The Sunday News
Vincent Gono, Features Editor
WHILE it is unarguable that Zimbabwe’s economy is largely driven by agriculture where a majority of its population especially in the country side depend on it for their livelihood, the past two decades have witnessed fluctuations in the production of its staple crop — maize due to factors associated with climate change.
The changes in climate have brought with them a number of negatives in agriculture, not only in Zimbabwe but regionally and the need for adaptation and mitigation can never be overemphasised.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported in its state of food and agriculture journal that decline in food-crop production could worsen in sub-Saharan Africa within the coming decade due to climate change whose effects in agriculture are seismic.
And with revelations that about 80 percent of the country’s rural population live in natural regions III, IV and V where rainfall is erratic and unreliable, making dry land cultivation a risky venture, calls for a shift to small grain crops that are drought resistant, have been growing louder although they have not been given enough heed. The success rate of rain-fed agriculture in natural regions IV and V that has been known to be in the order of one good harvest in every four to five years is getting worse as a result of extreme weather conditions.
The Government has therefore been calling on farmers in areas that are not fed by supplementary irrigation water to shift focus towards the growing of small grains such as sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet and rapoko with encouragement for them to become part of the mainstream food systems in the country. Small grains are ranked as second staple cereal crops after maize in Zimbabwe.
They are tropically adapted plants with high water use efficiency due to their structural characteristics that reduce transpiration.
Therefore, they have an amazing ability to survive dry and hot conditions. Small grains are not only renowned for their drought resistant nature, they also have rich nutrients, which according to medical experts can boost the immune system.
They are a rich source of carbohydrates. Sorghum and pearl millet are rich in vitamins and minerals, especially potassium, calcium and phosphorus. The minerals are important for healthy bones and teeth while finger millet is rich in iron, an important component of haemoglobin in red blood cells. Iron is an important requirement for children under five years, pregnant women and the chronically ill.
Finger millet can be prepared into sadza or porridge. It can also be used to make non-alcoholic beverages and traditional beer while almost every town has dozens of restaurants serving small grain dishes and diverse forms of relish at a more costly price than that of maize sadza.
Surprisingly however, despite their good nutritional and drought resistant profile, small grains are still meeting heavy resistance from farmers, even those from where maize has been failing. It has been proven by agricultural experts that many people still favour maize instead of small grains.
In many communal areas small grain crops are often given a small portion of land compared to that of maize and are not treated with the same respect, seriousness and value as that given to maize.
Findings of the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC)’s rural livelihoods vulnerability assessment report show that over 80 percent of all farming households plant maize except for those in Matabeleland North and South as well as dotted parts of Masvingo Province.
Agriculture, Lands, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement Deputy Minister Vangelis Peter Haritatos bemoaned the low production appetite by farmers and buyers of small grains crops saying the Government is in the process of availing 15 000 metric tonnes of small grain seed to farmers across the country.
He said it was to be understood that the promotion of small grains in Zimbabwe was mostly being pushed as a livelihood issue, given climate change realities and frequent drought-induced hunger and poverty in the communities where rain-fed agriculture was not producing enough.
The deputy minister said interventions by the Government were therefore aimed at ensuring food self-sustenance at household and national level, adding that such efforts were supposed to be met with support from the drought affected communities.
“We are aware of the low production and market appetite when dealing with small grains. But we will continue encouraging our farmers to be mindful of the climate change realities.
“The Government will also give as much small grain seed inputs and fertilisers to communal farmers across the country and drought-prone areas such as parts of the southern provinces of the country where rains are not good enough to see through maize crop production.
“We also encourage our farmers to work hand in glove with our agriculture extension officers who will provide all the necessary expertise on crop farming. It’s actually a livelihood issue that the Government is taking very seriously because of climate change.
“We do not want our communities to starve when there are drought resistant alternatives to maize. So, we are saying we want food security at household level through encouraging small grain production,” said Deputy Minister Haritatos.
Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe (GMAZ) chairperson, Mr Tafadzwa Musarara said the country was grappling with inadequate supply of grain although strategies were being put in place to see to it that the country’s population was fed. He said farmers have in the past been encouraged to plant small grains which were more drought resistant but the call was being met with resistance in some circles.
“Switching to small grains has been part of our strategic plans with farmers. It seems to be the most viable option especially that we are bracing for global changes in climate. Farmers are however, reluctant to venture fully into small grains as there is low market appetite. Small grain production is therefore met with resistance from consumers as most people tend to think that they are too traditional and backward despite their so many nutritional advantages over maize,” said Mr Musarara.
He said there is a need for the public to be educated on advantages of eating small grains such as millet, sorghum and rapoko as non-communicable and lifestyle diseases were on the increase and as a remedial substitute to over-reliance on maize.