HARARE, July 10 — Farmers in dry regions of Zimbabwe should diversify to cultivating finger millet as it has the potential to end food shortages in many parts of the country because of its drought tolerance and high nutritional value, says an expert.

Finger millet is a small reddish grain which can be milled into flour and used for cooking thick porridge (sadza) as well as brewing traditional beer. Also known by its genetic name Eleusine coracana, finger millet is one of the few special species that currently support the world’s food supplies.

This African native plant probably originated in the highlands of Uganda and Ethiopia, where farmers have been growing it for thousands of years. In parts of eastern and southern Africa as well as in India, it has become a staple upon which millions depend.

Its annual world production is at least 4.5 million tons of grain, of which Africa produces perhaps 2.0 million tons.

For all its importance, however, finger millet is grossly neglected both scientifically and internationally.
Compared with the research lavished on wheat, rice, and maize, for instance, it receives almost none.

Most of the world has never heard of it, and even many countries that grow it have left it to languish in the limbo of a poor person’s crop, a famine food, or, even worse, a birdseed.

Furthermore, in recent years this neglected crop has started an ominous slide that could propel it to oblivion, even in Africa. In fact, it has declined so rapidly in southern Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, and Zaire, for instance, that some people predict that in a few years it will be hard to find, even where until recently it was the predominant cereal.

Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Wonder Chabikwa said Wednesday that commercial farmers had shunned cultivating finger millet although it withstands adverse weather conditions. “Finger millet is a crop better equipped to withstand adverse weather conditions and more suitable for long term storage, but it remains unpopular with most communal farmers in arid areas,” he said.

Chabikwa said demand for finger millet had grownm however, especially in the informal market. “Finger millet farmers have been making profit in the informal markets where 20 kilogramme cost 30 US dollars, meaning it can fetch 1,500 USD per ton,” he added.

He said there was need to provide processing equipment to lure farmers to plant finger millet on a large scale. Lack of incentives, subsidies, storage facilities and effective transport arrangements discouraged farmers from cultivating the drought tolerant cereal variety, which is highly nutritious.