventional system is that the work required is not as hard, it is closer to the household, and the animals are stronger to do labour on the field like ploughing. This eases the work of women in charge of the field work.

The value of the system has been recognised for achieving food security and poverty reduction.

It has only been in recent years that some development agencies and the Lesotho government are introducing this system in their programmes. An example is the “Sustainable Agricultural Development Programme for the Mountain Areas”, funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) ten years ago. This programme was implemented by the Lesotho Government, who contracted the Machobane Agricultural Development Foundation to spread their farming system amongst farmers in the three main mountain areas of the country: Mokhotlong, Thaba Tseka and Qachas’nek. The Machobane Foundation was chosen for the appropriateness of the system for the conditions in the mountains; and because their staff works directly on the ground in the mountains, so the Programme could use this infrastructure already in place. Also, the government extension officers were trained on the farming system.

Today, the Machobane Foundation continues its task of promoting this particular farming approach and making it accessible to smallholder farmers. In 2006 the Foundation has published a training manual on the practices of the Machobane System, and they have started networking with other countries to adapt the system to different conditions, so farmers from other Southern African countries can benefit from it.

Empowering mountain people to take part in local government

Recently introduced local government policies could be advantageous for mountain people. Indeed, the services provided by the government will be closer to them. The people in the local government being from the area, they will have more influence on polices that affect them. The duty of the NGOs and other organizations now is to take advantage of this policy and train the people in the mountain, the farmers, in administration and self-government, so they are empowered to take part in the local government and develop strategies that come from and are for the mountain communities. Mountain people must know how to run their own affairs, how to speak the language of the government and be able to interact with them.


agriculture durable, dégradation des sols, sécurité alimentaire, lutte contre la pauvreté, diversification des productions, fertilisation du sol, montagne

, Lesotho, Maseru


Les peuples de montagne dans le monde


A balance between the preservation of traditions and resources and bringing development to the mountains

The mountains in Lesotho are where you find the real Basotho people practising traditional crop management. There, neighbours will always look after each other, and that is why “there are no hungry people amongst the mountain community”. Mountain people have been left behind by centralised government in terms of development and communication technologies due to remoteness.

The future for the mountains is encouraging if development respects and protects traditions, culture and natural resources. In the Semonkong Mountains, there is an example of a project that has made a flora and fauna reserve, encouraging communities to stay there, with a vision of sustainable tourism development. This example could be replicated in other areas of the country, for the benefit of both, the people and the environment.


This interview has been realized by ALMEDIO Consultores with the support of the Charles-Léopold Mayer Fondation during the regional meeting organised by the World Mountain People Association - APMM.



Interview to Stephen Lepoqo Ralitsoele, Director of the Machobane Agricultural Development Foundation, retired plant pathologist, former Principal of Lesotho’s Agricultural College and former, Director of the Department of Agricultural Research.

The Machobane Agricultural Development Foundation, P.O. Box 17139 Maseru 100, LESOTHO - Phone: \(+266) 63 13 99 67

ALMEDIO - 2, traverse Baussenque, 13002 Marseille, FRANCE Almedio Consultores. Norma 233, Maitencillo. Comuna de Puchuncaví. Va Región, CHILI - Fono: (56)32 277 2231 - Chili - - info (@)

APMM (Association des Populations des Montagnes du Monde) - 50 boulevard Malesherbes, 75008 Paris, FRANCE - Tel:+ – Fax:+ - France - - contact (@)

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