Eswatini

Swaziland: Alternative crops take root

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MBABANE, 3 May 2007 (IRIN) - After years of cajoling by nongovernmental organisations and Swaziland's ministry of agriculture to plant drought-resistant crops and diversify from maize, the staple food, small-scale farmers are finally heeding the message.

"My maize all died in the heat, or it was stunted and the cobs were so small they were only good to give to the cattle. But look at my sorghum! It is doing well," said Nonhlanhla Thwala, a widow in Lubombo, the country's eastern region.

The drought that devastated crops in the first quarter of the year seems to have been the catalyst for small-scale farmers to re-examine their passion for growing maize and experiment with other plants, a move that food security officials hope will prompt an interest in alternative crops.

Swazis view all alternative crops, meaning any crops that are not maize, with a degree of suspicion, to the extent that farmers will gamble on the chance of good rains rather than plant a non-maize crop. It is a habit that has proved hard to break, despite a 15-year cycle of poor rainfall in the Lubombo Region. About 80 percent of economically active Swazis are involved in small-scale farming.

This stubborn resistance to planting alternative crops is surprising, as at one time sorghum was the staple food of Swazis. "Maize was not always here; the white people brought it," Thwala said. "Before, we grew sorghum - we cook it, and we brew a traditional beer from sorghum, called 'umqombotsi'."

Despite the role of sorghum in Swazi culture, it has taken years of inadequate seasonal rain to convince Thwala to plant something other than maize - "maize is easier to handle and cook!" - and dedicate a portion of her two-hectare field to sorghum.

The contrast is startling. In one part of her field there is a pathetic display of stunted maize, bordered by a solid column of thriving sorghum plants, each crowned with a bountiful inverted pyramid of seeds waiting to be harvested.

"All these years the agriculture field officer advised the community to plant something other than maize. It is when I remembered the sorghum field of my grandparents that I did so," Thwala said.

In the northern Hhohho region, the efforts by the agricultural ministry to turn subsistence farming into thriving small businesses by growing cash crops encouraged Ambrose Kunene to grow mangoes, oranges and avocados.

"The maize did poorly this year; my storage bin will be full by only a quarter. Usually it is half full in bad years, and full in normal years. The fruit will save us - the avocados I planted. I can sell them. The oranges and mango trees need some more years to mature, but I thank God for the avocados," he said.

To feed his family, Kunene relies on another crop that used to be widely cultivated but lost popularity when years of good rain resulted in bumper maize harvests. "My jugo beans have done well; they need little water. I am also happy that my watermelons did well; they received rainfall at the right time, when they were germinating," he said.

Kunene points to the local type of watermelon - pale green, the shape and size of a cantaloupe - resting on its vine, surrounded by emaciated stalks of maize that did not survive the rainless summer.

Abdoulaye Balde, country director for the World Food Programme (WFP), commented, "There are places in the country, like the Lubombo Region, where rainfall has not been sufficient for some time to grow maize. Weather patterns are changing, and we may never see good rains in those areas. There is no reason to grow maize everywhere in Swaziland when people can grow cassava and other alternatives."

Cassava is still grown sparingly in rural areas, but because it requires little space and reaches maturity quickly, it can often be seen in towns, growing on vacant lots or reaching above the garden walls of homes.

Prudence Zwane, 25, a secretary who works in Swaziland's second city, Manzini, grows vegetables to augment her family's diet. The drought has led to food price increases, and a bag of maize is expected to cost twice as much as it did in 2006.

"My tomatoes and lettuce did not do well, because I was at work and they were not watered properly, but the cassava grew nicely on its own. We use it for the starch portion of our meals," Zwane told IRIN.

The planting of diversified crops has also coincided with a shift in cultivation techniques. "I planted early this year, at the first rains. Everything I have is because I planted early," said Musa Ndlovu, 62, who farms in Shiselweni Region, in southern Swaziland.

Shiselweni usually enjoys good rainfall, so farmers have sometimes planted as late as December, but in recent years the rainfall pattern has changed, a consequence attributed by some climatologists to the effects of global warming.

Ndlovu had read the signs of changing weather patterns, and put his maize seed in the ground after the first soaking spring rains; by January, when the rain stopped, his crop was ready for harvest.

Abagale Dlamini, an agriculture ministry official in the Shiselweni Region, recognized Ndlovu's foresight compared to that of his neighbours, who planted late and got poor crops.

"He planted early, but there were other factors. He used fertiliser, and he managed his crop very well, weeding at the right time and being scientific about his business. These are lessons we are trying to instill in Swazi farmers," said Dlamini.

After years of declining food production nationwide - in 2006 a quarter of Swaziland's roughly one million people had to receive some form of food assistance - this year, harvests worse than ever have brought the urgency of food production home to farmers.

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