Wool and mohair have long been the pride of the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho. But a recent change in the Southern African nation's system of brokering exports has created havoc in this industry, forcing many farmers into despair and destitution.
It all started, says the founder of the National Farmers Union, Dr. Mohlalefi Moteane, when a mysterious man came to town in 2012 and tried to get a foothold in the industry. Moteane dismissed the man, a Chinese businessman who identified himself as Stone Shi.
“Who is this guy? How can he pounce on me like this? Does he have any respect?,” Moteane, a veterinarian and wool farmer, told VOA in his office in Maseru, the capital. “So I then said to Stone Shi, ‘no, I am able to handle my business. I don't need you.’ And he walked away. I never unfortunately got to get him. In hindsight, this was a mistake on my part to be able to find out who this fellow is. I wished I had.”
Five years later, Shi secured a deal to broker all exports of Lesotho’s wool and mohair. For nearly half a century, farmers had done so in neighboring South Africa. The nation’s parliament codified the new system into law in 2018, giving Shi’s company, the Lesotho Wool Center, a monopoly.
The result, said Moteane was catastrophic: an untold number of farmers remain unpaid for wool they sold in 2017. He himself has a warehouse with an estimated half a million dollars of unsellable wool. He’s had to lay off his staff. He considers himself lucky -- others have fared worse in the association of wool growers, which he says has more than 40,000 members.
Many reported being unable to pay for basic expenses. Local media has reported that some farmers committed suicide amid unpaid debts.
“Some of them have died,” he said. “They lost their lives. We’ve lost some of them -- let us remember that this is a one billion Maluti industry, the wool and mohair. Stone Shi was an individual like this, like this finger of mine. Would you, would any government, would any country, agree to hand over such an important industry to a single individual?”
Shi’s office did not respond to VOA’s request for an interview.
Finance minister Moeketsi Majoro acknowledged that the government erred in giving Shi the sole contract.
“This is a mistake that we have recognized and have moved quickly now through legislation to remove,” he told VOA. “So we have now opened up the brokerage business to several players. So they have applied, and then there are several brokers now that are dealing with wool. And we have opened up the market to say you can sell any way you like. Of course, once we stabilize the industry, we are still interested in localization.”
That’s cold comfort to those still struggling with the fallout. Weaver MaNeo Temeki said her company can’t get mohair because of the situation. Consequently, they’ve had to lay off three employees — all of them women who are their family’s main breadwinner.
“We have sent them home,” she said. “Most of them, they're at home because we lose the mohair, we lose the money. So what now?”
Economist Emmanuel Letete said he understands why the government was intent on shifting the brokerage from South Africa to Lesotho - but said the policy needs review.
“It might have had a good intent, but the problem was how it was then introduced and implemented in the market,” he said. “Did we involve the relevant stakeholders so that they understand the direction the crew was taking? And that involvement, to me, from discussions I’ve had, might have been limited.”
That rings true for the men on the streets of Maseru. Many have come down from the mountains to try to sell their sheep and goats. At this point, many of these beautiful animals are only good for meat, since the wool won’t sell.
VOA attempted to ask them about the situation. They waved us off. These men didn’t want to talk, Moteane explained -- it doesn’t put food on the table.