Small grains: Time to translate rhetoric into action

As Zimbabwe becomes increasingly susceptible to drought driven food shortages, a lot more voices are pressing the government to spearhead the production of small grains (government now prefers to call them traditional grains) for both subsistence and commercial purposes.

The argument is that the production of small grains will improve food production, save many hungry people from famine and curtail government expenditure being “wasted” on food imports.

The call to farm and commercialise small grains, which many farmers used to grow in the past but dumped for maize, an exotic crop is therefore largely viewed as the future of agriculture but one that most governments across the continent, including Zimbabwe have so far failed to effectively champion. The conversation is also age old.

Locally, government claims that it has or is doing all in its power to advance the growth of small grains famed not only for their tolerance to drought but also for their rich nutrients. According to the deputy minister of Lands, Agriculture, Water, and Rural Resettlement, Vangels Haritatos, government has been giving free small grain seed in all its agricultural input schemes every year while it has also set the producer price of small grains at par with that of maize as a way to catalyse the production of small grains. In fact, as per last week’s new producer prices, traditional grains now fetch slightly more than maize.

These measures, Haritatos said have seen the hectarage under small grains increasing from 382 000 hectares in the 2018/19 agriculture season to 390 000 hectares in the 2019/2020 season although it must be noted that the yield per hectare for small grains remains very low. However, in many circles, the supposedly noble efforts by government are adjudged inadequate and of falling short of what’s required to amplify the production of small grains. Questions are being asked and one of them is that if everything is equal, why then is the value chain for small grains not working?

There are many reasons. Farmers say that they are willing to grow and increase their hectarage under small grains, if they can they can get seed and markets to sell their grain. “Availability of seed is a problem. Farmers are therefore using mostly retained seed,” observed a farmer at a recent dialogue series held by the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund to promote commercialisation of small grains.

Most seed houses don’t have seed development programmes for small grains. Maize remains the king gobbling most research funds. The seed houses say small grains are not viable because there is no demand for their seeds. Seed manufacturers don’t get individual farmers asking for small grain seed beyond the obvious inquiries and purchases they entertain from government programmes and initiatives from non-governmental organisations.

“We sell not more than 100 000 tonnes of small grains seed per year, which is not economic enough for us,” wailed one representative from a seed house.

Stakeholders in the small grains debate believe that behaviour change or changing the mindset of the consumers vis-à-vis small grains is probably the biggest hurdle that needs to be overcome if the campaign to grow small grains is going to bear any fruit.

Whereas this change of behaviour must start with farmers by persuading them to switch their liking for maize to small grains, it must also cascade to consumers as well as buyers in the supermarkets, most of whom don’t like to procure small grain products for their shops, and even when they do, their pricing of small grains products is higher than that of maize products, which dissuades any small grain food lovers from consuming the products.

Engaging the private sector, a key player in the value chain is equally important, while government must to do more to sharpen its small grain policies. Government’s current policy on maize and small grains is deemed contradictory. For instance, at a time when the government is accentuating the growth of small grains, it is said to oppose the same cause through the mandatory fortification of maize products.

It is clear from this discussion that more work needs to be done by everyone to restore the value of small grains whether it is through resourcing agricultural extension services at the grassroots level, or the need to incentivise seed producers to produce small grain seed, or increasing research funds on small grains or de-maizing mostly natural region 4 and 5, or persuading the consumer, if the rhetoric on small grains is to be transformed into action.

Source: Tonderayi Mukeredzi

*Tonderayi Mukeredzi is a writer and communication consultant

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