Small grains produce big gains for farmers

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For too many years, farmers like Ivy Sibanda, from the Jambezi area in Hwange district of Matabeleland North, have toiled under the brutal sun every day without much success. Pamenus Tuso tells their story.

Every season produces only scorched maize fields with little or no returns despite all the effort and hard work.

Inconsistent rainfall patterns and arid conditions lead to the perennial flop of maize production in the area. Despite the evidently dismal performance of the maize crop, most farmers like Sibanda have, for years, ignored and fiercely resisted agricultural and climate change advice to them to plant small grains.

The perception of and attitude towards small grains has incredibly changed following the development and introduction of sorghum and pearl millet (SMIP) technology by the Institute of Crop In Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

ICRISAT, an international agricultural research organisation with headquarters in India, has developed the technology, research infrastructure development and trained several scientists under the SMIP programme.

Community transformed

The SMIP programme has transformed the poor Jambezi community from being a mere subsistence farming community to a commercially viable rural community, probably one of the first of its kind in this drought prone province.

“I regret all the wasted years when we deprived ourselves of income by ignoring small grains. Following ICRISAT’s intervention, my small grain yields have increased. I am now able to adequately feed my family as well as process the grains and sell to local villagers and others,” says Sibanda, who is expecting to harvest two tonnes of sorghum soon.

Kesi Nkosi, a farmer in Zhulandangalilo village, has planted two plots of pearl millet and macia seed.

Nkosi is part of a group of local farmers who have been trained in growing millet and sorghum seed for the local market. The group sells 1kg of sorghum seed for $1.

She is expecting to harvest about five tonnes of millet for both marketing and family consumption.

EU assists farmers

After harvesting, the farmers sell their small grains at the Jambezi Small Grain Processing (JASPRO) plant that was set up with assistance from the European Union. About 1 000 farmers contributed $3 each towards the construction of the plant while the rest of the money was provided by the European Union.

Farmers are already milling and selling small grain products such as flour and small grain meal.

JASPRO chairperson Dalarex Ncube says that most farmers in the area used to shun small grains because of the tedious traditional ways of processing the grains, but following the introduction of SMIP comprehensive technology, a lot more farmers are showing an interested in the crop.

“After harvesting, the farmers bring their grains to the plant for milling. A 5 kg pack of the meal sells for $3, 50. We sell to locals and as far as Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. A lot of farmers are now able to pay for school fees and uniforms,” advised Ncube.

Farmers share milling and packaging expenses among themselves.

No more hand-outs

Area Chief Shana Mangondo says that following the introduction of the programme, food security has improved in the area.

“Before the introduction of this project most villagers were dependent on food hand-outs from relief aid agencies. There is, however, a need for the government to provide more input and market outlets for the small grains farmers in the same way they do for maize farmers. Small grains are the only remedy for the perennial drought that we experience in this area,” he said.

The chief’s remarks were echoed by Davison Masendeke, the provincial agronomist for Matabeleland North province.

“As a result of climate change, the government is supporting and promoting small grains in various dry areas. We are working closely with stakeholders such as ICRISAT in achieving this goal. The government has also invested a lot of resources in educating extension workers to train farmers in small grain farming,” said Masendeke.