Many Basotho wonder why we live in a country that consumes so much, yet produces so little. Part of the reason may be our view of work that requires physical effort. Such work is normally treated with contempt by the educated. It is often left to the poor and the uneducated. Take for instance, Lesotho’s craft industry. Who are the main players there? They are normally older women struggling to make ends meet.
The situation is set to change as two graduates from the National University of Lesotho (NUL), Mr Rethabile Lesenyeho, who is also a Laboratory Demonstrator in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Technology and Mr T’siame Libe, who is an NUL chemistry graduate hope to transform this perception. “We want to profit on work that others may look down upon. We have since realized that if we wait for a time when others will come and create jobs for us, we will wait forever,” they said. “So we observed and studied a fascinating but small local craft industry, especially in the area of basket weaving.”
“We liked a number of things about this business. It is very labor intensive, so we saw a chance to create jobs for both others and ourselves. Particularly, we liked the fact that the business did not require many resources to initiate.” The two innovators took a special interest in the production of grafts using reed (lehlaka). “We had a big picture in mind. We really wanted to focus on environmentally friendly options. We like the use of reed in particular since it reduces consumption of wood and trees, yet its stems are very strong and durable. This in turn reduces deforestation. On the other hand, we were always struck by lack of creativity among those making crafts out of reed. We thought that through our entry, and with our educational background, we could bring some varieties into the industry.”
Further, they said they noticed that in general, members of the society saw reed as nuisance only to be uprooted and discarded. “While some people use reed for nice fencing in their backyards, it appears many people see it as garbage. We come across many people clearing it off their land and just throwing it away.”
The word reed refers to a number of tall, grass-like plants, which normally inhabit wetlands. The use of reed over centuries has a rich history. For example, ancient Egyptians made paper out of triangular reed, which symbolized ancient Lower Egypt, called papyrus reed from which the word paper came. The Uros people of Peru and Bolivia have used reed to make literal islands known as reed Islands throughout history. These islands can house up to ten families. The islands are constantly renewed as reed rapidly rots in water. In modern times, many people around the world have discovered the value of using reed in arts and handicrafts. The traditional reed dance in Swaziland is legendary.
“In Lesotho, we have identified Leloli and Molalahlolo as some of the reeds we can use for our purpose,” Mr Lesenyeho said. However, he said they are not oblivious to the challenges ahead in this business. “We are very much aware that no one is cultivating this plant in large quantities to maintain demands over a long-term. Therefore we are considering a number of scenarios. Already, we have started studying various ways in which we can cultivate the reed. We have since discovered that whereas it grows on wet habitats, the reed still tolerate relatively dry conditions.”
The two innovators are also looking into other options rather than concentrate on reed only. “We are looking into using mountain broom grass (moseha) as an alternative,” they said. “Mountain broom grass is much more abundant than reed and it is used by many of local craftsmen in making traditional products such as mokorotlo. Unlike reed, mountain broom grass grows in abundance in the mountains. The only downside of using this plant is that it forms part of a group of plants declared illegal to harvest in Lesotho. Accordingly, we will look into ways of cultivating it also. Other options include waste paper and waste plastic and importing reed from abroad.”
How much ground have Mr Lesenyeho and Mr Libe covered so far? “Our business is doing very well to say the least,” they said. “When we started, we did the weaving ourselves. However as we moved on, the work became too much and we have since hired two full-time employees to assist. It is amazing how people like our products. This week alone, we have to deliver ten products including baskets and garden chairs to various customers. We are also sending one basket to Limpopo in South Africa as we advertise through Facebook. We have realized that there is something in this business. We are not prepared to stop under any circumstances.”
Although they are making and selling the products informally, the innovators say plans are underway to register a new company formally. “We had to test waters first to ascertain if our business model works.” For a start, the business is not restricted to a few products. Instead, they make such products as washing baskets, vegetable racks, bedside lamps and wardrobes with the reed.
This blog post was originally written by NUL Research and Innovations