Zim banks on small grains amid hunger

ZIMBABWE has turned to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) for assistance in helping farmers in the country’s marginal areas focus more on producing small grains such as sorghum and millet to counter the risk of poor yields, lost income and hunger.

Both are traditionally important crops that can be grown with relatively less water resources — and both are more nutritious than maize.

Fao’s lead technical officer Joyce Mulila-Mitti said her organisation embarked on a two-year pilot project to boost the production, processing and marketing of small grains in three of the country’s drier provinces.

She added that the project helped strengthen the capacity of Agritex workers to provide technical support to seed producers, and ensured that seed multiplication knowledge trickled down to other extension workers and farmers, via training and production manuals.

Knowledge was also transferred from farmers to researchers at the Crop Breeding Institute, which monitored seed and grain producers.

“The Fao project helped lay the groundwork for sustainable small grain production and get more farmers on board, even those outside the project area.  But more needs to be done, starting with an enabling policy environment,” she said.

The project also linked farmers to niche markets such as brewing companies — a big consumer of sorghum — as well as non-governmental organisations involved in seed distribution programmes in Zimbabwe.

Small grains have excellent potential not only to improve the diet and income of farmers in Zimbabwe’s marginal areas, but also national food security.

Given the frequency of drought, small grain production should not only be scaled up in the country’s marginal areas, under the guidance of Agritex, but farmers in maize-producing regions should reserve part of their land for small grains as a way to mitigate disaster risk.

Government policy on the supply side would mean including sorghum and millet in input supply programmes, something the country is now doing in its drier regions. And it would mean supporting more research and extension services on small grain production.

The use of small motorised grain threshers provided by the project not only saved farmers time during harvesting, but reduced the amount of foreign particles found in the grain, helping farmers fetch a better price. As production increases, more threshers should be made available to farmers.

New markets should be tapped into, including those in neighbouring countries such as Botswana, where “people eat sorghum as the major staple in their diet the way they eat maize in other parts of southern Africa,” Mulila-Mitti said.

This comes at a time experts say maize is the crop almost every farmer in Zimbabwe wants to grow.

It is so popular that it tends to be grown in parts of the country where the conditions are not favourable, including areas that receive less than 600 mm of rainfall per year.

There is strong incentive — prompted partly by government policy and agricultural extension services that target maize production, aggressive marketing by seed houses and millers, favourable pricing policies and good demand.

High-yielding maize varieties and technology are also readily available.

Growing small grains, by contrast, has not been easy for farmers in Zimbabwe’s drier areas, even though the crops are better suited to the environment and are excellent sources of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals.

For starters, production costs are high and good quality seed is in short supply. During drought periods, farmers often have to recycle the same seed the following season, resulting in smaller yields.

Traditional grain processing is labour-intensive and research and technical support are lacking.


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