Mafeteng Roller Mill




A fully operational roller mill in Lesotho.

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Lesotho is a tiny but beautiful land locked country, full of mountains, missionaries and mystique. The country’s agriculture and industry may appear to be strangely Arcadian but at the beginning of the last century there was no mystery about the state-of-the-art milling industry. The minor part of the country is lowland, mainly the west and northwest, which is suitable for the cultivation of various grain crops. The Basotho have been cultivating this area and prior to 1869, much larger areas of Southern Africa, with various grains including Indian corn, sorghum, wheat and barley. The grain production of what was then known as Basutoland was a large and staple part of the country’s economy and indeed a very much needed commodity of the surrounding republics and colonies. In the years between 1871 and 1885, the booming diamond and gold mine economies of the O.F.S. and the Transvaal created a vast market for agricultural products. In 1875 the Kingdom of Moshoeshoe had 30,000 morgen of land under cultivation and its farmers were equipped with 2700 of the latest steel bladed ploughs. Exports in 1879 were between 200,000 and 400,000 muids or 20,000 to 40,000 metric tons of grain. *  With the changing societal patterns following the wars with their neighbours and the upheavals of those between the British and the Boers, the countrymen and colonials of this mountain enclave developed their skills and industry to take advantage of the new markets.

Situated in the middle of the low lying maize and wheat area, the town of Mafeteng boasts a fully working roller mill mostly unchanged for the last 84 years and now in the hands of the Osborne family, millers by trade. Known also as the Diphiring Mill, a milling industry was established outside the town about the year 1912 by a Mr William S. Scott. The mill may very well have been operated by steam. The architectural modifications and typical midden of the steam engines, (Clinker and ash), certainly leave that impression. Although there is a large artificial lake next to the mill, there has probably never been enough water to run a water wheel.

By the year 1922, Mr Scott seemed to have found the millers trade a trifle boring and therefore removed into the town of Mafeteng to purchase therein an Hotel. A certain Mr. Labuschagne had then either purchased the mill or taken over its management. He ran the affairs of milling maize and wheat for his customers who hailed from far away, until 1928. The Mafeteng mill was even supplying customers from Bloemfontein. 

The unusual three storey building houses a complete working mill powered by a Ruston-Hornsby Oil Engine. The Size 9X Class HR engine, number 179701 is seated at the back of the mill in its gloomy chamber and connected by an eight inch canvas belt to the array of milling equipment. Power is transmitted through a complex system of drive shafts, reaching up three storeys to work washers, stoners, whizzers, conditioners, blowers, lifters and rollers. The entire array of early 1900 machinery was imported from various British manufacturers. The roller mills are from E.,R. & F. Turner of Ipswich, and the sifters from Henry Simon Ltd of Stockport. In fact even the corrugated iron on the roof is from the U.K.

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Ruston-Hornsby produced large numbers of internal combustion engines at their factory in Grantham from 1912. The company began manufacturing steam engines in 1892 and progressed to internal combustion at the end of the steam era. The Mafeteng oil engine, which was installed in about 1938, produces 66 brake horsepower at 265 revolutions and weighs 6375 kg, according to its original handbook.

These engines were to be found all over the British Empire and elsewhere, shipped wherever remote power was required; sugar plantations, forestry, mining, power generation and pumping. A great advantage in the more remote areas is their designed ability to run on many different and especially cheaper fuel types. The company prospectus lists 42 different fuels ranging from “Ground Nut Oil” to “Badapur Distillate Fuel” and it is stated that various gases can also be used. The handbook also boasts that the engines  “start instantly from cold, use less than 0.47lbs per B.H.P hour, have precision governing, automatic lubrication and a "packingless" (sic) fuel pump”

The engine at Mafeteng is cranked early every morning, in the season seven days a week. In the wheat season, an extra shaft used to be connected through a wall of the mill house to a threshing machine in the front yard. A hive of activity outside and in the mill begins before sunrise. The first customers arrive at four thirty as draught work is carried out mostly in the cooler hours. In the dark a team of eight oxen crunch their way across the stony yard to unload their bags of grain into the bowls of the mill. The Ruston engine's heart will beat all through the heat and dust of a day’s work. It has been doing so for 67 years. For the Osborne family it will carry on as long as they do.

Footnote: All is not so well however, with this monument to British & Basotho industry. The milling business is not what it used to be. The Osborne family who took over operations in 1984 have struggled with the up-keep of the building and machinery. The whole working mill is in danger of structural collapse and the mill faces closure. It is possible that the oil engine may be sold, separately from the mill machinery. The engine was repaired at the beginning of this year but the work did not hold. Repairs are being made for a second time. This means possibly missing a second milling season and more lost revenue. If you want to visit the complete Mafeteng mill, do it soon.

Here is Mathew Osborne’s telephone number in Mafeteng, Lesotho;  +(266) 270 01 769


René Paul Gosselin Johannesburg 2nd December 2005  +27 83 227 69 41


cf;  -     A Short History of Lesotho Stephen J. Gill Morija Museum & Archives 1993

                The Ruston & Hornsby Technical Manual  - Publication 6820 - circa 1935


Mafeteng_Mat_Machine.jpg (62104 bytes)                  Mafeteng_Blower.jpg (53021 bytes)

Ruston Hornsby 7 HP Diesel Engine, installed in 1938                                       This is a fully operational roller mill



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Last updated:  21 October 2011