By Pamenus Tuso
For many years farmers in Jambezi in the arid district of Hwange in Matabeleland North have toiled in their fields every farming season without much success.
Every season was always the same: scorched maize fields with little or no returns despite all the effort and hard work. Low rainfall patterns and arid conditions lead to perennial flops of the maize crop in the area.
Despite the evidently perennial dismal performance of the maize crop, farmers in the area continued to fiercely resist agricultural and climate change advice from local agricultural extension workers and other experts to plant small grains.
It took the intervention of the local traditional leader, Chief Shana Mangondo for farmers in the area to embrace small grains.
“One day, a team of officials from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) visited my homestead and convinced me that due to climate change, it was no longer possible for people in the area to continue planting maize when the crop was not doing well.
“After the meeting with ICRISAT officials, I immediately convened a meeting with kraal heads and agricultural extension workers. During the meeting, I encouraged the extension workers and the traditional leaders to work together in ensuring that every homestead in my area had at least a small portion of small grains in their field,” said Chief Shana in an interview.
The chief said the perception and attitude of farmers towards small grains has incredibly changed following his intervention and the subsequent development and introduction of sorghum and pearl millet (SMIP) technology in the area by ICRISAT.
Under the SMIP programme, ICRISAT, an international agricultural research organisation with its headquarters in India, has developed the technology, research infrastructure development and trained several scientists.
“I would like to thank Chief Shana for opening my eyes on 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 other customers in places like Bulawayo and Victoria Falls,” said Ivy Sibanda who is expecting to harvest three tonnes of sorghum this season.
After harvesting their crop, Sibanda and the rest of the other farmers sell their grains at the Jambezi Small Grain Processing (JASPRO) plant which was set up with the assistance from the European Union. About 1 000 farmers contributed $3 each towards the construction of the plant.
Dr Eric Manyasa, ICRISAT Scientist Breeder in charge of Eastern and Southern Africa, said as an international research institution, his organisation has a mandate to produce technologies which assist farmers in mitigating the impacts of climate change.
“ICRISAT develops new materials of varieties that suit in the different ecologies where these crops are grown by the farmers. In Zimbabwe the organisation has run breeding activities for over 25 years but this had been scaled down due to funding problems but the programme was recently revived,” said Dr Manyasa.
The small grains expert said his organisation is currently working with various stakeholders in the country to develop new varieties and other technologies.
“We are working with national partners such as the Ministry of Agriculture’s research unit, seed companies and the farmers.
“The farmers do that part through a participatory variety selection process. When the farmers select, we are able to put the release system for them to be released officially for the farmers to grow,” said Dr Manyasa.
The small grains breeder stressed that like the rest of the SADC region and the world, Zimbabwe is facing serious adversaries of climate change, a development which he said is imperative for the promotion of small grains.
Sorghum and pear millet only requires 250 mm and 150 mm of rainfall respectively per year while maize requires 10 times that amount of rainfall.
Apart from enhancing smallholder farmers ‘s resilience to climate through strengthening seed systems in Zimbabwe, Dr Manyasa said ICRISAT is also promoting food , nutrition and income security among the farmers.
“Sorghum and millets play a key role in the diets of many, especially in Eastern and Southern Africa. Over 100 000 million people depends on sorghum and millet. The beauty of this is that unlike other cereals, sorghum and millets are high in nutrition in terms of calcium, iron and zinc.”
Bernard Mache, Director in the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanization and Irrigation Development, said government emphasises the importance of small grains and is promoting the crop in various ways.
“As the country continues to receive lesser and lesser rainfall because of the effects of climate change we are encouraging farmers even in traditionally high rainfall areas to grow small grains.
Government has now incorporated small grains packages into all our seed input distribution schemes,” said Mache.
Mache said the government is also involved in training farmers in unlocking more value in small grains as well as linking them to local and lucrative external market outlets adding that government is also involved in quelea birds controlling programmes.
According to Mache, a total of 564 000 hectares of small grains were planted countrywide during the 2016 -2017 farming season as compared to 382 000 hectares planted the previous farming season.