Why Zim farmers must shift to small grains

Jacquet (CM) made the call on the platform In Conversation with Trevor, which is hosted by Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN).

Bio Innovation Zimbabwe project manager Caroline Jacquet says local farmers must get accustomed to growing more small grains as they are more resilent and adaptive to climate change.

Jacquet (CM) made the call on the platform In Conversation with Trevor, which is hosted by Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN).

Below are excerpts from the interview.

TN: Let's get down to some work Caroline Jacquet. Welcome to In Conversation with Trevor.

CJ: Thank you for having me.

TN: So we're going to be talking seeds. We're going to be talking about traditional foods today. Talk to me about Bio Innovation Zimbabwe.

When did you set it up and what does this organisation do?

CJ: All right! So Bio Innovation Zimbabwe was founded, started in 2011 and our thrust really is to commercialise indigenous plants.

And there are very many reasons why, why, you know, we're looking at that.

Number one, it's because in very many places in Zimbabwe, as you know, it's hard to grow things.

But there's always so much amazing stuff that is found in the forests, in the wild.

But these things don't necessarily or very often have markets, and are also not very much researched on.

Farmers, local people are deeply familiar with those species, and have a lot of uses for them, you know, traditional uses for them.

But none of that is being much recognised. So we wanted to change that by offering markets for these species, but also by helping farmers to sort of like, fuse and incorporate these plant products in their diets as well to diversify diets.

We also obviously want to offer Zimbabwean customers and people outside Zimbabwe, you know, high quality traditional products from Zimbabwe.

And all of that, of course, with the ultimate sort of aim that it will help conserve the natural resources as well.

Because, I mean, as you know the forests in Zimbabwe are rapidly disappearing.

But we believe that if we can give a commercial and economic and financial value to the trees and the plants, that communities will protect them.


TN: Why particularly Zimbabwe?

CJ: After my studies in Belgium, I started with the World Agroforestry Centre with the headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and they had a regional office, you know, for southern Africa with the office being in Zimbabwe.

And that's how I ended up in Zimbabwe, and obviously, I was covering a lot of countries in the region at the time, but I really fell in love with Zimbabwe.

And then after a couple of years they asked me to move back to the headquarters, I said, you know what, no, thanks, I'm staying here. I'll find something to do here.


TN: What did you fall in love with? What struck you about this country?

CJ: I think of the incredible sort of kindness and how talented Zimbabweans are. I think that's what I really, really enjoyed. I enjoyed working with Zimbabweans.

Like I said, I worked in the region, so I had a bit of experience with other nationalities as well. Just really enjoyed working with Zimbabweans.

And then obviously also by then I had become a bit familiar with the sort of plants here as well and thought there's just more to be done here.


TN: Interesting. And 15 years later, there you are. What are these indigenous plants that we are talking about? Can we just drill down into that?

CJ: From the very first one, we looked at a very iconic plant, monster tree, actually the baobab.

So because you may not know it, baobab trees are found in very many African countries, but Zimbabwe is the African country with the most baobab trees.

So it's a tree that is found in the lowveld, you know, the dry areas where often people don't have very many ways of making an income.

There is this amazing fruit and other things that can be, you know, consumed on the tree.


TN: What else can be consumed from the tree? What do you do with the food? 

CJ: So the fruit,  I don't know if everyone knows the baobab fruit, but it looks a bit like a coconut, a hairy coconut.

And when you open it up, it's got powder in there.

The powder is considered a superfood. Just like, you know, your blueberries and sort of like more famous superfoods.

Very high in vitamin C, Rich in calcium, magnesium, really a good sort of supplementary powder.

I prefer doing it in the morning.

It has a very tangy taste, you know, like lemon.

So I like to sort of add it to my yoghurt, which is already a bit sour anyway, and get my sort of boost in the morning. But inside the fruit are also seeds.

The seed can be made into an oil, a cosmetic oil, and the oil can be added to lotions and things like that.

It's got a good promise, sort of like starting markets overseas. There's also fibres, little red fibres. They're added as an ingredient in tea.

When you open up a little sachet of tea, there are often lots of different things that have been blended in there. So it's one of the ingredients in tea blends.

The reason that tea manufacturers prefer to use the fibre rather than the powder is that the powder sort of clouds everything, while the fibres have got the same properties as the powder, but don't cloud things.

The leaves, the leaves can be consumed as a vegetable. You probably also know that the bark can be made into rugs.

So yeah, there are a lot of different uses to the baobab tree. But so, even though we knew that, local communities knew that, the rest of the world didn't necessarily know about that.

And that's what we wanted to change.

So there's a law that you can't just export foreign foods into Europe and the States.

It needs to go through a sort of novel food approval. So we did that for the baobab powder so that we are now able, and that's not just us, but anyone dealing in baobab powder anywhere in the world is now able to export baobab powder into Europe thanks to the work that we did getting it approved as a safe food.

So we started from there and then built from there, then we looked at, and we still do, we look at amarula which a lot of people know because of the Amarula tree in South Africa.

We looked at, you know, things like resurrection bush, Mufandichimuka, which, you know, which is a fascinating plant, the way it just dries up and you put it in water and it resurrects and goes green.

And so that's how we also introduced it onto the Zimbabwean market by blending it with rooibos.

Zimbabweans are not very big herbal tea drinkers. And so the only herbal tea actually everyone knows is rooibos.

So we thought the gentle way to introduce it would be to blend it with rooibos.

So the first resurrection tea that was on the market was a blend of rooibos and restriction.

And then, once people start knowing it, you can then start being a bit more creative.

But so, yeah, it's got antioxidants, it's got all these things that rooibos also has and it grows widely all over the place.

TN: Are we exporting any of that stuff?

CJ: We do. You're sort of exporting the tea, the blending bit. Because what we were saying just now is that when you put the twigs into water, they go green again.

It has actual ornamental uses as well. So we've been exporting it as far as Switzerland where people just, you know, people that have flower shops, you know, they would add it to like a bouquet.

TN: So you've brought us some stuff here and I know that you are big on millet, rapoko, mhunga and all that kind of stuff.

Can we just drill down into what is the spread of millet and all this mhunga, this sorghum, just break it down for us so that we understand what it is that we're talking about.

CJ: This is what we survived on before the white men came into this country.

TN: Correct. Talk to me about that and not only survived, but thrived.

CJ: Yeah, because these crops are actually much more nutritious and much more healthy.

Much more resilient to our tough climate. Resilient to your tough climate as well.

TN: Correct.

CJ: I think that the problem often is the way we introduce those small grains and other traditional crops to farmers, you know, by telling them, because we know the maize will fail because of your conditions and what, what, what, why don't you also grow some small grains so that if your maize fails, you still have the small grains.

It's not a nice way to introduce a crop. It sort of makes you feel like I'm a failure.

And I'm going to, you know, let me grow some small grains.

But also I think the issue with small grains also, that's changing and it's changing rapidly, is that there are no ready markets for small grains.

Until very, very recently, if you grow maize and you have a surplus, you will never, ever struggle offloading it.

If it's not local with your neighbours, you can always end up at GMB or wherever.

There's always a market for me. If you have a surplus of sorghum or pearl millet or finger millet, it's not always.

TN: So what are you doing to create that market?

CJ: So we do multiple things to create that market. We talk to, we work hand in hand with the private sector in Zimbabwe on the one side, and then we also do a lot of consumer sort of awareness.

So in the private sector, it's a matter of giving them a way of opening up their minds that the products that they already have, that they could add to their range.

For example, National Foods, they have porridge, you could easily make a porridge that instead of maize incorporates sorghum or finger millets.

So it's often just sort of like telling them... And just as you're doing that, these millets are rich in a lot of things.

So they're rich in protein, they're rich in fibre, minerals like iron, potassium, phosphorus; they are also gluten-free.

TN:  You brought us some here, what did you bring us that we can look into?

CJ: So that was part of our sort of strategy of introducing these traditional foods to consumers.

And you know that a lot of these traditional foods take a lot of time to cook.

So that's why we've looked at producing some ready-made healthy products, you know, looking at reducing the cooking time, for example, for small grains.


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