Nelly Bassily | November 9, 2009
Traditional crops such as millet, cowpeas, and sorghum can help farmers maintain food security in the face of climate change, experts told Farm Radio Weekly.
Joshua Mukusya is a farmer from the Machakos District of Kenya. Mamby Fofana is a natural resource management officer from Bamako, Mali. And Dr. Rachel Bezner Kerr is a Canadian researcher who spent 10 years working with farmers in the Mzimba District of Malawi. The three gathered in Ottawa, Canada as part of a forum on how African farmers are coping with climate change.
All three described how farmers in their areas are turning to traditional crops as rainfall patterns become increasingly erratic.
Crops like maize, which has been promoted since the time of colonial governments, require consistent rainfall. Traditional crops are typically more tolerant of variable rainfall patterns, making them a more reliable source of food.
Joshua Mukusya says that “when you grow millet, you are sure of a harvest.” He used to grow mostly maize on his seven-acre farm. Now he grows a variety of crops, including millet, cassava, and vegetables such as carrots and kale.
Mr. Mukusya says that millet is more reliable than maize because it is resistant to drought and does not attract weevils, a common maize pest. He also offered cowpeas as an example of a traditional crop that provides food security because it grows very quickly. After only two weeks of rain, you can eat the leaves of cowpeas. After a month, the peas themselves can be harvested. By contrast, maize can take more than eight weeks to grow.
Thousands of farmers in three districts of Kenya now take part in a movement begun by Mr. Mukusya to share traditional crop knowledge and seeds of traditional crops. He says he now feels more confident that his family will always have enough food.
Mamby Fofana comes from the Sahel, a region where farmers have long coped with a fragile climate prone to drought. He says that resilient traditional crops are growing in importance as rainy seasons are becoming more difficult to predict.
Traditional seeds are resistant to drought because they have adapted to regional soil and climate conditions over time, Mr. Fofana explained. He works with an NGO that encourages farmers to contribute their best traditional seed varieties to be multiplied and shared in community owned and operated seed banks.
Interest in re-discovering and sharing traditional seeds is also growing in northern Malawi, said Dr. Rachel Bezner Kerr. She works with farmers in the Mzimba District who mostly grew maize on their small plots of land.
Thousands of farmers in this district have recently begun intercropping legumes such as pigeon peas and groundnuts alongside their maize. There is also a movement among the farmers to bring back other traditional crops such a millet and sorghum. The farmers want to re-discover the crops that their grandmothers grew, Dr. Bezner Kerr said.
Many of these traditional crops bring added benefits, say the experts. They strengthen and fertilize the soil and can provide cover to other crops.