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Sorghum and millets on the rise December 10th, 2017 by

For decades, various international aid agencies have pushed Africa towards adopting maize as the hunger-saving technical solution, with traditional crops such as sorghum and pearl millet only receiving a fraction of the support. But climate change is forcing donors and governments to re-think their food security strategies. Recent research in Mali highlights the importance of research and communication to help improve traditional crops and to support farmers as they cope with climate change.

While maize was first domesticated some 7,000 years ago in Mexico, sorghum and pearl millet have their origin in Africa. Sorghum domestication started in Ethiopia and sub-saharan Africa some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Through farmer selection numerous improved sorghum types were developed, which then spread via trade routes into other regions of Africa and India. Domestication of pearl millet started only around 2500 BC, in eastern Mali, and spread rapidly to other countries through pastoralists, spurred by the increasing desiccation of the Sahara desert at the time.

The rich genetic diversity of these traditional African crops and the wealth of farmers’ knowledge have formed the basis of recent crop improvement programmes. In West Africa, a handful of devoted sorghum and millet breeders, Drs Eva and Fred Weltzien-Rattunde, Bettina Haussmann and Kirsten vom Brocke, in close collaboration with partners, were able to develop improved sorghum and millet varieties by improving local germplasm. The new varieties cope better with pests and diseases, as well as with rainy seasons that are becoming shorter and more unpredictable.

But these breeders, then working for ICRISAT, did not limit their efforts to participatory plant breeding alone: they also invested heavily in supporting farmer cooperatives to become seed producers and sellers. Some of these examples were captured in a chapter written by Daniel Dalohoun as part of the book African Seed Enterprises that Jeff and I edited with Robert Guei from FAO.

Farmers across Africa are keen to learn how to better conserve, produce and market seed of their traditional crops. While making a video on Farmers’ rights to seed a few months ago at a seed fair in Malawi, farmers eagerly exchanged traditional sorghum and millet varieties with each other. As the government had so far focused on maize only as a food security crop, some communities lost certain traditional sorghum and millet varieties , but seed fairs and community seed banks helped them to again access these varieties. In addition to seed, farmers also want new knowledge about farming practices. Mr. Lovemore Tachokera, a farmer from the south who attended a seed fair in the north, told me: “The one thing I will make sure to tell my fellow farmers back home regarding conservation of indigenous crops is that we should also practice new farming technologies even on the indigenous crops.”

And right he was. Treasuring and improving traditional crops is important, but alone is insufficient to cope with climate change; good agricultural adaptation strategies also matter. GĂ©rard Zoundji, a Beninese PhD student, investigated how a series of farmer training videos on weed and soil management helped farmers in Mali to use climate-smart technologies.

The differences he found between video-villages (where farmers had watched the videos) versus non-video-villages were very significant:

  • crop rotation combined with  intercropping (99% in video villages vs 57% in other villages)
  • compost or microdosing fertiliser application (99% in video villages vs 0%)
  • crop diversification (94% vs 52%)
  • use of improved short-cycle seed varieties (78% vs 17%)
  • use of zaĂŻ pits (51% vs 0%)

Zoundji also found that after watching the videos on Fighting striga and improving soil fertility (see the related blog: Killing the vampire flower), farmers started demanding improved cereal seed. And as a result some women’s groups in the villages of Daga and Sirakélé became seed dealers in their village. Sorghum, millet and maize yields in the video-villages increased by 14%, 30% and 15% respectively when compared to non-video villages.

While maize crops are increasingly failing in parts of Africa due to climate change, the robustness of traditional African cereal crops contributes to to their renewed appeal to African farmers. The improved cultivation of traditional, drought-resistant crops, benefiting from research and training on improved cropping practices, will enable farmers to adapt to a harsher and more variable climate.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed

Succeed with seeds

Various farmer training videos on Sorghum & Millets

Further reading

Dalohoun, Daniel, Van Mele, P., Weltzien, E., Diallo, D., Guindo, H. and vom Brocke, K. (2010) Mali: When governments give entrepreneurs room to grow. In P. Van Mele, J. Bentley and R. Guei (eds.) African Seed Enterprises (pp. 65-88). Wallingfrod: CABI. Download chapter from: http://agroinsight.com/books.php

Dillon, Sally L.. Frances M. Shapter, Robert J. Henry, Giovanni Cordeiro, Liz Izquierdo, and L. Slade Lee 2007. Domestication to Crop Improvement: Genetic Resources for Sorghum and Saccharum (Andropogoneae). Annals of Botany, 100(5): 975–989. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2759214/

Hirst, K. Kris 2017. Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) – Domestication and History. https://www.thoughtco.com/pearl-millet-domestication-170647

Zoundji, Gérard, Okry, F., Vodouhê, S.D., Bentley, J.W. and Tossou, R.C. 2018. Beyond Striga management: Learning videos enhanced farmers’ knowledge on climate-smart agriculture beyond Striga management. Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1), 80-91. Download article from: https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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