To counter the risk of poor yields, lost income and hunger, the Government of Zimbabwe turned to FAO for assistance in helping farmers in the country’s marginal areas focus more on producing small grains such as sorghum and millet.
Both are traditionally important crops that can be grown with relatively less water resources – and both are more nutritious than maize.
Working alongside Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanization and Irrigation Development, FAO kicked off a two-year pilot project in September 2010 to boost the production, processing and marketing of small grains in three of the country’s drier provinces.
According to Joyce Mulila-Mitti, FAO’s lead technical officer for the project, 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,” she said, 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.
But tackling these constraints was exactly what the project set out to do. That meant making sure farmers had a reliable source of high-yielding, improved sorghum and millet seed varieties. The project trained several farmers as well as officials from the Department of Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX), the project’s implementing partner, to multiply seed. It brought seed closer to the farmers by setting up community-based seed production and distribution systems in each of the participating nine districts.
It 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.
Thanks to demonstration plots, exchange visits and field days, farmers could see first-hand the advantages of using the improved varieties and technologies introduced by the project, and also discuss and compare different crop management practices.
One such field day drew more than 250 people, including senior community members and councilors. One woman explained that she was encouraging more farmers in her district to give small grains a go, especially as the improved varieties mature early. “I have already harvested enough sorghum and pearl millet crops to feed my family up to the next season and with surplus to sell,” she said.
The sustainability of seed and grain production hinges on assured markets. Without them, farmers have little incentive to produce.
The exchange visits and field days provided an ideal setting for farmers to engage in seed trade with other farmers and stakeholders.
The project also linked farmers to niche markets such as brewing companies – a big consumer of sorghum – as well as non-governmental organizations involved in seed distribution programmes in Zimbabwe.
Policy environment key
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.
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, says Ms Mulila-Mitti.
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 motorized 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,” said Ms Mulila-Mitti.
Finally, getting the word out to the public on the nutritional value of sorghum and millet is important, as is making sure the grains are widely available – from shops selling sorghum and millet flour to fast food outlets and restaurants featuring meals based on small grains.