For too many years, farmers like Mavis Kalela, from Hwange have toiled under the brutal sun every day without much success.
Most seasons produce only scorched maize fields with little or no returns despite all the effort and hard work.
Inconsistent rainfall patterns and arid conditions lead to the perennial flop of maize production in the area. Despite the evidently dismal performance of the maize crop, most farmers like Kalela have, for years, ignored and fiercely resisted agricultural and climate change advice to them to plant small grains.
However, the perception of and attitude towards small grains has incredibly changed following the development and introduction of sorghum and pearl millet programme by the International Crops Research Institute For The Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat). The programme has transformed the poor communities from being mere subsistence farming communities to commercially viable rural communities.
“I regret all the wasted years when we deprived ourselves of income by ignoring small grains. Following Icrisat’s intervention, my small grain yields have increased. I am now able to adequately feed my family as well as process the grains and sell to local villagers and others,” said Kalela.
Livelihoods in the country, according to World Food Programme, depend on rain-fed agricultural production, so unpredictable weather patterns can wreak havoc on crops like maize, which requires more water.
Growing small grains can be an adoptive strategy to climate change in many parts of the country.
Small grains are cereal crops such as millet, sorghum, oats and barley. They require relatively little rain, making them more drought resistant than conventional crops like maize.
The country’s staple crop, maize, is vulnerable to low rainfall, so agricultural experts, nutritionists, the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement and the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union are encouraging and training farmers to take up small grains farming as a solution to food insecurity in Zimbabwe.
The Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe (ZCFU) has also trained farmers in drought-prone areas on how to grow small grains.
As a result, small grains production is increasing in the country. Department of Agricultural, Technical and Extension Services (Agritex) says there is an increase in small grains farming in the Matabeleland North province.
According to a 2018 report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, small grains production was up in Nkayi, a district in Matabeleland North, during the 2016-2017 cropping season.
Sorghum production was 166 percent above five-year averages, and pearl millet was 193 percent above five-year averages. Maize, however, was 77 percent of the five-year average. “Maize grain supply by farmers and traders has decreased on most markets because of the poor and erratic seasonal rainfall,” according to the report.
And according to a 2017 report by the Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Division of Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement, sorghum production estimates from 2015/16 to 2016/17 rose by 401 percent.
Pearl millet production estimates increased by 267 percent, and finger millet rose by 37 percent.
Some types of small grains are particularly resilient. A grain called shirikure, a type of sorghum grown in Manicaland, is also drought resistant.
Alec Marisha an Agritex officer, says shirikure is abundant in the area as birds are repelled by the grain.
“Shirikure is one of the best performers in this area in terms of food security because of its advantage of not attracting birds, unlike other small grains,” Marisha said.
Andrew Bushwa, a dietician and nutritionist, said grains are also beneficial because they are associated with lowering the risk of chronic diseases.
“In addition to the drought resistance, many people are now becoming conscious of their diets and now prefer small grain starches,” said Bushwa.
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 Food Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has helped lay the groundwork for sustainable small grain production and get more farmers on board, even those outside the project area.
FAO, Plant Production and Protection Officer for Southern Africa, Joyce Mulila-Mitti said more needs to be done, starting with an enabling policy environment. “Given the frequency of drought during most seasons, 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.
She also indicated that 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 maize is consumed in other parts of southern Africa.
“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,” said Mulila-Mitti.