BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Advance Mabhena, a farmer who sells his produce at a local market, has a dynamic set of crops on his hands. He’s a farmer of small grains and uses plants like rapoko – also known as finger millet – and oats in several ways.
“Small grains are also used in our Ndebele tradition and culture for brewing beer, mostly for traditional rituals,” Mabhena says. “We also make porridge for meals.”
Mabhena, who is from the village of Ngwaladi, has been growing small grains for the past four years. He sells rapoko and pearl millet for $15 for a 20-kilogram (44 pounds) bucket at a market in Bulawayo. He started growing these grains in addition to maize, he says, because he realized it would contribute to his family’s food and financial security.
They’re good for the body, too.
“I am as healthy as I am because small grains have become an important part of my diet,” Mabhena says.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
Small grains are cereal crops such as millet, sorghum, oats and barley. They’re hardy plants and require relatively little water, making them more drought resistant. Zimbabwe’s staple crop, maize, is vulnerable to low rainfall, so agriculture experts and nutritionists alike are encouraging and training farmers to take up small grains farming as a solution to food insecurity in Zimbabwe. In turn, small grains production is increasing in the country.
This year in Zimbabwe, more than an estimated 1.1 million people are facing food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.
Livelihoods in the country, according to WFP, depend on rain-fed agricultural production, so unpredictable weather patterns can wreak havoc on crops like maize, which requires more water than small grains.
That’s bad news for workers, too – in Zimbabwe, one-third of the formal labor force is supported by employment related to agriculture.
In response, farmers in areas like Matabeleland have been urged by entities like Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Lands, Agriculture & Rural Resettlement and the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union to grow small grains. The Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe (ZCFU) has also trained farmers in drought-prone areas in small grains farming.
Dumisani Nyoni, deputy director with the Department of Agricultural, Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX), says there is an increase in small grains farming in the Matabeleland North province.
That’s supported by data: According to a 2018 report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, small grains production was up in Nkayi, a district in Matabeleland North, during the 2016-2017 cropping season. Sorghum production was 166 percent above five-year averages, and pearl millet was 193 percent above five-year averages. Maize, however, was 77 percent of the five-year average.
“Maize grain supply by farmers and traders has decreased on most markets because of the poor and erratic seasonal rainfall,” according to the report.
And according to a 2017 report by the Mechanization and Irrigation Development Division of Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Lands, Agriculture & Rural Resettlement, sorghum production estimates from 2015/16 to 2016/17 rose by 401 percent. Pearl millet production estimates increased by 267 percent, and finger millet rose by 37 percent.
Some types of small grains are particularly resilient. A grain called shirikure, a type of sorghum, grows in an area called Dula, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) outside of Bulawayo.
Timothy Marega, another AGRITEX officer, says shirikure is abundant in that area because birds are repelled by the grain – that’s what the name of the grain means.
“Shirikure is one of the best performers in this area in terms of food security because of its advantage of not attracting birds, unlike other small grains,” Marega says.
No matter the type, people have started to take to consuming small grains.
“Many people are now becoming conscious of their diets and now prefer making their starch from small grains,” says Lee-Anne
Masuku, a local dietician and nutritionist. Grains are associated with lowering the risk of chronic diseases.
Winston Babbage, Matabeleland North provincial chairman of the ZCFU, says that while farmers in dry areas are being encouraged to plant small grains, the uptake is slow going.
Most farmers, he explains, are more used to planting maize than small grains, and maize fetches a higher price.
Education about the benefits of small grains farming must continue, Babbage says.
Mabhena, for his part, is on board.
“Considering that the area I am in is a dry area, small grains are easy to manage because they are drought resistant,” he says.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ, translated some of the interviews from IsiNdebele.