Advance Mabhena has a compelling set of crops on his hands. Mr. Mabhena lives in the village of Ngwaledi in Zimbabwe and has grown small grains for the past four years. He uses plants like oats and rapoko—also known as finger millet—in several ways.
He says, “Small grains are also used in our Ndebele tradition and culture for brewing beer, mostly for traditional rituals. We also make porridge for meals.”
He started growing these small grains in addition to maize because he realized it would contribute to his family’s food and financial security.
According to the World Food Programme, an estimated 1.1 million Zimbabweans are facing food insecurity this year.
Zimbabwe’s staple crop is maize, which is vulnerable to low rainfall. Agricultural experts and nutritionists alike are encouraging farmers to cultivate small grains, which are more drought-resistant, as a solution to the country’s food insecurity. As a result, production of small grains is increasing in the country.
Livelihoods in Zimbabwe depend on rainfed agricultural production, so unpredictable weather can wreak havoc on crops like maize, which require more water than small grains.
That’s bad news for workers, too. In Zimbabwe, one-third of the formal labour force is supported through employment related to agriculture.
Dumisani Nyoni is a deputy director with the Department of Agricultural, Technical and Extension Services, or AGRITEX. Mr. Nyoni says that small grains farming is increasing in the Matabeleland North province where Mr. Mabhena lives.
According to a 2018 report by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, small grains production was up in Nkayi, a district in Matabeleland North. Sorghum production was more than 150% above five-year averages, and pearl millet production up almost 200%. By contrast, maize production was only 77% of the five-year average.
The report explained: “Maize grain supply by farmers and traders has decreased on most markets because of the poor and erratic seasonal rainfall.”
Some small grains are particularly resilient, including shirikure, a type of sorghum that grows in Dula, an area about 55 kilometres from Bulawayo.
Timothy Marega is an AGRITEX officer, and says that shirikure is abundant in Dula. He adds, “Shirikure is one of the best performers in this area in terms of food security because of its advantage of not attracting birds, unlike other small grains.”
People across Zimbabwe are consuming small grains for health reasons as well.
Lee-Anne Masuku is a Zimbabwean nutritionist. She says, “Many people are now becoming conscious of their diets, and now prefer making their starch from small grains.”
Winston Babbage is the Matabeleland North provincial chairman of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union. He says that, though farmers in dry areas are being encouraged to plant small grains, uptake is slow.
He says most farmers are used to planting maize, which still fetches a higher price. He adds that education about the benefits of small grains farming must continue.
For his part, Mr. Mabhena is on board.
He says, “Considering that the area I am in is a dry area, small grains are easy to manage because they are drought-resistant.”
This story was adapted from an article titled, “Small Grains Hold Promise for Alleviating Food Insecurity in Zimbabwe” written by Fortune Moyo for Global Press Journal. To read the original article, go to: https://globalpressjournal.com/africa/zimbabwe/small-grains-hold-promise-alleviating-food-insecurity-zimbabwe/ 
Photo: Advance Mabhena is a small grains farmer. He sells his crops at an outdoor market in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He says he added small grains to his production for both income and food security in his family’s own home. Credit: Forune Moyo / Global Press Journal