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Botswana Grows Self-Sufficiency

Farming, educational programs aim at breaking the country's reliance on imported food. SOUTHERN AFRICA: THIRD-WORLD DEVELOPMENT

HOW do you feed a landlocked country that has more drought than rainfall, is only 5 percent arable, and which is politically opposed to the neighbor that supplies 75 percent of its imports? The answer for Botswana, a developing country of 1.2 million people, has traditionally been to import more than half its food, most of it purchased from or transported through South Africa. With the discovery of diamonds in Botswana during the 1970s, the country has accumulated enough foreign exchange reserves to maintain its imports for 30 months.

But that is exactly what Botswana doesn't want to do. Despite the odds, it seeks to feed itself.

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``For me, the most critical thing is to raise income in the rural areas, to raise the level of effective demand for food, and to ensure household security,'' says Tswelopele Moremi, coordinator of the Ministry of Finance's Rural Development Unit. ``We know that most of our people in the rural areas have to spend most of their income on food.''

And that means an even greater task for women. As in most of Africa, a high percentage of the region's farmers are female.

The economic and social dynamics of Botswana have created a society in which half the country's households are headed by women, because 20,000 men are employed in the farms and mines of neighboring South Africa. In addition, with the gradual demise of traditional village culture, teen-agers (usually single) now account for 25 percent of all pregnancies.

The Botswana government has launched several significant food projects costing millions of dollars, with the help of such agencies as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the UN Capital Development Fund, and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. These efforts include mapping the soils of approximately 45 million acres, building 45 small dams and irrigation systems, storing 80,000 tons of grain, making the country self-sufficient in the production of grain seeds, and establishing a Plant Protection Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture, which has already deterred attacks from locusts, grasshoppers, Quelea birds, and rodents, as well as plant diseases.

Such national projects are the easy part, Ms. Moremi says. Ensuring household security means increasing purchasing power and convincing farmers to grow where crops have rarely survived.

``Farmers are rational people,'' says Ms. Moremi. ``They know that corn is very problematic.''

Yet the people of Botswana are not easily discouraged. The country is recovering from six straight years of drought (from 1981 to 1987). An internationally recognized government response and a determined citizenry helped to prevent a human catastrophe. Although rural incomes plunged, malnutrition did not dramatically increase.

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``Immediately after the drought broke, people went back to their plowing,'' says Moremi. ``There was a marked reduction in the number of beneficiaries of the direct feeding program. With agricultural inputs supplied by the government, the people are back working the lands.''

Although the government's ambitious plans to develop rural areas were interrupted by the drought, several agricultural experiments are already showing success and women are the key.

``Once they were motivated, there was nothing that could stop them,'' boasts UN expert Laketch Dirasse about the disadvantaged women who took part in an experimental training program. ``Given the opportunity, you wouldn't believe what these women will do.''

Twenty-eight women participated in a holistic, three-month course that included classes in literacy, motivation, group dynamics, and vegetable gardening. Now one can find them every day working on a government-donated plot here in the center of Gaborone, the capital city, weeding, watering, and selling a surplus of grains and vegetables. Families which before only ate sorghum, corn, and cabbage are consuming a variety of fruits and greens. Women who a year ago couldn't read are now managing their cooperative's bookkeeping.

``Before I didn't have a job. My mother had to help me with the money she made brewing and selling beer,'' recounts Naselele Pheleme, the mother of seven children. ``Now I am independent.''

Similar comments can be heard in Kanye, a town 60 miles southwest of Gaborone, where 56 families (90 percent headed by women) are building a community from scratch. ``In five years we want the donors to see our homesteads, bakeries, poultry projects, and crops,'' said one woman, referring to the ``productive homesteads'' that each will build, and which include a house and income-earning activities.

The productive homestead is a strategy proposed by Swedish horticulturalist and longtime Botswana resident Gus Nilsson (for a profile of Mr. Nilsson, see the People section, Aug. 4, Page 14). Using his water-saving technique of planting in concrete benches filled with river sand, the UNDP and the Botswana government have funded several successful experiments with small groups such as those in Gaborone and Kanye. What holds the government back from a full endorsement is the cost of bringing irrigation to the plots.

BOTSWANA is off to a good start in its quest for national food security. The country is self-sufficient in beef and, due to good rains the last two years, it has stored reserves. But the remainder of the country's demand for food is still met by imports. Supermarkets are full of breakfast cereals, fruit juices, milk, and corn with labels that say in both Afrikaans and English: Made in South Africa.

Although Botswana and South Africa are both members of the Southern African Customs Union and have been reliable trading partners since before Botswana's independence in 1966, the two face off in the political arena: Botswana President Quett Masire publicly assails South Africa's apartheid regime and South African Foreign Minister Roloef (Pik) Botha accuses Masire of allowing the African National Congress guerrillas to operate from Botswana territory.

``We are aware that our region is not stable and we depend on South Africa for 75 percent of our imports, most of it food, and that any disruption would have severe consequences,'' says Moremi. She acknowledges that there have been no indications that a trade cutoff is in the offing, but the 1985 South African embargo of Lesotho, a tiny country surrounded by South Africa, still haunts Botswana's citizens.

Twenty-five percent of Botswana's children are malnourished, according to Moremi. Although the market is providing food to those who can buy it, many families lack the ability to acquire enough food in the market or by growing it. But as long as the government focuses on households and women and they continue to demonstrate success, national and household security will eventually come to mean the same thing: that all are fed.

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