Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
Negative attitudes remain one of the biggest barriers to the growing and consumption of small grains in the country, despite growing appreciation of them as a strategy for adapting to the negative effects of climate change.
Stakeholders at a Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund policy dialogue on accelerating the commercialisation of small grains which was held in the capital recently, all agreed that despite an aggressive campaign by the Government and development partners encouraging smallholder farmers to diversify or completely adopt small grains which can cope under dry weather conditions, farmers were still planting maize which was not suitable in drought-prone districts.
Experts said it was important to understand why smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe were resisting to adopt small grains as a strategy for adapting to the impact of climate change.
“Small grains have been with us for a long time. We have lost the practices and we are now bearing the brunt of climate change,” said UNDP Zimbabwe Resident Representative, Mr Georges van Montfort.
“Cyclone Idai and the floods we have experienced this year all show that we need to build our resilience. Changing food eating habits is one of the most difficult things to do.
“We need to look at ways to change food eating habits to boost the consumption of small grains. It is not about outlining challenges but proposing solutions to the challenge.”
The uptake of small grains has been very low among smallholder farmers in climate change affected districts of the country in spite of expert advice.
Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement Deputy Minister Vangelis Haritatos told participants that there was need to educate farmers to promote the wider adoption of small grains.
“We need to educate our people on the benefits of traditional grains whilst promoting the growing and consumption of them,” he said.
“The first thing we need to do, is to educate our people first about the importance of traditional grains. Small grains used to be the main staple crop in Zimbabwe and this changed with the coming of colonialism.
“We have to convince people about their benefits. We need to talk to our chiefs, community leaders, policy makers, the private sector and all stakeholders about their importance. Consumers are also critical in all this dialogue.”
Maize, wheat and soybean products still constitute the largest share of the country’s total food expenditure and Haritatos says they “feature prominently in perceptions of the effectiveness of the State”.
Mindset and behaviour change on small grains is still far from transformation in Zimbabwe and for many people, if one has not had sadza, he or she has not “eaten” anything.
Agricultural experts at the policy dialogue said farmers’ and consumer attitudes towards small grain crops such as finger millet, sorghum, rapoko, cowpeas and a whole range of indigenous legumes and vegetables must be reversed.
“Messaging on small grains still continues to be largely taken as a back-up plan and not part of our lifestyle,” said Jennifer Mayer, founder of Utano Foods, a local company specialising in small grains and other indigenous foods.
“This food which used to be everybody’s food is priceless, is good for all kinds of things. Our messaging should see it as part of our food consumption lifestyle.”
Said another participant: “Climate-related disasters are driving food insecurity in the drought-prone areas of the country and farmers need to change their attitudes towards small grains to enhance their coping mechanism.
“Food diversity is critical for food security. We need to diversify our food sources and stop relying heavily on maize, which has proven not to be conducive especially in areas with low rainfall.”
The Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF) organised the policy dialogue event to explore ways to accelerate the commercialisation of small grains.
This ZRBF Resilience Policy Dialogue was organised as part of efforts to bring key hunger-related issues to the public’s attention.
This fund is a multi-donor fund managed by UNDP in close collaboration with the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Settlement as well as other key government ministries and the Food and Nutrition Council.
It is funded by the European Union (EU), Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), DFID and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Veteran agronomist and executive director of Community Technology Development Organisation, Andrew Mushita blamed the poor adoption of small grains by farmers on the lack of a supportive policy environment, poor investment in research, seed production and value chains.
“We need to de-maize (agro-ecological) regions 4 and 5 and promote the growing of small grains. We need to de-maize the country’s consumption attitudes,” he said.
“Our interventions to support small grains are fragmented and we need a holistic approach — from small grain seed production, growing and extension services, technology, research and development as well as developing value chains.”
He said it was vital to look at small grains as a “national security issue”, which could play a pivotal role in the survival of the nation in terms of food security.
Mayer added that it was important to popularise the consumption of small grain foods through improved processing, packaging and addressing the changing consumer tastes.
“So much processing is geared towards popular grains rather than traditional grains,” she said. “We need to address concerns on palatability and quick preparation. We need more consumer awareness and to celebrate our traditional foods.”
Compared to the research lavished on wheat, rice, and maize, for instance, experts say small grains receive almost none in terms of research, extension service and seed availability.
They bemoan that small grains have been left to languish in the limbo of a “poor person’s crop”, a “famine food”, or, even worse, a “birdseed”.
Farmers say harvesting of small grains is cumbersome and labour intensive. They say they need specialised farm machinery for processing the harvest to help increase the uptake small grain.
Experts also say the lack of incentives, subsidies, storage facilities and effective transport arrangements also discouraged farmers from adopting these drought-resistant cereal varieties. Some say private sector support through contract farming initiatives can also motivate them to grow more small grain crops.
A large brewing firm has contracted commercial farmers to grow sorghum. This has motivated them to grow sorghum and in a similar way experts believe this could be one route to support smallholder farmers interested in growing the crop.
With better prices, farm equipment, improved handling of harvest and part in processing and marketing the grain, experts say it’s possible to motivate many to take up small grains.
Most traditional varieties and other wild species are being lost through genetic erosion, as farmers adopt new varieties and cease growing the varieties that they have nurtured for generations.