Zimbabwe is a country that faces many challenges, especially when it comes to food security.
Most rural smallholder farmers in the arid regions of Zimbabwe like Mbire are likely going to be affected by drought because Zimbabwe is expecting normal to below normal rainfall this season (2023/24 season).
But despite this sad drought story, there is still hope for a better future embedded in the dazzling potential of our traditional grains.
These crops, also known as small grains, have been cultivated in Zimbabwe for centuries, and have many advantages over maize, our current main staple crop.
Traditional grains are more resilient to drought and pests, require less inputs and water, and have higher nutritional value than maize.
They are also more suitable for the marginal areas of the country such as Mbire, where rainfall is low, and soils are poor.
Despite these benefits, traditional grains have been neglected and marginalised by both farmers and consumers in Zimbabwe for a long time.
This is partly due to the colonial legacy that promoted maize production and consumption over indigenous crops, and partly due to the lack of market opportunities, processing facilities and finally, awareness of the nutritional value and health benefits that the traditional grains contain.
As a result, traditional grains have been associated with poverty and backwardness, and have sadly lost their appeal among younger generations.
However, this situation is changing, thanks to the efforts of our partners ActionAid Zimbabwe (AAZ), Trocaire, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), Danish Church Aid (DCA), The Isle of Man (IoM), HEKS EPER including the government of Zimbabwe through the Ministry of lands, agriculture, water, climate, and rural development (MoLAWCRR), research institutions, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and farmers’ organisations, to revive the production and consumption of traditional grains in Zimbabwe.
Through the Strategic Partnership Agreement 2 project that we are implementing in partnership with ActionAid Zimbabwe, we are leveraging on the excellent potential of traditional grains in improving the livelihoods and food security of young smallholder farmers in marginal areas, hence, our efforts to promote sorghum, groundnuts, Bambara nuts, millet and sesame production and utilisation in the younger generation.
We have been providing the youth farmers with improved seeds, training, and extension services. We also hope to establish a lot of market linkages for them.
Our training and extension services include practical skills learning on basic agronomic practices of growing traditional grains organically, how to add value to traditional grain and produce homemade flour, bread, biscuits, and beer, and raising awareness among consumers about the nutritional and health benefits of traditional grains.
The promotion of traditional grain production and consumption has an immense potential of producing remarkable results in terms of increasing the availability, accessibility, affordability, and acceptability of traditional grains in Zimbabwe.
According to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC), the proportion of households that consumed sorghum or millet increased from 33 percent in 2019 to 41 percent in 2020.
The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) reported that the area planted with sorghum increased by 82 percent between 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons, while the area planted with millet increased by 28 percent.
The Grain Marketing Board (GMB), which is responsible for buying harvested crops from farmers, received over 77 000 metric tonnes of traditional grains in 2021/22 season, compared to 54 000 metric tonnes in 2020/21 season.
These trends indicate that traditional grains have an exciting potential to improve food security in Zimbabwe and replace maize as the main staple food.
However, there are still many challenges and gaps that need to be addressed to fully realise this potential.
Some of these include improving seed availability and quality; increasing access to inputs, irrigation and mechanisation; especially among the youth, enhancing integrated pest and disease management; reducing post-harvest losses, expanding processing capacity, developing value-added products, increasing consumer awareness and preference, ensuring food safety and quality, creating conducive policy environment, securing adequate funding, building capacity, fostering innovation, strengthening partnerships, monitoring impact, scaling up best practices, and ensuring sustainability.
Traditional grains have excellent potential not only to improve the diet and income of farmers in Zimbabwe’s marginal areas, but also national food security.
By diversifying their crop portfolio and reducing their dependence on maize imports, young farmers can increase their resilience to shocks and stresses, such as droughts, pests, and diseases.
By increasing their production and consumption of traditional grains, consumers can improve their nutrition and health status, as well as their cultural identity.
By supporting the development of the small grains sector (with more bias towards women), donors and policymakers can foster economic growth, social cohesion, and environmental sustainability.
The relationship between women and traditional grains in Zimbabwe is one of resilience, adaptation, and cultural heritage.
Women play a vital role in this initiative through active participation in farming and food production, especially in rural areas where they engage in gardening, raising poultry and baking.
However, they also face challenges such as climate change, food insecurity and market competition from processed foods.
In recent years, we are glad that many women farmers have rediscovered the benefits of growing traditional small grains such as pearl millet, sorghum, rapoko and svoboda (barnyard millet), which are more drought-tolerant, nutritious, and environmentally friendly than hybrid maize.
These grains are also part of the Zimbabwean culture and cuisine, passed on from generation to generation.
Therefore, it is time to recognise and appreciate the value of traditional grains in Zimbabwe once again.
They are not just a relic of the past, but a key for the future.