The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has completed a historic purchase by buying maize directly from a group of small-scale farmers in Lesotho, the first ever direct purchase in that country. The farmer produced a surplus despite the country's worst drought in 30 years by using conservation farming techniques.

"This is a win-win situation," said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran, speaking from the agency's Rome Headquarters. "It helps provide income for small-scale farmers while saving money for WFP."

The maize will help feed thousands of poor, hungry children attending nearby primary schools in the isolated and impoverished district of Qacha's Nek. The children will continue to receive nutritious meals in class every day, while WFP actually saves US$45 per ton by buying in Qacha's Nek rather than in neighbouring South Africa.

"WFP is committed to buying locally whenever possible because - as this historic deal proves - even a small purchase can have a huge impact on the lives of small-scale farmers," said Sheeran.

WFP paid the 20 semi-subsistence farmers from Qacha's Nek around US$2,800 for eight metric tons of their maze-a sizeable sum in a country where more than a third of the population lives on less than US$1 a day.

Sheeran said WFP is also helping to stimulate the local agricultural economy by providing market access to farmers in an isolated area, giving them a real incentive to grow as much maize as possible.

Unlike their neighbours in Qacha's Nek and the majority of farmers countrywide, these 20 families followed conservation farming methods and were able to produce a surplus despite an unprecedented spell of hot, dry weather between January and March, which devastated the maize crop across the country. The farmers, including two orphans, learned about conservation farming through a WFP-assisted food-for-training programme.

With support from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Ministry of Agriculture and the Growing Nations of the Evangelical Church of Lesotho, a total of around 1,800 farmers across Lesotho have been taught the advantages of conservation farming, which include increased yields and decreased environmental degradation.

"While the rest of the country battled to grow anything during the devastating drought, these farmers have produced a surplus thanks to conservation farming," said Lesole Mokoma, Lesotho's Minister of Agriculture and Food Security. "It is clear that we need to expand the use of conservation farming techniques to help Lesotho reverse the continuing decline in cereal production, the increasing rate of soil erosion and the worrying rise in food insecurity."

The Government of Lesotho declared a state of emergency on 9 July following the worst drought in three decades that largely destroyed the annual maize and sorghum harvests.

The reports of a FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission and the Lesotho Vulnerability Assessment Committee survey estimate that around 400,000 people need immediate humanitarian assistance - a figure that could rise to 550,000 during the peak of the crisis in the first three months of 2008.

The current situation has been exacerbated by successive crop failures, severe poverty, chronic hunger and the impact of the world's third highest rate of HIV/AIDS - estimated at 22 percent of the adult population.

WFP plans to distribute food to about 260,000 vulnerable people in Lesotho from now until the next maize harvest in April 2008. The government and other humanitarian organizations are aiming to reach the remaining people in need of assistance.

"WFP's primary role is to ensure that people facing severe food shortages receive enough food to keep them healthy and alive until the next harvest," said Sheeran. "However, WFP also has a crucial role to play in boosting local agricultural production by promoting conservation farming and by expanding our local purchasing programme."

In 2007, WFP has so far bought 7,000 tons of food in Lesotho at a cost of US$2.3 million.

WFP has bought an added 224,000 tons of food, valued at US$55.7 million, from other southern African countries up until the end of August 2007, including Malawi (78,000 tons; US$16 million), Zambia (57,000 tons; US$12.7 million), South Africa (42,000 tons; US$10 million), Mozambique (38,000 tons; US$9.3 million), and Namibia (9,000 tons; US$3.4 million).

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: on average, each year, we give food to 90 million poor people to meet their nutritional needs, including 58 million hungry children, in 80 of the world's poorest countries. WFP - We Feed People.


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