By Lazarus Sauti
ZIMBABWE, just like most southern African countries, is grappling with food insecurities, high rates of malnutrition and micronutrients deficiencies, particularly among children under five years due to the drought induced by the El Nino phenomenon.
Sub-Saharan Africa, notes the World Food Programme (WFP), has the highest percentage of a hungry population in the world, with one person in four undernourished, while over a third of children are stunted.
Reliance on genetic hybrid varieties like maize, has intensified food insecurity, malnutrition as well as micronutrient deficiencies in Zimbabwe.
However, small grains such as millet, sorghum, and rapoko (finger millet) as well as pulses, defined by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as legumes with dry, edible seeds that have low fat content like lentils, beans and chick peas, are proving to be the solution to food and nutritional security in semi-arid parts of the country.
Semi-arid regions in Zimbabwe are agro-ecological region four and five covering places such as Gwanda, Chiredzi, Binga, Middle Sabi, Beitbridge, Kariba, Hwange, Wedza, Masvingo, Mutasa, Mudzi and Mutoko.
These areas are characterised by unpredictable weather, limited and erratic rainfall as well as nutrient-poor soils.
Marova Moyo, 54, a small-scale farmer from Sixpence Village, Kawere Ward 4 in Mutoko District in Mashonaland East Province, says small grains and legumes are a perfect food in Mutoko, as they give people hope and reduce rural poverty.
“We used to rely entirely on maize here in Mutoko, but climate change forced us to diversify into small grains like sorghum, rapoko and millet along with legumes such as cowpeas, round nuts and groundnuts.
“Millet and sorghum, for example, grow quicker than maize. They also adapt well to disparities in climate and rainfall as well as thriving in poor soils with limited moisture,” she says.
Moyo, who also sells her surplus produce in Marondera and Mbare Musika in the capital city, Harare, boldly asserts that millet and rapoko are her key cash crops.
“I’m earning enough money to buy livestock, pay school fees for my three children as well as cover other household needs by selling finger millet (rapoko). A bucket of rapoko, for instance, costs between US$15 and US$18,” she says.
In most shops in Harare, for example, a 2kg of rapoko meal is going for US$4.50 to US$5.
Moyo adds that small grains are easy to store as no chemicals are required, unlike maize, “which is alien after all”.
“As a small grain, finger millet is naturally defiant to pests and insects when stored,” she says.
Moyo also says small grains and pulses ensure healthy, safe and sufficient food for her family, a fact supported by nutritionist, Valeria Nkhungwa, who adds that small grains and pulses are good for nutrition, health and wellbeing.
“They represent a major source of protein, especially among the poorer sections of the population who rely on maize and vegetable sources for their protein and energy requirements,” says Nkhungwa.
Caroline Jacquet, the Bio-Innovative Zimbabwe (BIZ) project manager and organiser of the Food and Seed Festival held annually on October 1 at the Botanic Gardens in Harare, says on top of fighting climate change and food security challenges, small grains and legumes have some medicinal values.
“Finger millet, for example, is highly nutritious, containing high levels of amino acids absent in most staple cereal crops. Such high levels of iron and micronutrients mean it is an ideal food for diabetics, the elderly, as well as people living with HIV,” she adds.
Ngoni Blessing Chikowe, another smallholder farmer from Kativu Village and a firm believer in Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKSs), says although small grains still suffer something of an image problem, they have a cultural as well as spiritual link seeing that they belong not only to the farmer, but to his/her family as well as the environment.
“Remember, in Genesis 1:29, God advices us to eat seeds. This shows that small grains are important to us,” he says, adding, “We use these grains for our cultural rituals such as rain-making ceremonies.”
Gertrude Pswarayi of the Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Association adds that small grains and legumes are climate-smart.
“Rapoko kills witch weed – a wild plant that causes a decline in crop production and legumes help in fixing nitrogen in the soil.
“Small grains and legumes also need less fertiliser, both organic and synthetic and in this way, they play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” she says.
Pswarayi also believes with proper research and development, small grains like sorghum and millet can play an important role in poverty reduction.
“Small grains are indigenous cereals that, unlike maize and wheat, are well adapted to semi-arid conditions.
“With proper research and development, these grains can play an important role in challenging climate change and fighting poverty,” she adds.
Nelson Mudzingwa, the national coordinator of the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), says Zimbabweans can deal with climate change and solve food and nutrition problems simply by going back to the basics – embracing small grains and legumes as well as respecting smallholder farmers as custodians of traditional and cultural practices.
Mudzingwa, who is also a farmer in Masvingo Shashe Block of Farms, conversely argues that although small grains and pulses are strategic to ensuring food security in the country, they are not being prioritised as important crops.
“The government is doing a lot in terms of research and development for maize, but not for small grains and legumes. The Command Agriculture programme is a good case. It is focusing on maize production not small grains,” he says.
Mudzingwa, thus, urges policy makers to craft strategies, plans and policies that not only promote, but also protect small grains from seed houses and multinational companies.
“There is criminalisation and monopoly on seed by seed houses and multinational companies and the idea is to erode our traditional seeds. Policy makers should, therefore, protect us from these elements,” he says, adding that colleges and universities should also promote the production of small grains like rapoko, sorghum and millet not cash crops like maize, cotton and tobacco.
Jacquet also urges the government to close all policy gaps and promote small grains and legumes like what Kenya did.
Kenyans are still eating their traditional seeds and vegetables.
“The whole idea should be changing the mentality of people regarding small grains,” she adds.
The Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum and FAO Special Ambassador for the International Year of Pulses in Africa, Elizabeth Mpofu, believes there is quite a lot of work which needs to be done, especially to create awareness on the importance of small grains and pulses as well as to build a strong united voice which will enable smallholder farmers, especially women, to lobby for policies that promote peasant agroecology and food sovereignty.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation believes issuing inputs to boost production of smallholder farmers and equipping them with improved crop management practices can assist in improving Zimbabwe’s food security situation.
However, development practitioner, Tendai Nciizah, believes the adoption rates of small grains in Zimbabwe are low due to lack of certified small grain seed in the market, information, alternative end uses, poor marketing strategies, poor grain quality, as well as challenges of birds.
Nciizah also says many farmers in the country ignore the calls to adopt small grain production and in many instances continue to produce maize despite the realisation that they are likely to get very low yields due to drought induced by climate change.
“Most farmers have failed to acknowledge the significance of small grain production as they are driven by the taste of maize.
“The fact that small grain production is only being promoted in semi-arid areas while other areas in town are likely to continue farming maize make them ignore their condition and proceed with maize cultivation,” says Nciizah.