The expanding agricultural programmes by the Government now need more response from industrialists and from consumers, as Zimbabwe starts to lock in a basic level of self-sufficiency, at least outside the dairy industry and oil seeds.
But when it comes to grain there is, for the first time, self-sufficiency, although in the case of maize this is because carry-over stocks from a good season can fill in gaps from a bad season.
The problem arises from precisely this sensitivity of maize to even partial drought or even just irregular distribution of rainfall. This is why the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development is so keen on promoting traditional grains, especially in region four and probably in region three.
Maize was domesticated in Mexico or nearby in central America and came to Africa along Portuguese trade routes being planted at the small coastal outposts and trade stations set up by the Portuguese as a tropical grain. The traditional European grains did not really work in hot coastal Africa.
Maize then spread inland along indigenous trade routes, or even just from village to village. But it was never a major crop in Zimbabwe until the 1920s. From the time it was first grown up to around 100 years ago it was more of a green vegetable, roasted while fresh.
The standard grains for the standard sadza and other dishes where the grain was prepared and used as grain were the traditional grains. These are indigenous to Africa, although some species did range further, and have been subject to many centuries of farmer selection to find the best species for each area.
So, unlike maize, there is a good chance they will grow in a bad year. They are not only more drought resistant, but also can cope with irregular rainfall. If there is a dry spell in rainy season they stop growing, but do not die. When the rain returns they start growing again.
There were two good reasons why maize, especially the more modern varieties introduced last century with an input from varieties developed in recent times in the Americas.
First, nd importantly, if your mazie crop works, that is there is enough fertiliser and enough rain at the right times, a maize harvest will be larger than a traditional grain harvest from the same field. Traditional grains overtake maize when the rain is not that good or is not that regular.
Secondly traditional grains need double processing. Maize can just be ground, boiled and eaten. Traditional grains need to be pounded, boiled, ground, boiled and eaten. We still see art works and illustrations in some books of women preparing grain by using a thick short pole and pounding grain in a tallish and narrow wooden bucket.
They are undertaking one of the preparation steps needed in traditional grains when modern grinding technology was not readily available.
Additional problems arose in the colonial era. For a start a lot of research was put into maize to enhance yields and find varieties that would flourish in Zimbabwe, at least in the natural regions where most settler farms were located. Little of that work was put into traditional grains.
But what was done in the traditional grain area was to look for varieties that would produce the highest yields, and unfortunately little or no attention was paid to taste. Apparently some of the best yielding traditional grain tasted a bit weird.
This did not really matter when the main market for these grains was as stockfeed, or stockfeed raw material. Cattle, pigs and chickens were not in a position to complain, but human consumption continued to decline, both from the ease of milling and cooking maize, the better harvests in most years and the taste.
And taste is important. We actually saw this when municipalities brewed their own traditional beers. While Bulawayo and the Chibuku Breweries, a separate company eventually bought out by what became Delta, went to some lengths to find the varieties that had the desired taste, “Salisbury” just bought the cheapest grain available and its Rufaro Beer was considered pretty foul, so foul in fact that there was continual smuggling of better brands.
Eventually “Salsibury” threw in the towel, and while keeping its alcohol monopoly in the “townships” sold its brewing operation to Chibuku and bought in that better brand to sell in the beerhalls.
The 1980s saw some strenuous efforts, largely through an aid programme, to upgrade traditional grains with a research centre in the Matopos. This, accompanied by the design and sale of small grinding mills that could handle traditional grains. This work continues, with both yield and taste being considered as equally important factors.
But as production rises, and this will be rising now much faster through the Government input schemes that stress traditional grains in areas where a decent maize crop is only expected in a seriously above average season, there needs to be a market for these grains. A lot of the small-scale farmers who presently grow these grains tend to keep them on farm to eat, but as the areas planted to traditional grain increase there will be more for commercial sale.
A pair of additional factors came through the April census. For a start Zimbabwe’s population is growing at 1,5 percent a year, so fairly obviously food production needs to grow at the same percentage just to keep us where we are. Secondly while the rural population is growing very slowly, the urban population is growing at faster than the national average, and now almost 40 percent of Zimbabweans are urban.
The main factor in urban populations is that they buy their food in shops, rather than grow it themselves and have it ground and processed locally. This is good news for industrialists since it is an expanding market.
But now the millers and others need to pay a lot more attention to the traditional grains. Some of the better products made from these grains are semi-luxuries, far more expansive than roller meal and packed in little 1kg bags. These are obviously intended for middle-class consumers rather than the mass market.
Admittedly some of the more adventurous millers have been producing other products, such as the mixed grain meal, but these have not been heavily marketed.
Now we are reaching the stage where a major marketing effort is required to reintroduce into Zimbabwean homes a far higher percentage of traditional grains with negligible price differences from maize meals.
This should be perfectly possible. Advertising and marketing are not new disciplines.
The first stage is to have the suitable product, and this means taste. Here there may have to be some consultation between industries and those who grow and distribute the seed to ensure that the seed being distributed is the seed that people want to eat.
But then we need to push the traditional diet a lot more. There have been some efforts but it is easy to see how a lot more could be done, with decent marketing. This is not just fancy jingles and the like, but also teaching people how to cook the stuff in the first place, suggested recipes and cooking demonstrations and competitions.
We are in many cases dealing with urban people several generations removed from the generation that ate traditional grains every day and they need help.
The outcome would benefit everyone. Farmers would have a market; grain production would be significantly increased as we obtained good crops from drier land; diets would become more varied; and millers and manufacturers would have more products and make more sales.
Presuming what we did yesterday is good enough for tomorrow is not the way to grow a business. We can keep what we did well yesterday, but also add new ranges, new products and upgrade our marketing.