Irrigation, Education, Electrification: Why Is Lesotho Poor?

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SEATTLE — A small country completely surrounded by South Africa and consisting of land high above sea level, Lesotho is a small nation of fewer than two million people. The country’s economy consists largely of agricultural exports, nearly all of which are sent to South Africa. Ordinarily, a country reliant on agricultural exports faces severe economic issues, but with a mere two million people to support, economic sustainability is theoretically not impossible to achieve. So, why is Lesotho poor?

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, Lesotho’s geography makes it difficult for agricultural producers. The entirety of Lesotho is situated at least 1400 meters (4600 feet) above sea level. Much of Lesotho’s topography is mountainous highlands – land not necessarily suited to agricultural practices. Furthermore, the country is only just more than 30,000 square kilometers, leaving little physical room for agriculture as well. For a nation with an economy reliant on agricultural exports, the topography and amount of physical land available are not entirely accommodating.

Furthermore, while Lesotho only suffers from one type of natural disaster, it is perhaps the one which is most capable of crippling the nation and its economy: drought. Despite being the site of Africa’s second-largest dam, Lesotho suffered a devastating drought in August of last year. More than a quarter of the population was in desperate need of emergency food assistance, according to the World Food Program. But is agriculture in an agriculturally-unfriendly climate the only answer to the question ‘why is Lesotho poor?’ Not necessarily.

Perhaps Lesotho’s most glaring issue as a nation is the country’s dangerously high HIV/AIDS rate. In 2015, a prevalence rate of more than 20 percent of people aged 15 to 49 was recorded nationwide, with approximately 13,000 children aged 14 and under living with HIV. Along with Botswana and Swaziland, this gives Lesotho one of the three highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world. As a direct result, many people are frequently too ill to attend school or work.

So, what can be done to combat poverty in Lesotho? Firstly, and arguably most urgently, Lesotho must use its education system to lower the national HIV/AIDS rate by as much as possible. Presently, the country holds a literacy rate of approximately 92.8 percent, more than enough to educate and advise the local population on the dangers of HIV/AIDS, how to avoid it and how to live with it.

Secondly, the country must adopt farming techniques more suitable to the nation’s high altitude terrain. For example, growing a variety of crops may make it easier to adapt to changing weather patterns, and using appropriate, environmentally sustainable fertilizers may aid farmers in producing healthier crops in greater quantities.

Finally, the country can eventually use its sunny climate to take advantage of an ever-increasingly popular source of energy: the sun. In 2014, the electricity access in Lesotho was very low: a mere one in three people could access the electrical grid. By installing solar panels throughout the country, however, energy needs can still be met, while retaining the second-largest hydroelectric dam in Africa for extra energy. Already, solar panels have begun to change lives in rural Lesotho, far from any service provider. Not only were 65 remote villages connected to the electrical grid across the country, but locals were also trained in their installation, maintenance and repair, giving them valuable skills needed to generate a living income.

Therefore, when one asks ‘why is Lesotho poor?’, the answer can largely be reduced to three factors: low agricultural output, rendered even lower by regional droughts, an alarmingly high HIV/AIDS rate and widespread lack of electricity. These issues, however, are all very possible to overcome, though not overnight. Through better education, farming techniques and electricity infrastructure, Lesotho may one day be able to experience the same quality of life as those just over the border in neighboring South Africa.

Bradley Tait

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About Author

Bradley writes for The Borgen Project from Washington, DC. His academic interests include world politics and global development. Bradley was born in British Hong Kong, a political entity which no longer exists!

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