Businesses in the agri-foods sector should have noticed a pair of recent news reports that will have, or at least could have, an effect on their manufacturing and marketing: the stress on sunflower and cotton when it comes to oil seed, and the risks involved as an El Nino phenomenon builds up in the Pacific.
The first involves a build-up of the stress in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development on increasing as fast as possible the production of sunflower and cotton, with a lot less stress on growing soya bean, when it comes to oil seeds.
The policy remains to make Zimbabwe self-sufficient in edible vegetable oils, but with a far higher percentage of the cooking oil on the shelves being processed from sunflower and cotton seed.
Soya became the oil seed of choice with many manufacturers because it could be readily imported, usually from South America, and a lot had already been done in the past with the plantation farmers and the larger commercial farmers in building up this source of vegetable oils.
Cotton harvests had been cut back, as a result of Cottco’s cash problems after it went private, and sunflower, once a modest but ubiquitous cash crop in the communal lands, had never really been pushed hard.
Cotton is now being pushed very hard again, as a suitable cash crop in much of the country with particular emphasis on the small-scale growers.
The main product is still seen as the fibre obviously, which is still largely an export commodity although with some spinners surviving the downturn and the present re-equipping of David Whitehead under its new owner, more will be processed in Zimbabwe.
But a very useful by-product of cotton is the seed, and this is retained in the country. It used to form a significant percentage of the blended oils that predominated during UDI and the 1980s and 1990s, and has been returning in the last few years.
The giveaway is the phrase “longer lasting”; cotton seed oils are non-drying, meaning they do not oxidise and so can be reused more often for deep frying and the like.
Cotton seed oil was the vegetable oil that largely transformed domestic kitchens and takeaways which had been reliant on lard and suet, although there had always been a market for olive oil at least in Mediterranean-style cooking.
In the US it came to dominate the market until the Second World War when its non-oxidising properties made it an ideal light lubricant for many weapons. Soya came in as the cooking oil substitute.
Sunflower is now being seen as a major cash crop and one of the main options in the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme with most farmers in this group being encouraged to put in a plot. The huge jump was seen last season when one of the major producers of vegetable oils partnered the Government in bringing it into the Pfumvudza programme, largely to ensure supplies.
The stress on cotton and sunflower makes sense, especially with an El Nino threatening to increase the risk of a dryer rainy season, as sunflower and cotton are far more drought tolerant than soya, and the smallholder farmers who dominate much of the planning in the ministry generally know how to grow both crops.
This does not mean soya is being abandoned, just that there is unlikely to major growth in output and that its growers are likely to be the larger scale farmers with at least some access to supplementary irrigation.
We still believe that many of the growing number of tobacco farmers could incorporate soya into their crop rotations, as the old commercial farmers did, as they have high-levels of skill and soya can follow tobacco to use up residual fertiliser levels in the soil and as a legume help restore land that has was used for tobacco.
For cooking oil manufacturers, the same hexane extraction can be used for all three main oil seeds, although cotton seed processing requires the extra but simple step of removing traces of a toxic impurity. . This means new equipment is not needed.
Sunflower is more expensive, but then 30 percent of the mass of a sunflower seed is oil. Manufacturers may have to think about their marketing, figure out if they want to offer a blended product or a set of specific oils.
Generally sunflower has in the past, and now in the present, been offered as a specific product, sometimes at a premium price, with other oils blended.
The higher risk of lower rainfall with an El Nino is still being calculated, but meteorologists cannt predict precisely how a rainy season will pan out.
They can quantify potential risks, both of lower rainfall and of major breaks in rainfall, but these are statistics, rather than a prediction of whether it will rain on Christmas Day.
Again the Agriculture Ministry has been refining its policies on what crops to support and where, with last season seeing farmers in natural regions four and five discouraged from growing maize, and in the coming season this discouragement going further with a policy that if they want to take major risks without irrigation they can use their own cash as the smallholder input schemes and even the Government guaranteed financing will not be throwing money away on high-risk crops.
Maize, even in drought years, does produce harvests in the “maize belt”, largely natural region two and the nearer parts of the neighbouring natural region three, although even here farmers need to think about what varieties of seed to produce. But these harvests can and often do have lower yields unless there is at least supplementary irrigation.
The traditional grains will dominate in the dryer regions and are optional in the better watered areas. These can cope with a lot of moisture stress and with breaks in a season.
Not only do they need less water, but they have the desirable property of not dying when there is a major break, but rather stop growing for a while and then renew growth when more rain arrives.
All this means that the traditional grains will be a higher fraction of the total grain harvest and there will be pressure on agri-industries to process and market these grains so they can assume some of the importance they had in traditional societies.
These grains, mainly sorghum and millet, are originally indigenous to Africa and were domesticated more than 5000 years ago at the top end of the East and Southern Africa plateau as iron-age agricultural communities moved in.
Presumably they learned from the hunter-gatherer cultures they absorbed that there were these useful species that provided good-tasting seed, and then they domesticated and bred up the best varieties.
In Zimbabwe these traditional grains dominated diets right up into the 1920s and were still important in daily diets for several decades onwards.
Maize, a Central American domestication, had arrived at Portuguese trading ports and drifted inland, but in Zimbabwe, and much of Southern Africa, was largely a useful seasonal vegetable, most being roasted rather than kept as grain and ground.
The greater stress on maize research, the higher yields obtainable in good-rainfall areas for maize, and the advent of modern milling machinery with hard steel rollers that made grinding dry maize grains in a single operation very simple, helped convert the staple sadza from traditional grain to maize meal.
Traditional grains needed in traditional society a double processing operation of pounding and grinding, and suitable machinery was only available in the 1980s for a single grinding operation.
However, there could be need for a double industrial processing.
Two companies that produce a range of flours milled from traditional grains, and which are sold as health foods in shops and supermarkets in up-market suburbs, do have double processing such as toasting and malting before grinding, and separate the traditional grains instead of lumping them together.
Major millers might well have to follow suit and start consulting the winners of the traditional foods cookery competitions on just what is required in the packet.
Printing some of these recipes on the back of the packs might be a good idea, considering how much has been lost over the last century and other marketing is needed so people will try the new products.
The raw materials are being grown, and while traditional grains were ignored or treated as second-class food in the colonial era, and regrettably afterwards in many circles, proper taste-driven production innovation and good marketing should allow the average miller a far greater range of products on the shelves, to everyone’s advantage.