Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
SMALL grains hectarage has increased marginally from 380 000ha in the last cropping season to approximately 390 000ha in the current season on the back of increased input support schemes, deliberate efforts to commercialise these grains and better rainfall in the past few weeks, a Government official has said.
Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement Deputy Minister Vangelis Haritatos told participants at a resilience policy dialogue on accelerating the commercialisation of traditional grains, that the Government remained committed to strengthening the adaptive capacity and resilience of smallholder farmers to the negative impacts of climate change.
The dialogue is part of efforts to bring small grains, which up until the 1920s were the dominant commercial grain crop, back into the limelight as a commercial crop, rather than just something people grow for back-up subsistence.
Government, through the Presidential Inputs Scheme, availed more than 15 000 tonnes of traditional grain seed free of charge to those who were willing to grow traditional grains, he said.
To support the producion of traditional grains, he said Government was promoting the substitution of maize and wheat with small grains as well as offering farmers uniform producer prices for maize, sorghum and millet deliveries despite lower production costs for the small grains.
The Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF) organised the policy dialogue to explore ways of accelerating the commercialisation of small grains.
ZRBF is a multi-donor fund managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in close collaboration with the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, and Rural Resettlement 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), the Department for International Development (DFID) and UNDP.
UNDP Zimbabwe Resident Representative Mr Georges van Montfort said it was important for the country to diversify farming by moving away from the growing of maize given the impact of climate change, health issues and the economic benefits of traditional grains.
“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,” he said.
“Cyclone Idai and the floods we have experienced this year all show that we need to build our resilience.”
He urged the Government, the private sector, smallholder farmers and development partners to come up with strategies to accelerate the commercialisation of small grains.
“Changing food eating habits is one of the most difficult things to do,” Mr van Montfort said.
“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 chal- lenges.”
With the increasing frequency of droughts, long mid-season dry spells and unreliable rainfall patterns, small grains are now being seen as an important cereal to mitigate the impact of climate change, as well as increasing food and nutritional security.
Small grains are cereal crops such as pearl and finger millet, sorghum and rapoko. They are hardy plants which require relatively little water, making them more drought-resistant.
Zimbabwe’s staple crop, maize, is vulnerable to low rainfall and agriculture experts and nutritionists alike are encouraging and training farmers to take up small grains farming as a solution to food insecurity in the country.
This year, more than an estimated seven million people are facing food insecurity in Zimbabwe, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
Extreme drought that hit the entire region sharply reduced the 2018 harvest, leading to increased food imports for Zimbabwe and most SADC countries.
Poor rains in the first half of the 2019-2020 cropping season have also dimmed prospects of a good harvest, worsening the country’s food security position.
Experts say small grains are drought tolerant and have better nutritional value than maize, making them worthwhile to promote.
However, the production of small grains over the years has faced several obstacles, including the limited access to seed, poor prices, low yields and the large flocks of voracious red-billed quelea birds.
Most farmers are more used to planting maize than small grains, but with climate change, the uptake of small grains is growing steadily.