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October 17, 2010

Small grains being promoted in Zimbabwe

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched a project in Zimbabwe recently to promote the use of small grains such as millet and sorghum to boost food security in three drought-prone provinces - Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Masvingo.

Small grains are considered drought tolerant and have better nutritional value than maize, which is viewed as an unsuitable crop in these provinces.

The US$399,000 project - Promoting Production, Processing and Marketing of Small Grains in the Marginal Areas in Zimbabwe - which envisages the provision of improved seed varieties, will target small farmers, and aims to be up and running by the rainy season starting in the next few weeks.

It will provide small grain inputs sufficient for the cultivation of half a hectare, and this will also enable farmers to produce seeds for the next planting season.

Gaoju Han, FAO's sub-regional director for Southern Africa and Zimbabwe's country representative, said: "The project will also build the capacity of community based smallholder seed producers so as to ensure sustainable availability of high quality small grains seed."

Ministry of Agriculture extension workers will provide assistance and training on the production of small grains, and inform communal farmers of their benefits.

Han said production of small grains over the years had faced several obstacles, including the limited access to seed, poor prices, low yields and the huge flocks of voracious red-billed quelea birds.

"These challenges have contributed towards the reduction in the area allocated to small grains on the one hand, and an expansion of the maize area on the other. FAO’s aim is to assist the Ministry of Agriculture to address these and other challenges that have limited the production of small grains by smallholder farmers," he said.

"What is now required is for the key players to exploit the unique attributes of small grains such as drought tolerance and their better nutritional value compared to other cereal crops," said Ngoni Masoka, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Food security expert and the former Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Davidson Mugabe said the launch was welcome and if properly conducted, would go a long way towards ensuring food security.

"We need as a country to come up with policies that ensure that we grow crops which are suitable to the different regions, and the three provinces for the programme are ideal for small grains because they record low annual rainfall," he said.

Zimbabwe's rapid decline from food security has been blamed on a combination of events - including droughts and the disruption of agriculture in 2000, when President Robert Mugabe launched the fast-track land reform programme, which redistributed more than 4,000 white commercial farms to landless blacks.

In the first quarter of 2009 about seven million people - more than half the population - depended on food assistance. The government estimates about 1.3 million people will require food assistance in the first quarter of 2011.

Davidson Mugabe said it was also important to popularize the consumption of small grains and there was a "need for innovation when processing food from small grains. Only recently I ate a cake made from millet."

Dumisani Nyoni, the provincial agricultural officer for Matabeleland North, said farmers’ yields in the province had in recent years been declining.

"The farmers would save some [small] grain [seed] from their harvest which they continued to use as seed and over the years yields had gone down. When we introduce new seed varieties to the farmers, their produce will be higher. One challenge though that needs to be tackled urgently will be the threat posed by quelea birds which are a problem in the province. The department of national parks [needs] to be capacitated in order to eliminate that menace."

Quelea birds, which roam in flocks that can grow to millions, prefer the seeds of wild grasses to those of cultivated crops, but their numbers make them a constant threat to fields of sorghum, wheat, barley, millet and rice.


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