A government agricultural project in Lesotho, which attracts millions of US dollars in donor funding, has been turned into a personal get-rich-quick scheme by the public servant who heads it up, leaving the farmers who are supposed to benefit out of pocket and unable to grow their businesses. This public servant seems to have operated with political protection and impunity, but her luck is running out.

While MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism can reveal all the details of this scheme, which also involves a close circle of friends who have cashed on overpriced tenders and duplicate payments, donors have had enough, and government says it’s time to act. 

‘Malichaba Nkhethoa is the director of the Smallholder Agriculture Development Project (SADP) which operates under Lesotho’s ministry of agriculture. The project aims to transform Lesotho's agricultural sector by giving farmers access to US$62 million [about M 1.1-billion] in grants from the World Bank, the Japanese government, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The donors’ hope for the SADP is to kickstart and modernise commercial agriculture in Lesotho, ultimately ensuring that small scale farmers grow bigger and more profitable through grants that incentivise the right kind of cropping and smart farming methods. However, MNN’s investigation reveals that Nkhethoa saw the system as an opportunity to enrich certain companies, especially those owned by her personal friends. This was done by manipulating the procurement system to ensure that friends’ companies were preferred bidders for projects, even though the prices they quoted were inflated. Farmers who dared complain were victimised and their access to grant money barred. 

Nkhethoa was made acting director of the SADP in April 2021 and officially installed as director in December 2021. Before this she was a matching grants manager. MNN can show that during her tenure at SADP, farmers have been forced to spend grant money on select suppliers and contractors who charge vastly inflated prices. While MNN can show that most of these preferred contractors are Nkhethoa’s friends, there is also proof that she deliberately side-lined key officials at the SADP to set prices in advance. Once the contracts were awarded, she allegedly took a cut. MNN has also tracked duplicate payments made by Nkhethoa to suppliers who are her personal friends.

One SADP employee, who asked not to be named, explained how anyone at SADP with authority who questioned or tried to stop Nkhethoa at the SADP was side-lined.

“Component heads no longer sit on the panel for the recruitment of suppliers; instead, Nkhethoa takes up the responsibility, and as a result, the project loses money due to the high prices that are normally quoted,” said the source.

While the preferred bidders that Nkhethoa’s interventions benefitted seem to mainly be in the business of shade nets and boreholes, sources at the SADP also explain that these are areas where “she easily cashes in”.

Concerns about Nkhethoa’s improper influence on the SADP’s funds were being raised as far back as 2018 which begs the question about how she has been able to get away with it for so long, especially as there have been numerous complaints, audits that have flagged concerns as well as reports by SADP staff.

During a meeting with three journalists from MNN, Nkhethoa said she was prepared to talk to MNN on condition that the author of this story was not present. MNN declined her offer, and she also declined the interview.

After Nkhethoa declined, a list of 34 questions were emailed to her. But she only chose a few questions to respond to, saying she was waiting for her superiors at the ministry of agriculture to approve the others.

“I have not yet received the written consent of [my] employer to categorically answer all your questions,” Nkhethoa noted.

However, Acting Principal Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Agriculture, Masia Johane, who was appointed on 19 February this year and to whom SADP answers, told MNN that Nkhethoa had not made any request for such approval by the time this story was published.

He also admitted that since his appointment as acting principal secretary in February, SADP employees have informed him that the process of engaging suppliers is opaque, and that the director could easily contract her friends.

Johane also told MNN that he and Minister of Agriculture, Thabo Mofosi, have been inundated with SADP issues.

“We have tried cautioning her [Nkhethoa] on these issues, but we are now at a point where we have to take drastic decisions regarding her”, Johane told MNN. This “drastic action”, MNN understands, may be a suspension pending an investigation.

Friends with benefits

MNN has established that Nkhethoa’s two SADP preferred contractors are her personal friends. Motšelisi Letokoto and Amanda Matoro Likhoa, are business partners and own M & L Holdings together.  

M & L Holdings is contracted by the SADP to supply shade nets and to drill boreholes. This company is connected to two other preferred SADP contractors, KB Express and Agrotech which are both owned by Matoro Likhoa’s husband, Likhoa Likhoa.

Letokoto also owns Shezy Consultancy and Lihlaba Bliss, which are also in the business of shade nets, borehole drilling and irrigation systems and which have been contracted by the SADP. Shezy Consultancy also received a controversial payment of M148 000 from Nkhethoa in November 2021. See details under “duplicate payments”.

While Shezy Consultancy started off supplying sign boards to SADP, Letokoto says it is not unusual that the company ended up with some of SADP’s bigger contracts to supply farmers with shade net because, she argues, shade net supplies have always been their interest.

Letokoto confirmed her ownership of the three companies, but she told MNN that she sees nothing wrong with all of them securing contracts under the SADP.  “These companies do not provide the same services,” she said in response to initial questions from MNN. 

Letokoto and Matoro Likhoa have been seen at various private functions at Nkhethoa’s residence and they have accompanied her on unofficial trips to other countries for which they also used SADP vehicles. But, when MNN inquired about their personal relationship with Nkhethoa, Letokoto and Likhoa, ignored multiple calls from MNN and blue-ticked [read] WhatsApp messages sent to them about this matter.

See a network of cronies feasting over the SADP below

Amanda Matoro Likhoa’s husband, Likhoa, has been involved with the SADP since it started in 2012. He told MNN that he first came in as a service provider helping farmers with proposal writing and reporting, then benefitted as a grant-recipient farmer and when his farm collapsed, he became a supplier.

Contractor denies connection with his wife

In his first interview with MNN Likhoa tried to deny that his business partner was his spouse. 

When asked about his relationship with “Amanda Matoro Likhoa” during this interview on 29 March this year, Likhoa beat about the bush, insisting the correct names of the person in question were “Amanda Matoro”, seemingly aware that adding the “Likhoa” surname to her name would expose their personal relationship.

Likhoa stressed that: “I only know her throughbusiness”.

While his wife’s company, M & L Holdings, also lists Likhoa’s contacts in the company records, the question raised is whether he is fronting “his wife” to conceal his dominance over SADP contracts with his various companies.

Speaking to MNN, Likhoa said he was only a consultant for M & L Holdings which is why his contacts were put in the company’s records.

MNN dug into their social media backgrounds and found out that both Likhoa and Matoro-Likhoa were not only contracted by the SADP through their respective companies but that they are married. 

Amanda uses the username “Amanda Matoro Likhoa” on Facebook, and their love-themed profiles were populated with photos of them together.

See the Likhoa couple above

Based on this evidence, MNN approached Likhoa again to explain why he denied that Matoro Likhoa was his wife. He downplayed the matter saying, “I never said she wasn’t my wife either. I was responding only from a business perspective.”

A couple of weeks later, Likhoa’s Facebook account was deactivated.

How the money works

When emerging farmers in Lesotho submit grant applications to the SADP, they stand a chance to secure grants between $2,000 and $100,000. Grants are awarded according to key areas including protected agriculture which requires investment into shade nets, tunnels, and greenhouses as well as water conservation which requires investment into irrigation systems and water collection tanks.

Ideally, farmers source quotations from suppliers to justify their applications for grant funding to the SADP. The SADP then selects one supplier’s quote from the application and bases the final grant amount on this preferred quote. However, this system seems to have been manipulated to favour a preferred set of bidders who charge exorbitant prices.

Farmers have lodged an official complaint about the SADP imposing “its own sourced” suppliers. On 25 January 2023 farmers sent a letter to the then principal secretary for the ministry of agriculture, ‘Mole Kumalo. The letter complains about the preferred bidders and their inflated pricing. It also states that farmers are treated harshly when they voice dissatisfaction with this system.  

In one case that is detailed in the letter, a sheep breeder from Mokhotlong, TšitsoShai, wanted to buy sheep from a different, cheaper supplier but was denied that right. When he questioned the matter his grant funds were withheld until he apologised to Nkhethoa. The farmers stress how a system that forces them to buy equipment at inflated prices leaves them with insufficient grant money to run their farms in a profitable manner.

MNN’s questions about this to Nkhethoa were among those she has not answered.  

When MNN asked Likhoa about the inflated pricing, he said that his companies initially charged low prices because they were being paid in cash. Nkhethoa, he said, changed this system which caused delays in suppliers getting paid. This, he said, meant that his company had to charge higher prices to ensure that the delays did not affect his ability to pay overheads and salaries.  

When MNN asked Letokoto of M & L Holdings why her borehole drilling prices are fixed, she said, “now this is another sensitive matter”. She then excused herself from the telephonic interview saying she would call back. She did not call back or take any of MNN follow upcalls.

Farmers, who opted for anonymity for fear of their grants being withdrawn, told MNN that they suspect collusion between the SADP and preferred suppliers, alleging that farmers are charged high prices so that the suppliers and others involved can “profit”.

Farmers also want to know why, if the SADP is ordering in bulk, it is unable to negotiate very competitive prices. How are the prices that SADP negotiates higher than those farmers could negotiate as individuals?!  

“Any farmer who rejects this [higher prices] gets abused by SADP management, which victimises them and threatens that their grants will be withdrawn,” farmers state in the letter to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Farmers are becoming despondent.

“It (grant money) will have no impact at all …in fact, most farmers who participated in this project will be financially challenged in the end,” says the leaked January letter from farmers to the ministry of agriculture.

While the letter was sent to the ministry before Johane acted as PS, he told MNN that he had been made aware of the farmers’ grievances but had no record of the letter. He suspects that the previous administration may have swept the matter under the rug because “they were very close with Nkhethoa”.

MNN then decided to pose as a farmer and submitted requests for quotations to two companies that supply SADP. It was soon clear that the price quoted depended on who was paying the bill. MNN was asked “who referred you” by both companies. By this stage of the investigation Nkhethoa was also aware of MNN’s investigations into suppliers.

When asked for a borehole quotation, Arrowline, one of the SADP suppliers based in Hlotse, Leribe, the director identified by Vodacom Lesotho Mpesa service and True Caller as Lepa Ramahetlane Ramokhele asked, “Are you paying for the borehole yourself, as an individual, or is it under a project?” 

MNN told Ramokhele that it would be a bill for an individual and not a project like SADP. Minutes after agreeing to give a quote, Ramokhele changed his mind saying: “I am no longer comfortable with providing you with a quote, please try elsewhere.” 

For projects that require 80m boreholes, prices from Nkhethoa’s preferred bidders range from M95,000 to M120,000. These quotes, as detailed in SADP documents, cover only the cost of drilling, and exclude tanks and stands. However, MNN findings reveal that other companies who are not SADP preferred suppliers quote between M75,000 and M85,000 for the same borehole drilling, inclusive of a tank and a stand. These lower quotes, MNN can show, were rejected by the SADP.

Duplicate payments

Shezy Consultancy, another of Letokoto’s companies, is at the centre of another controversy. This time it is over missing SADP funds. A report by SADP employees revealed that Nkhethoa authorised an unexplained transfer of M148,000 to Shezy Consultancy in November 2021. A report released by an anonymous group of SADP workers in February this year, which is called Maladministration, malpractices, and alleged corrupt practices at the Smallholder Agriculture Development Project, explains that this money was part of a M400,000 grant made to the Bolokanang Liphamola Support Group. Only M 150 000 of the grant had been spent when the recipient decided not to continue withthe remaining phases of the project. This meant that the SADP was left with the remaining, unspent grant. Of this remaining money, M148,000 was transferred to Shezy Consultants by Nkhethoa. The report, which was shared with the World Bank and Johane, notes that “Nkhethoa bypassed prudent financial procedures” in authorising this M148,000 payment.

The employees noted that “it was not clear what this payment was for” but told MNN that Nkhethoa gives the final instruction for all payments to be made. The employees’ report explains that it could not have been for a project such as borehole drilling because the procedure would have been that only 30% of the money be transferred and not the full amount (M148,000) sent in one transaction. 

“It is highly unusual that the whole amount was paid to one supplier at the same time. The normal system is to pay 30% of the [total] borehole amount, which normally costs M100,000, and then 70% would be paid on completion of borehole drilling,” the report said.

This irregularity was also flagged in a 2021/22 audit report which was conducted by a firm called New Dawn Chartered Accountants. Nkhethoa, however, distanced herself from the discrepancy, telling MNN that “no issues of compliance on my side have ever been raised in such audits”.

A former employee told MNN how she resigned from the SADP after working conditions turned sour because of the queries she had made with relevant departments in a bid to recover these funds (M148,000). The former employee said that her bid to recover the money were “duties associated with my position”.

“This pained my boss [Nkhethoa] so much, accusing me of going over her head and involving myself in things I had no business in,” she said. After that incident, she found it hard to perform her duties without being told that she was overstepping.

A year later, the funds were repaid to the project account, but the person who made the payment was never identified. The money was deposited at an ATM in batches during the early hours of one Saturday morning. Letokoto told MNN that it was her that made the payment. She told MNN, “I was not told how to return it. I was well within my rights to choose how.”

When asked for comment by MNN, the World Bank Group’s Eastern and Southern Africa senior external affairs officer Lavinia Engelbrecht said: “The [World] Bank takes such allegations seriously, an internal review process will be instituted to consider the matter. Once complete, the findings will be communicated by the Bank to the affected stakeholders using official channels.”

In another case, in 2018, SADP initiated an internal investigation into a project beneficiary, Debbie Fruits and Vegetables. This investigation followed a payment of M145,000 that was paid to the company based on a memo from Nkhethoa, who was deputy competitive grants officer at the time.

MNN was told that this investigation was done on the back of complaints by the director of Debbie Fruits that the SADP funds owed to him did not reflect in his company’s account. It was found that the account number used alongside the company’s name did not belong to a known company or individual. 

The report by SADP workers states that: “Upon being questioned, Nkhethoa gave a feeble excuse that she made the mistake of mixing the accounts with another beneficiary when submitting (them) to the accounts office. The other beneficiary company, whose name could not be established, did not appear in Lesotho’s company register, raising questions about the possibility of this being part of the fraud at SADP. Only M15,000 of the money was recovered.”

In another case sources also told MNN that Nkhethoa did very little to try and recover a double payment of M146,000 made to Matalana Farm Produce. The owner of Matalana Farm, Seoja Pule, gave conflicting explanations about the payments. 

In the SADP employees report, Pule is described as having denied receiving the double payment when the accounts office identified the duplication. However, he told MNN that the money was for the third phase of the project. However, he then changed his mind saying that he thought it was deposited to his company account by mistake. He told MNN that the matter was resolved with SADP and the money was returned to the project.  According to the SADP employees report, only M37,000 was recovered.

“The matter was reported to the director(Nkhethoa) for further follow up, but little effort was taken,” the report stated. Matalana Farm Produce continues to get funds from the project despite not having paid back the outstanding sum of M109,000.