Maize alternatives face challenges in Zimbabwe

Faced with failing maize harvests, Zimbabwe’s government and aid agencies have urged farmers to diversify the country’s agriculture and plant more drought-hardy alternatives to maize, the staple crop.   

Tonderayi Mukeredzi –

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 said. “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 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 have not kept up, say farmers.
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 with 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 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 with 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 said.
But Kizito Mazvimavi, a crop expert with ICRISAT — the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics — said the technology needed to harvest small grains already exists.
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 they are cultivated on more than 400,000 hectares of land (13 per cent) in the country’s arable land. “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.
Charles Dhewa, a markets expert and the CEO of Knowledge Transfer Africa, believes a good market for small grains exists because people prefer to eat healthier food and most small grains are nutritious.
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.
— Thomson Reuters Foundation