Over seventy-five women small holder farmers huddle excitedly inside a classroom at Mafeha Primary School during a recent seed fair in Bulilima district in the patched Matebeland South province while they await results
of a small grain competition.
To calm the nerves, the farmers break into song and dance. The day is such a happier affair for them. Besides walking away with prizes – for those that won, the farmers acquired new variety lines of small grains.
That’s the whole purpose of the seed fair – to give the farmers an opportunity to showcase, share seeds, and exchange knowledge and experiences on the old and new climate adapted crops.
Seed fairs have become a common and key instrument used by change agents to stimulate the production of small grains as a broader strategy to upend hunger and offset the deleterious effects of climate change in drought stricken regions.
In recent years, government, and development agencies have aggressively been urging the farmers to grow small grains as alternative crops to maize, the staple crop.
Over the years, the potential of small grains in eliminating famine has been underestimated, with research focused mostly on maize. This is despite the fact that small grains are renowned for their drought tolerance, early maturity, and nutritional qualities. They are also cheaper to grow than maize which requires more fertiliser and irrigation.
But after years of hard selling the small grains, champions of the hunger busting crops claim that access to improved good quality seed coupled with good crop management is proving that many small holder farmers can improve yields and reduce crop failure.
Marco Mare, a plant breeder with the state run Crop Breeding Institute says since 2008, more farmers in drought prone areas have turned to small grains because of the availability of adapted seeds though these are still few.
“Farmers have realised the importance of growing crops that are adaptable to their conditions. The only challenge farmers are facing is limited access to the improved varieties of these crops.
“As a research institution, we’ve only managed to release four commercial varieties of pearl millet, five commercial varieties of sorghum, three varieties of bambara groundnuts and four commercial varieties of cowpeas. So, there is low diversity, considering that we must cover the whole of region 3, 4 and 5 where climate change effects are high,” Mare told journalists in Bulilima recently.
Melody Makumbe, a projects manager with international development agency Practical Action Southern Africa, which is working with government on a research project to promote the conservation, utilisation, and management of climate adapted seeds, said about 620 farmers in Matebeleland South have accessed over ten advanced variety lines of drought tolerant and early maturity small grains.
An estimated 20 000 additional farmers in surrounding areas are targeted to benefit from the improved varieties through spill over benefits.
“Many of the farmers had abandoned the production of small grains due to issues around labour and palatability. They have since realised that it’s more about food security and less about the other issues. So, we’ve seen quite a good response from the farmers with many of them doubling their yields from 1-2 tonnes per hectare,” Makumbe explained.
According to the 2017 Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee’s Rural Livelihood Assessment Report, small grains production increased by 157% during the 2016/17 farming season. Matebeleland South, Matebeleland North and Masvingo provinces recorded the highest number of households that grew small grains.
The ZIMVAC Report however notes that the proportion of households growing small grains remains low despite all the efforts and rhetoric to promote the crops.
Bulilima farmer, Violet Chuma, 55, attests to the benefits accrued from growing the adapted grains.
“The rains in Bulilima fall in November and by January it’s dry. The soils are poor and don’t retain water. But since I started the growing the improved varieties, I can harvest irrespective of good or bad rains,” said Chuma, who has doubled her small grains production.
Another farmer Tendai Mabhena (48) has increased the production of small grains to more than an acre, enabling her to reap enough for consumption and sale.
Among the adapted varieties is CBC 4, a cowpea breed that performed well during the 2015/16 season and yielded better where other commercial small grains varieties failed. Tsholotsho bearded, a traditional pearl millet variety with bristles, which prevents bird eating, has also been developed in response to bird damage complaints by farmers. Bird damage is a huge production constraint among small grain farmers.
But while many small holder farmers have embraced the small grains and are eager to grow them, lack of improved seed, poor prices and markets threaten to curtail production of the crops.
The farmers, many of whom have lost their traditional seed to past droughts still depend largely on retained seed. There is very little commercial small grain seed on the market. Most of the improved varieties are still advanced lines and therefore unavailable on the market.
To buck this trend, farmers and agronomists want government to introduce a comprehensive small grain policy that addresses value chain linkages, and the pricing system for small grains as they are laborious to produce but offer little pay.
“We need a policy framework that supports the commercialisation and processing of small grains because that’s where these crops are falling short. In terms of competition and value maize has many utilisation options.
“If we have mechanised equipment to process the grains and other value addition equipment to make flour, biscuits and so forth, these crops can be well adopted,” said Mare.