Sunday, April 5, 2020

A green revolution betrayed

The host loosens his necktie, and suggests that we move out of the garden. It’s only midmorning, but the sun is already scorching; nature’s reminder of the changing seasons ÔÇô and passing months and years.

“In trying to save people from poverty, the situation has made me a destitute ÔÇô and I am refusing to accept that status. I now realise that my time to leave the country has come…It’s not safe (for me) to live here. When people can starve you to death and you have nowhere to appeal, there is no hope,” the host says, from where we have sought refuge from the blistering sun.

It’s a disquieting testimonial because it could have never been imagined that things would end this way ÔÇô and so soon.
But first, meet the man at the centre of the story ÔÇô the host.

Oduetse Mphahudi is a maverick of sorts. When happy, he has a hearty laugh. A zealous crusader for agriculture, he believes when appropriately practised, it can be the escape route out of poverty.

An MSc (Tropical horticulture) holder, for close to a decade, he has developed an integrated agricultural model that he dreamt would be adopted to pull needy households out of dependency. The model uses little water (because water is a scarce resource in Botswana’s semi-arid condition), encourages recycling and reuse of practically everything (chicken droppings are manure for the vegetable garden, discarded vegetable leaves feed rabbits, while all forms of vegetables and herbs are grown in containers that could have otherwise been long discarded).

He has successfully applied the model in a demonstration garden at his residence in Kgale View, where he grows over 80 species of nutritional and medicinal herbs, including indigenous types. There could be hundreds of combinations of herbal teas, including the world’s most expensive herbal tea, chamomile tea. He proudly points out that his garden is the only place in Botswana where one will find this tea growing, and he has gone a step further to produce his own seeds. Also growing here is evening primrose, which is widely accepted as herbal medicine for breast cancer. He has collected various species of indigenous and exotic fruit trees.
The garden is also home to ducks, guinea fowls, indigenous free-range chickens, layers, diary goats, dairy cows, bees, and rabbits.

He is implementing the wetland technology of water treatment technology, through which grey water from kitchen and bathroom passes through gravel, and sand, on which grows water plants such as banana, sugar cane, and water reed. The plants clean the water, which is then used to water fruit trees.
“Everybody has been here,” he says of the many visitors who have come to view the model in practice at his house. It is not an idle claim. President Festus Mogae visited twice. Other visitors have included Members of Parliament (as Select Committees, as well as in individual capacities), school administrators, councillors from various districts, social workers, health officers, chiefs, permanent secretaries, representatives of international bodies such as UNDP, FAO, SADC, WHO, and the Commonwealth.

“I struggle to find out who has not been here,” he says after rolling off the impressive guest list, all from memory.
The model was presented for the first time at an international conference in Sebele in 2001. As he continued to perfect the model, word of a unique garden at his place spread, and soon he was conducting numerous guided tours. Two years into a good job as a productivity and quality consultant at the Botswana National Productivity Centre (BNPC), he decided to leave in order to concentrate on perfecting and popularizing the model. He registered his own company Agro Business Consultancy and Development (ABCD) to market the concept.

After developing the initiative, he started interacting with administrators and experts at the ministry of agriculture. He also got an opportunity to address the Rural Development Council (RDC), and later followed that up with a proposal for government to adopt agro-based poverty reduction crusade as part of the national poverty reduction strategy, and roll it out throughout the country.

His proposal came with a price tag of P2.4 million, to which the ministry freaked out. Government officials said they could only afford P500, 000. Business instinct would be to either bargain for a better deal, or walk away from it all ÔÇô but he chose neither.
“I accepted to do it for P500, 000 because I wanted to prove that I am bringing something that works, hoping that on the basis of that proof, the terms of contract would improve. They knew that for P500, 000, (nobody could do it successfully), but I wanted a chance to show people results. I trusted myself that there would be results to bear me out,” he says.

It was designed as a pilot project to introduce the concept in selected poor households ÔÇô most of them destitute ÔÇô in Ramotswa, Kanye, Hukuntsi, Gumare, Masunga, and Serowe over 24 months, and it was received with much acclaim by local authorities and the beneficiaries themselves. After he addressed the RDC in Serowe, one participant was so bowled over that he had only one question for ministry officials: “Motho yo le ntse le mmeile kae?”

In a previous conversation, he spoke of turning every backyard in Botswana into a horticultural garden ÔÇô his dream of a countrywide green revolution.
But the honeymoon was short-lived. Four months into the project, he received communication from the Ministry of Agriculture that disbursements were being suspended because they wanted the Attorney General’s Chambers to interpret the payment schedule stipulated in the contract. Apparently, the ministry’s feeling was that they were paying out more than they were supposed to.

Mphahudi insists that according to the contract, payments were to be made per deliverable, and everything was going according to the agreement until the ministry’s unilateral action. Since October 2006, there has been a standoff.

“I have met so many times with the PS and his deputy. They keep saying they are waiting for AG’s. I then made a move for arbitration, with the tacit agreement of the ministry. I suggested three arbitrators, and asked the ministry to choose the one they are comfortable with. They ignored that letter. My last meeting with the ministry was three months back; they said they were terminating the contract because we are in disagreement. I said I’m committed to delivery,” he says. “I have personally spoken to the President; he said he would come back to me, but he must have been held up or busy with other things. I have talked to MPs, who can only sympathize, and nothing more. I have talked to the Minister in the Office of the President (Daniel Kwelagobe). He said AG’s had advised government that it had no leg to stand on, and therefore I should be paid. He was able to tell me that I was going to be paid.”

He is now convinced that he is lined up against much bigger forces, and “they” are determined to set him up for failure because “they” have never approved of the project in the first place.
“My feeling is that the Ministry of Agriculture feels I am putting them to shame because I am coming up with something that people appreciate.

Apparently, I was not supposed to. The ministry officials witnessed the response to this model at dikgotla and councils. The buy-in of the people disturbed them because the ministry tried so many things before, but people did not buy in. Now they are trying everything in their power to make it fail… They feel very bad that a simple person has made a simple breakthrough before the eyes of the public. If the project succeeds, they think they are going to be put to shame. I think they are worried that I may be paid a little more…because Batswana would rather have money go to whites; you have to be a foreigner (to be worthy of anything in this country), for example NAMPAAD consultants. Everybody knows that there is no delivery, even those who pay them, but just because ke makgowa they are allowed to get away with it… To be black in this country is a curse,” he says.

Having reached the conclusion that some powerful forces do not like what he is doing, Mphahudi has decided to pull down his garden by end of this month. He will sell off everything, including live birds, equipment, while the vegetables and herbs will be harvested and pulled out. As he describes it, it’s the end of this part of the journey by whatever means.

“When I think about ending this, I know it will be difficult just to bring one pole down,” he admits.

When the garden has been pulled down, the next step might be relocation outside Botswana. He has received a number of enquiries from different governments to replicate the model in their countries, and he is currently considering the best option.

“Where I will go I will do a garden like this or even something better than this,” he says. “My experience at the hands of the ministry officials means that my end (in this country) has come, and I should find where my body will be buried. That, I can still find; it can’t be taken away from me.”