Harare — Bright Makakai, 41, is constantly advised by a farming programme he listens to on his solar-powered radio to "plant small grains" in the drought-prone area of Shurugwi, about 200km southeast of Gweru, the capital of Midlands Province in Zimbabwe. But he chooses to cultivate mainly maize, even though the crop generally fails because of poor rains.
He allocates less than an acre to rapoko, a small reddish grain also known as finger millet, which can be milled into flour and used for brewing beer, mostly for traditional rituals, or cooked into a thick porridge for meals. The rest of his five-acre plot is dedicated to maize, Zimbabwe's staple food.
"Most members of my family don't like eating meals prepared using rapoko, preferring the sadza [thick porridge] from maize meal. Every farming season I plant maize because, just like other people in this area, I keep hoping that the rains will be better," Makakai, a father of five, told IRIN by phone.
Only two of the about 100 households in his village plant sorghum and millet, he said, although over the years several households have been setting aside small plots for rapoko.
"Many people don't want to plant millet and rapoko because the crops can easily be wiped out by the [quelea] birds. You need to constantly monitor the fields, but who can afford the manpower to do that when there are so many other chores to do?" said Makakai.
Erratic weather patterns in recent years and the disruptions caused by the 2000 fast-track land reform programme, which redistributed more than 4,000 white commercial farms to landless blacks, have combined to transform previously food secure Zimbabwe into a food insecure country in the past decade.
Poor rainfall during the 2011/12 season is expected to bring lower yields from the previous year, but the exact extent of any food insecurity is difficult to gauge. UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which used to assess and report on crops to assist food security, have again been barred - as they were in 2011 - on the grounds of "national security".
The agricultural ministry said the 2010/11 season recorded a 1,6 million ton harvest, leaving a national cereal deficit of about 70,000 tons.
Small grains are being promoted as a crop better equipped to handle adverse weather conditions and more suitable for long-term storage, but they remain unpopular with most communal farmers in arid areas.
Leornard Unganai, an agro-climatologist coordinating a climate adaptation project in Chiredzi in Masvingo Province, said small grain seeds were generally not available in Zimbabwe.
There is no comprehensive national policy regarding small grains, despite the fact that some communal farmers have expressed eagerness to venture into them
"There is no comprehensive national policy regarding small grains," Unganai told IRIN, "despite the fact that some communal farmers have expressed eagerness to venture into them."
Agriculture minister Joseph Made said during a field trip with delegates from several African countries in March 2012 that it was "time the country adopts crop diversification and accommodates small grains on a very serious note", because the government is forced to make up crop shortfalls with cereal imports.
"A lot needs to be done to convince communal farmers to grow small grains. Even in the most arid regions like Matabeleland [in southern Zimbabwe], farmers are still stuck with maize as a staple crop," Denford Chimbwanda, the former president of the Grain and Cereal Producers Association (GCPA), told IRIN.
"Despite the poor uptake of small grains by smallholder farmers, there have been efforts to promote these drought-resistant crops since the 1950s," Sam Moyo, an agriculture expert and director of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies (AIAS), told IRIN. "Calls to convert to small grains are not a new phenomenon - there are complex issues to address, though."
He said lifestyles, tastes and traditions partly explained the reluctance to adopt small grains, but pointed out that there were also no clearly defined policies and strategies to market small grains to growers or consumers.
Lack of marketing
"There is clearly a lack of infrastructure to market the buying and processing of small grains, especially in dry areas. When you visit the areas, you easily recognize that there are no shops selling small grain seed; neither are there efforts to... [promote] the buying of small grains."
Moyo said there was also a need to boost the availability of specialised equipment for processing the harvest in outlying communities as a way of encouraging farmers to plant small grains on a larger scale. The lack of incentives, subsidies, storage facilities and effective transport arrangements also discouraged farmers from adopting these drought-resistant cereal varieties.
"Even if farmers wanted to plant sorghum, for example, for commercial purposes, they lack knowledge of how they can do this, and many are convinced that there is no market for it. There is need to promote awareness around the value that small grains bring, and the private sector should play an increased role," Moyo said.
Local commercial beer brewers buy red sorghum as an ingredient, but only from farmers they have contracted as suppliers, leaving smallholder and communal farmers in the cold, an employee at Harare-based Chibuku Breweries, who refused to be named, told IRIN.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]