Zimbabwe: Farmers try new staples as drought ruins maize harvest (Trust)

| September 28, 2015

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For more than 20 years, Dalarex Ncube grew maize in the arid Jambezi District of southern Zimbabwe. But seven years ago, he started gradually switching from maize to sorghum and millet. Both crops are more drought-tolerant than maize.

He and his family were used to eating maize porridge, the national staple. The thick porridge, known locally as isitshwala, plays a big role in the national diet.

At first, the switch wasn’t easy for his children. They hated it. But, Mr. Ncube says, “My children now enjoy the [porridge] from sorghum more than maize.”

Many farmers in Jambezi are making the same switch. They recognize that harsher weather is making maize an increasingly risky crop─which is why they’re growing alternative grains for food and cash.

In good conditions, farmers in the semi-arid parts of Zimbabwe can produce up to eight tonnes of maize per hectare. But they are realizing that hardier crops like sorghum and millet are better suited to the changing conditions. Sorghum and millet also need less rain to produce a decent harvest when rainfall is low.

Even Zimbabwe’s Meteorological Services is encouraging farmers to consider switching from maize when rainfall is predicted to be low.

Martin Moyo is an agronomist for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. He says the changing climate has made growing maize in arid areas increasingly risky.

Dr. Moyo says the switch can help farmers put food on the table even when drought cuts maize harvests. More farmers in the drought-hit Jambezi District are now growing sorghum and millet.

Catherine and Augustine Sibanda started growing sorghum seven years ago.

Mr. Sibanda says, “I use a rain gauge to keep a record of the rainfall pattern in my area and know when to plant once there has been sufficient rains. In this way, I minimize the risk of a poor yield.”

He continues: “I switched to growing sorghum because it never lets you down, even during a bad season. While sorghum yields are generally lower than those of maize, you never go hungry because in a bad season maize fails completely, [but] you can harvest sorghum.”

The Sibandas are expecting a good yield of sorghum and pearl millet this season. They hope to harvest one and a half tonnes of the grains.

The family’s efforts to adapt to changing conditions by using improved seed varieties and keeping track of rainfall are promising a bumper harvest.

In Jambezi, farmers are pooling their efforts. They formed the group Jambezi Sorghum Producers, or JASPRO. The group harvested more than 10 tonnes of sorghum in 2014, but found few markets. So members bought de-hulling and grinding machines to produce and package their own sorghum and millet flour.

Mr. Ncube is the chairperson of JASPRO. He says farmers expect to sell more than six tonnes of sorghum flour this year to markets in Bulawayo and in the northern resort town of Victoria Falls.

To read the article on which this story is based, As drought destroys maize, Zimbabwe tries out new staples, go to: http://www.trust.org/item/20150911095440-q63ra/

Photo:Catherine and Augustine Sibanda examine their sorghum crop in drought-hit Jambezi District in southern Zimbabwe. Credit: TRF/Busani Bafana