Promote small grain seed production
ZIMBABWE needs to scale up efforts to strengthen its small grain seed production for improved food security and poverty alleviation, according to a new study. The new study entitled, “Evidence-Based Small Grains Value Chain Development In Zimbabwe,” by two local think tanks — Zimbabwe Economic Policy Analysis and Research Unit (ZEPARU) and Knowledge Transfer Africa (KTA) says there is a need to ensure that certified seeds for small grains are available from seed houses as is currently the case with maize.
“The use of recycled seed can explain the continuous fall in yields for small grains. Certified seeds can become available at a large scale only if the demand for such seeds is placed on the seed houses, pointing at the need to subsidise small grains seed availability,” the study says.
“Research should be done to ensure that early maturing and hybrid seed varieties for small grains are also found in the local market.
“Seed houses can invest in such research if they are assured of the market. As a policy, all Government initiated farmer input support programmes, including the command agriculture initiative, should ensure that small grain seeds are also included, which goes a long way in increasing demand for certified seeds.”
In Zimbabwe and most other African countries, agricultural experts say the supply of small grain seed is even more limited or completely absent when it comes to indigenous or local crops such as sorghum, rapoko, pearl and finger millet.
Small grains are being promoted as a crop better equipped to thrive under adverse weather conditions and more suitable for long-term storage.
Erratic weather patterns in recent years have led to a growing push to promote small grains which can adapt to arid conditions.
Experts also say current national seed production and dissemination systems are also unable to produce sufficient small grain seed to meet seed demand by smallholder farmers.
Farmers largely rely on their own saved seeds and seed houses say this makes small grain production largely unviable.
At present, local seed enterprises are producing limited quantities of small grain seed, targeting contract farmers growing sorghum for a large brewer.
For small seed enterprises, seed control and certification process is costly and not always conducted in a timely manner.
This, experts say, further shrinks small grain seed production.
“In Zimbabwe and other African countries, governments have disengaged themselves from seed production. This left the big private seed companies to be the sole sources of commercial seeds, which are often expensive and consequently inaccessible to limited resource farmers,” says veteran agronomist and Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT) director, Mr Andrew Mushita.
“Apart from pushing seed companies to produce small grains, our thrust should also be aimed at promoting smallholder sustainable quality seed production and supply enterprises in our local communities.”
Zeparu and KTA researchers say although small grains are an integral part of food and nutrition security for many households in Zimbabwe, they are still considered orphan crops.
“Policy support and media attention is showered on maize, wheat and other crops that are not indigenous to Zimbabwe,” the study says.
“While the Government and development partners are realising the importance of small grains production from a climate adaptation point of view, resource allocation for promotion of value addition remains a challenge.
“Where processing activities have happened, they have remained scattered mainly on pilot basis to empower communities to produce their own small grains mealie-meal. Unfortunately, due to inadequate evidence on different contextual factors, pilots have remained difficult to scale up across the country.”
The two policy think tanks say it is worrying that policy makers are more comfortable associating their policy decisions with maize and other exotic crops than with small grains.
“Most drought-tolerant maize varieties being promoted by seed companies are quickly losing their capacity to deal with climate variability.
“While small grains are proving more adaptable than maize, there is not much development of their value chains from production all the way to processing and value addition.
“This tends to limit the volume of processed products, resulting in the market remaining very small,” the new study observes.
Researchers also expressed concern over the failure by the Government to develop a comprehensive small grains policy framework.
“Current Government efforts to promote small grains have been made without a comprehensive policy. A well-crafted policy framework for small grains should be developed which address value chain linkages, provide for interventions and provide for regulations.
“The small grains policy would also be structured as a response to climate change and the need for food security in the country,” according to the study.
The researchers also say there is need to promote interest in small grains production.
“Currently, farmers are losing interest in small grains. Awareness campaigns are needed for farmers to appreciate small grains as an alternative source of food and economic development,” the researchers recommends. In addition to nutritional value, farmers need more awareness on climate change and how small grains can be adopted as a solution. Messaging should also include good agricultural practices on how to grow and increase yields. Knowledge on issues like use of herbicides and pesticides as well as the required plant populations is still missing among farmers.”
Despite the concerted push for small grains, negative attitude still remains one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of small grains in drought-prone parts of the country, agricultural experts say.
They say despite an aggressive campaign by the Government encouraging smallholder farmers to diversify or completely adopt small grains which can cope under dry weather conditions, farmers still plant maize which is not suitable to these conditions.
Most rural farmers have not heeded calls to opt small grains which are resistant to dry weather conditions.
Some farmers say they want small grains which can survive under harsh conditions but complain that they cannot get small grain seeds in shops around the country.
“I want to grow millet, sorghum and rapoko but getting the seed is a problem,” says a farmer from the drought-prone Pfungwe district in the eastern part of the country.
“It’s easy for me to get maize seed from any shop here in our district but for small grains you have to get from other farmers.”
Despite their importance to food and nutrition security, small grains have grossly been neglected both scientifically and internationally, some experts say.
Compared to the research lavished on wheat, rice, and maize, for instance, they say small grains receive almost none in terms of research, extension service and seed availability.
They bemoan that small grains have been left to languish in the limbo of a “poor person’s crop,” a “famine food,” or, even worse, a “birdseed.”
They are concerned that with further neglect, neglected small grain crops will start an ominous slide that could propel it to oblivion in the near future.
“It has declined so rapidly in southern Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, and Zaire (DRC), for instance, that some people predict that in a few years it will be hard to find — even where until recently it was the predominant cereal,” says one agricultural expert in an article published online.
“In those areas it clings to existence only in plots that are grown for use on feast days and other occasions demanding prestige fare.”
Says veteran agronomist and CTDT director, Mr Mushita: “Most of our agricultural extension workers never got training on small grains. They don’t have much knowledge about small grains and they are only able to tell farmers to plant it without the necessary information about the crops.
“We need to review our curriculum at our agricultural institutions to include legumes and pulses. We need to build their capacity on these under-utilised crops or neglected crops.”
Other agricultural experts say there is need to set up infrastructure to market the buying and processing of small grains, especially in drought prone districts.
Farmers say harvesting of small grains is cumbersome and labour intensive. They say they need specialised farm machinery for processing the harvest to help increase the uptake small grain. Experts also say the lack of incentives, subsidies, storage facilities and effective transport arrangements also discouraged farmers from adopting these droughtresistant cereal varieties. Some say private sector support through contract farming initiatives can also motivate them to grow more small grain crops. Recommendations to strengthen the small grain value chain Key messages on small grains must highlight drought tolerance Promote availability of small grain seed in major seed houses Promote farmer technical expertise on small grains through agric extension services Harvesting and processing of small grains should be technology driven Build closer relationship between small grains farmers and agro-processors Promote small grains marketing — Zimpapers Syndication.