By Dr Steve Kada
As we approach the rainfall season, the day to day topical discussion on various crops to ensure sustainable food security is growing and tendering. Rarely is finger millet or “Rapoko” given the prominence of being a potential contributor to food security by media. However, it is in the last 5 to 10 years, that Zimbabwe is experiencing an awakening to the potential that finger millet has, in terms of alleviating food insecurity for rural and peri-urban populace. Long periods of droughts in Zimbabwe have given the nation a rude awakening. The maize crop which has been the mainstay of food availability and security has continuously failed to withstand vulgarises of the changing weather patterns. The rural folk living in rainfall regions 4 and 5 are bearing the brunt of the drought and maize crop failure. Consequently, these farmers are having difficulties with regards to maintaining levels of adequate food reserves to take them through the next season.
What is Finger Millet or Rapoko? –It is known as “Zviyo” in the Mashonaland region, “Rukweza” in areas around Buhera, Gutu and “Njera” in Manicaland area. The Food and Agriculture Organisation define it as an annual herbaceous plant widely grown as a cereal crop in arid and semi-arid areas in Africa and Asia. It is said to be a native to the Ethiopian and Ugandan highlands, it was domesticated about 5000 years ago. The cereal was then farmed in the lowlands of Africa that is, Eastern and Southern Africa. The main growing area ranges are 200 North and 200 South. It is considered a drought tolerant crop when compared to other millers like pearl millet and sorghum. It prefers thrives on moderate rainfall of approximately 500mm (20 inches) annually.
Qualities as a crop – The cereal is gluten free with high calcium and iron. It can be stored for up to 2 years without harmful pesticides while acting as a food reserve during lean seasons. The cereal has excellent malting qualities, increasing its use in food processing. When processed through milling, the grains produce is turned into flour meal. Malting takes place when the grain is germinated, dried and milled for producing brewed beverages such as beer.
Nutritional Value –The ground flour (meal) can be prepared into cakes, puddings or porridge or millet thick porridge “sadza”. The nutritional value of finger millet per 100 grams according to (en.m.wikipedia.org) is illustrated below:
Importance of Finger Millet for Small Scale Farmers
Agricultural Cropping Systems: Finger Millet can be used in intercropping with maize, sorghum and/or legumes to generate extra income. It produces reasonable yields under low input crop production systems. The crop survives on soils of low fertility.
Disease: It is generally seen as a crop that is not very prone to diseases and pests. Nevertheless, “finger millet blast”, caused by the fungal pathogen, can cause severe damage; in Uganda yield losses of up to 80% were reported (Eleusine Coracana en.m.wikipedia).
Propagation and Sowing: This is mainly by seeds and it is a rain crop. The sowing methods include broadcasting directly in the fields; although the challenge comes when it’s time for weed management. Line sowing which helps facilitate organic weed management, drilling seeds in rows (seeds are sown directly into the untreated soil) and transplanting (seedlings for transplanting are raised in seed beds).
Harvest: The seeds do not mature at the same time; therefore, the harvest can be in 2 – 3 stages.
Socio-economic and Cultural significance – Research findings in Zimbabwe on food security and self-sufficiency have revealed that finger millet is more than just a consumable food cereal. It permeates the whole indigenous community, social and economic fabric. For example, some areas and districts are named after the cereal and known as Rukweza Village or Kwarukweza — “rukweza” being the indigenous name of finger millet. This is a demonstration of the social, cultural and economic value bestowed on the millet. Finger Millet is itself considered an epitome of the indigenous people’s values, norms and customs. This can be illustrated by the role and status accorded to finger millet in social gatherings, weddings and other celebrations were finger millet beverages such as the traditional non-alcoholic drink “mahewu” and beer are served. Serving guests with the brewed beverage in such social occasions is an indication of the value and respect accorded to them.
Finger Millet has been referred to as the lost crop of Africa together with its sister small grains, it will rise from the ashes. An economic function it holds cannot be ignored; it holds a premium value in the exchange of goods and services within the community.