Harare — As drought hits maize production, sorghum, millet and other small grains could take over - if the path is cleared for them, experts say
After years of bad maize harvests as a result of worsening drought, farmer Dorothy Chihota switched a few seasons back to growing sorghum, millet, cowpeas and groundnuts on her 50-acre farm in Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe district.
Since then she has had only good harvests, she said - but that doesn't always mean she has had good years as a farmer.
"Small grains are giving us better yields but our problem is that there are no markets to sell our produce," she complained in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Prices for the grains are poor, and seeds are not available in shops."
Faced with failing maize harvests as climate change brings more droughts and other severe weather, Zimbabwe's government and a range of aid agencies have urged farmers to diversify the country's agriculture and plant more drought-hardy alternatives to maize, the staple crop.
But the systems to support farming such alternative grains - from the creation and marketing of seeds to finding markets for what is grown - have not kept up, farmers say.
TOO LITTLE SEED
Figures from Seed Services, a Zimbabwean institute focused on improving agricultural production, show that in 2016-2017 only 460 hectares of certified sorghum seed were likely to be grown in the country, compared to 400,000 hectares of certified maize seed.
Mujaju said a big problem holding back wider use of grains such as sorghum and millet is the tradition of holding onto part of last year's harvest to replant or sell to neighbours as seed in the coming season.
"A lot of small grain is retained (to replant), and because the quality of seed tends to degenerate, that affects yields. Because of seed retention, the power of seed companies to produce more seed is not there," he said at a meeting in Harare last month.
"To them, there is no guarantee if they produce more their seed will be bought," he said.
A lack of research funding to develop better varieties of small grains also is a worry, he said. Since 2000, only 11 new varieties of sorghum have been developed in Zimbabwe, compared to more than 140 varieties of maize, Mujaju said.
Marjory Jeke, a small-scale farmer in Murehwa, said another problem is that harvesting small grains can be a more tedious task than bringing in maize.
"We can produce more if we have appropriate harvesting and processing technologies," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But Kizito Mazvimavi, a crop expert with ICRISAT - the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics - said the technology needed to harvest and process small grains already exists.
"It's not true that farmers have abandoned sorghum and millet because it is difficult to process. Way back in the 1980s we pushed de-hullers all over the place. The technology is there," he said.
According to the Andrew Mushita, executive director of the Harare-based Community Technology Development Centre (CTDC), farmers in low-rainfall areas of Zimbabwe already grow and eat a lot of small grains.
Mushita estimates that they are cultivated on more than 400 000 hectares of land or about 13 percent of the country's arable land.
"About 30 percent of the population derive their livelihoods from small grains - but this could increase as maize continues to fail because of climate change, making small grains the reliant cereal," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He believes small grains can effectively compete with or outperform maize if the country invested more in them.
"If we invest more in research and crop improvement, small grains will perform very well. They can indeed be a replacement to maize," he said.
"With the advent of climate change they have a huge role to play," he said.
Charles Dhewa, a markets expert and the CEO of Knowledge Transfer Africa, said that he believes a good market for small grains exists because people prefer to eat healthier food and most small grains are highly nutritious.
The harvests themselves also are in increasing demand to make everything from beer to animal feed, he said.
Growing more sorghum, millet and other small grains is part of Zimbabwe's national climate change policy.
Under the Presidential Input Support Scheme, farmers each season are entitled to 10 kg of either maize or small grain seed, said Pardon Njerere, an agricultural economist with the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development.
"The farmer has an option to take what they like. Government does not want to prescribe, though there is an outcry that we should give farmers small grain inputs only in all the dry areas," Njerere said at a meeting.
A 2009 government policy also sets the government purchase price for maize and other grains at parity, to encourage growing of alternatives to maize.
A December paper on lessons from drought, jointly authored by the Community Technology Development Organisation (CTDC) and Oxfam, suggests the government has been too focused on supporting the profit-making formal seed supply system and should instead focus on helping farmers to save, exchange, multiply and sell farm-saved seed.
However, the seed market for small grains is also seeing new players come in. Champion Seeds, a new company backed by farmers and CTDC is expected to start operating in the 2017/18 farming season, with an initial target to produce 500 metric tonnes of small grain seed.
The new company, which will help small-scale farmers produce both hybrid and regular seed, aims to double the area under cultivation of small grains within five years, in part by giving poor farmers access to good quality seed, Mushita said.
"There is a positive future for small grains. What has been lacking is their promotion," he said.
Reporting by Tonderayi Mukeredzi; editing by Laurie Goering