Finger millet, pigeon peas, sorghum and sweet potatoes are good sources of nutrients, yet these foods are fast-disappearing from our dining tables.
DR MOSES SIAMBI, the Director of International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in-charge of the regional hub for Eastern and Southern Africa, spoke to FRANCIS MUREITHI on why these are the foods to embrace.
Sorghum, finger millet and sweet potatoes, among others, are many a time referred to as traditional foods. Could this be the reason why they are shunned?
There is a misconception that these foods are for poor people or those in the rural areas, which is wrong as many go for less nutritive fast foods that appear ‘cool’. We need to eat these foods, which can help us fight lifestyles diseases that are ravaging many families.
It has been said these foods can boost food security, your take…
Certainly yes, these foods can alleviate the perennial food shortage in the country as some can be a substitute of maize or be blended with it reducing competition for the cereal.
Besides, the crops are resilient and can produce grain under fairly dry and low moisture conditions. A crop like pigeon pea is drought-tolerant and its deep roots can recycle nutrients, which other crops cannot reach.
These nutrients are, thus, brought on the surface of the soil and are made available to the next crop. The crop also helps to fix nitrogen, therefore, maintaining the cropping system in the dryland where farmers may not have access to fertiliser.
How can farmers improve the production of these crops?
By planting certified seeds instead of recycled ones. If we have quality seeds, we get improved production and farmers have a surplus to sell and earn good income. Farmers should also test their soils regularly to know the right inputs and fight diseases that attack crops.
Has the government invested in the traditional crops?
I am a researcher and I can tell you that there is very little investment in the sector. First, we have few researchers trained to handle the crops. Second, the infrastructure on the ground is nil as we don’t have silos for storing sorghum or millet as it is with maize.
Third, we don’t have good marketing structures that farmers can utilise to sell their crops.
Can we reverse this situation?
Time has come for the government to promote these crops for good health, which is a basic right. The government should also support farmers in marginal areas by offering them subsidies on seeds and other inputs.
There are very few seed companies that produce planting materials for these food crops. Investors should be encouraged to venture in the business because we don’t have hybrids.
Is there market for traditional foods in the country?
It exists although it is an informal one. We have a big market for pigeon peas in India because it is a major protein source. Groundnuts is another crop that has a very big market in the country mainly for processing but this is yet to be fully exploited.
The market for sorghum is readily available in beer industry and for making livestock feeds.
What does your ‘Smart Foods’ campaign aim to achieve?
We are targeting urban and rural populations but the former need the food crops more as this is where most people suffer from lifestyle diseases. We want to ensure as many families as possible eat the foods.