Tanzania: Farmers plant sorghum to ensure a secure food supply

| November 9, 2015

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Fredina Said greets her mother- and grandmother-in-law before entering the brick, thatch-roofed building she uses as a granary. The older women are sitting in the shade of a huge acacia tree, entertaining one of Mrs. Said’s daughters and preparing leafy green vegetables for dinner.

Mrs. Said emerges from the gloom of the granary, her arms full of dried sorghum heads. She expertly winnows the grain from the chaff and sets it aside. She will grind it later, then use it to make a stiff porridge which her family eats with vegetables—and a chicken, which is yet to learn of its fate.

Mrs. Said is a mother of nine who lives in Negezi, a small village about 30 kilometres east of the town of Shinyanga, in northwest Tanzania. The village straddles a river which is currently dry—no rain has fallen here for months. The 44-year-old says, “I grow rice and cotton as cash crops and some sweet potatoes and maize for the family, but I rely on sorghum as insurance should the rains fail.” This is exactly what happened last season.

Mrs. Said is part of a community radio listening group, formed as part of a project* which educates farmers about drought-tolerant crops. The farmers in the group listened and contributed to a series of programs which explained how best to grow sorghum, a hardy cereal ideally suited to the arid conditions in the area.

She says: “I have grown sorghum for years, but started planting it in rows after listening to the program. Weeding was much easier, and I could see that the yields would have been really good, had the rain not stopped so early.”

John Lugembe farms a little way outside the village. He listened to the programs on Radio Faraja, which broadcasts from Shinyanga town. Mr. Lugembe had never thought about planting sorghum in rows. His family is used to eating the cereal only when there is nothing else. But, he says, “If I had not followed the advice I heard on the radio, there would have been nothing else. The failure of the rains meant that all my crops failed—but the sorghum I harvested will get my family through the year.”

Mr. John Lugembe

Photo: Farmer John Lugembe says if he had not followed the advice he heard on Radio Faraja about planting sorghum in rows, he would have no sorghum to speak of. The harvest will get his family through the year. Credit: Paddy Roberts

Because the sorghum was planted in rows, the 52-year-old was able to weed the crop with an ox-drawn hoe, something he has not done before. He says, “I just need to work out how to keep the birds [away] from the crop before harvest, and my sorghum could be very successful next season.”

Mr. Lugembe enjoyed the radio programs on sorghum and thinks that educational farmer programs are an effective way of informing listeners about new techniques. He says, “We enjoy participating in the programs, especially when the station offers prizes for our contributions!”

Pili Shija also farms near Negezi. The 42-year-old mother of seven used to broadcast her sorghum, but discovered that planting in rows made weeding easier. Her main problem is a good supply of inputs—seed is hard to find in the villages, and the trip to Shinyanga is expensive and not always productive. But, she says, “If we get good rains next year, I’ll harvest enough to sell some of it at the market.”

Photo: Mrs. Pili Shija. Credit: Paddy Roberts.

Photo: Mrs. Pili Shija. Credit: Paddy Roberts.

As the climate changes in northern Tanzania and rains become more erratic, crops like sorghum will be increasingly important.

After tending to her livestock, Mrs. Said starts to prepare the sorghum for her family’s evening meal. She pauses and looks out on the fields surrounding her house. After a moment, she says: “The poor rains made everything difficult last season. But if I hadn’t invested the extra effort in planting my sorghum in rows and weeding it properly, I wouldn’t be making this meal tonight.”

*Editor’s note: The radio program, Kilimo na mazingila, or “Farming and the environment” aired information on sorghum as part of a Participatory Radio Campaign developed by Farm Radio International in partnership with local radio stations and funded by Irish Aid.

Top photo: Fredina Said holding dried sorghum heads. Credit: Paddy Roberts