From Mali to Zimbabwe and South Africa to Southern Sudan, small grains remain an integral part of mainstream local food systems. There are many reasons why small grains continue to pack a huge socio-economic punch in many countries. To revisit and stimulate a frank discussion on the power of small grains, eMKambo has just completed an informative survey in eight districts of Zimbabwe. Besides a longitudinal assessment of how small grains perform in the market, the survey (whose results will be released soon) tried to surface production trends and some of the telling value chain patterns. Although the survey focused on Zimbabwe, its findings seem to resonate with the situation many African countries.
Part of slow but resilient tribal traditions
While small grains are being promoted from a climate change perspective, what makes them special is that they have become a key component of many tribal traditions. Very few farmers grow small grains for money but for other benefits whose value is impossible to quantify. In African food markets, small grains are considered slow moving commodities whose income is rarely consistent. But there are traders more comfortable with this slow nature than fast-moving horticulture commodities.
The eMKambo survey mentioned above tries to also answer the following question: Why is small grains commercialization not picking up more speed in African food markets that are being contaminated by a fast-food chain culture? Efforts to modernize African agriculture seem to be pushing local and global versions of the green revolution. On the other hand, small grains are quietly resisting commercialization due to their unique capacity to reflect the diversity of food systems, gender, lifestyles and other invisible strengths. For many farming communities confronting climate change, small grains are at the centre of purpose-driven and sustainable agricultural practices. Most smallholder farmers are not motivated by incremental improvements such as high yields from high inputs. They are more satisfied with getting best outcomes from a holistic agriculture system.
As seen through contract farming models, it seems commercial agriculture creates additional financial and socio-economic uncertainties which push farmers to side-market as they realize that income from contract arrangements can barely meet all important needs. Production and utilization of small grains and other marginal crops has empowered farming communities to establish traditional governance systems and standards that ensure sustainability for the whole agricultural ecosystem. Where commercial efforts are obsessed with supply chains, smallholder farmers whose decisions are driven by small grains take an ecosystems approach. There is hard-earned awareness among farmers that preserving and rebuilding small grains seed systems is a proven insurance against hunger and starvation.
Harnessing shared knowledge
While ICTs and globalization seem to be transforming human relationships, small grains-based food systems continue to influence how many African communities function. Although, western diets are infiltrating African food systems, mostly in urban areas, social media is also strengthening local and traditional food systems through spreading consumer awareness about the benefits of small grains and other marginalized foods. Farmers and rural communities have started using social media to retrieve and revive some of the knowledge around small grains and local food that was on the verge of getting lost permanently. Africans in the diaspora are receiving small grains and other foods sent by their relatives based in Africa. While it may appear forces of globalization are destroying local food systems, they are in fact also rejuvenating them and providing a buffer against wholesale commercialization.
Armed with fine-grained insights from agricultural markets and smallholder farming areas, it is possible to increase small grains production, marketing and consumption in ways that can change the fortunes of many farmers and consumers. However, a lot will happen if there is an overhaul of current agribusiness models that are over-promoting industrial agriculture at the expense of local food systems.
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