Cash grants help Lesotho's poorest

"My keyhole garden helps me to grow my veggie seedlings faster," says Matabello Fokotsane (64) with her grandchild Reatile (1). (Photo: Derek Davey)

"My keyhole garden helps me to grow my veggie seedlings faster," says Matabello Fokotsane (64) with her grandchild Reatile (1). (Photo: Derek Davey)

Masheoa Mojela has lost her own three children but takes care of her three grandchildren. Her village in the Makhoarane district is half an hour from Lesotho’s capital Maseru, in a country with extremely high levels of HIV, unemployment and poverty, and her situation is by no means unique. However, she receives a cash grant that helps her feed and buy school uniforms for the children.

Mojela’s household benefits from the Lesotho Child Grants Programme (CGP), an unconditional programme that is now delivering a predictable quarterly cash transfer with education and health benefits to over 26 000 households across the mountain kingdom, reaching about 80 000 children below the age of 18. Over 350 000 Basotho children are orphaned — almost 20% of the population — of whom 125 000 are considered to be vulnerable, and many of whom are cared for by older siblings or ailing grandparents.

The CGP is run by the ministry of social development, with financial support from the European Union (EU) and technical support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The EU and UNICEF began with the grant system in 2007, with the Lesotho government assuming full responsibility for the rollout of the programme in 2013.

The grants vary in size between 360 and 750 Maloti (1 Loti = 1 Rand), depending on the number of children per household. The money only covers a fraction of each family’s needs, but it does help to cover the hidden costs of education such as school uniforms, shoes and transport, and provides a measure of stability to those living on or below the poverty line.

Beneficiaries are selected through a careful process of community validation and a National Information System of Social Assistance (Nissa) has been developed as a database that ranks households according to their levels of poverty. This has helped to inform targeting of beneficiaries, as well as managing and monitoring other social protection programmes.

The El Niño weather phenomenon of 2015 caused an unprecedented drought in Lesotho that affected about a third of the population, and brought the staple maize crop production down by 89% in comparison to the previous agricultural season. Successive crop failures have brought poverty to almost 80% of the Basotho. In response to this crisis, which has been declared a State of Emergency by the Lesotho government, cash top-ups were linked to the CGP, which brought further relief to 23 000 ultra-poor households such as Mojela’s.

The long-term objective of the CGP is to improve the living standards of orphans and vulnerable children to reduce malnutrition, improve their health and increase school enrolment.

Several projects have also been implemented to bolster the CGP. One of these is run by the Catholic Relief Services in Mokhoarane. On a short field trip to the area, we visited a savings scheme group meeting administered by the project, which helps child grant recipients to invest their savings productively. Members of this group from Mokhoarane reported making substantial savings, and in times of need, cash can be borrowed from such groups at reasonable rates, instead of the cutthroat rates offered by moneylenders.

Another community development initiative is nutrition groups, where among others, infants are weighed and measured to determine their nutritional status. If a baby is below weight, it is referred to and taken to a local clinic.

Lesotho is an agrarian society: 50% of the rural population relies on farming as their main livelihood source, of which 90% of subsistence farmers, and up to 80% of the population engage in some form of agricultural activity. Even in Maseru’s suburbs, small plots of neatly tended vegetable and fruit trees are ubiquitous. In this context the FAO, after conducting pilot projects, decided to help improve gardening techniques as a complement to the CGP.

A $26 gardening kit comprising six varieties of vegetable seeds, a shade net and training materials has been distributed to thousands of households so far, and these are used to build so-called “keyhole gardens”. The name keyhole garden is derived from its shape. It is a round, raised garden supported by stones that is filled with compost and soil and has an efficient irrigation system to help save water.

As with the caring for children, most farming activities are carried out by women. “My keyhole garden helps me to grow my veggie seedlings faster, and then I transfer them to other parts of my garden,” says sixty-four-year old Matabello Fokotsane. The raised garden also conveniently allows her to weed without bending down. The garden is watered with grey water used for washing up; after tending to her crops, she washed her hands carefully from a bottle hanging from a tree, which prevents the transfer of bacteria living in the soil.

The CGP is not without its flaws. Matumisang Nkholi (20) of Haphalole village grows her own food, but said she struggles to feed her children due to her crop production being hampered by the present lack of water. Exclusion is one of the issues the programme is working on, said UNICEF Lesotho’s Mookho Thaane Ramasike, although families must exit the programme when children turn 18, so gaps are continually created for new beneficiaries.

Another problem is indexing the grant to increasing prices, but the biggest problem the CGP has at the moment is getting cash to beneficiaries in remote locations. “Cash delivery is very expensive,” said Ramasike, “and the mobile payment system experiences a big influx on payment days, so the system sometimes gets swamped.”

Nevertheless, the programme has been subject evaluations since 2011, which revealed that it has had a broad array of positive impacts. Due to programme messaging that the GCP funds should be used in the interests of children, there was a large increase in expenditures on schooling, school uniforms and school shoes.

There was also a 37% increase in birth registration, an anticipated effect of the programme, as there is a requirement for beneficiary children to have a birth certificate with six months of enrolment into the programme. There was also a slight reduction in illnesses such as colds or flu, possibly as a result of households buying more clothing and footwear for children, and an increase in school enrolments and children staying in school.

The CGP improved the ability of beneficiary households to access food throughout the year, though effects on food consumption and dietary diversity were mainly concentrated around pay dates.

Families receiving grants were more likely to provide support to other members of the community and less likely to receive support from other family members. Spending the grant money in the area where they live has a positive impact on the local economy, for instance on families who own local businesses.

The CGP is not a lot in terms of hard cash, but for those living on or below the breadline, in a land hit hard by drought and disease, any help is welcomed. Members of the Mokhoarane Community Council, whom we met to ask permission before visiting the villages, said the grant is “very helpful for our children” and asked that “they continue to receive the grants, so they can wear school uniforms and shoes, and have food”. 

Derek Davey

Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches. Read more from Derek Davey