Amaranth is a high nutritional value crop rich in proteins , essential fatty acids and micronutrients.
At times it grows naturally but the amaranth species commonly known as Doodo are usually grown on a small scale.
For Patrick Iga, growing a variety of the multi-purpose grain amaranth, which produces seed, on a larger commercial scale was his dream. “And he says the crop gives him more than just being a vegetable”.
“I started growing this crop on half an acre to address nutrition challenges but it is now more than that. It is paying me well and in a very short time compared to other vegetables”, says Iga who cultivates the crop on two acre land in Kabwomero village, Luwero district.
According to Iga, amaranth leaves are eaten raw or cooked while the grain can be popped and mixed with sugar solution to make confectionery, milled and roasted to create traditional beer.
“The flour can also be used to make porridge, breads, noodles, pancakes, cereals, cookies, or other flour-based products,” he explains.
“I grow many crops like maize, beans, cassava and others but this doodo crop is easy to grow and matures within a period of 65 to 75 days.
According to Steven Lubwama, an agriculturalist, there are two main varieties of grain amaranth in Uganda; Golden (A.hypochondriacus) and Cream (white) (A.caudatus) short.
“Farmers differentiate them by seed colour. Grain amaranth performs better when planted in rows. Space permits weeding to control weeds and free movement. Amaranth requires a fine, loose seedbed which can be farmed to provide small seeds with good soil contact”, he says.
Iga says it is important to plant clean, high quality seed at the rate of half a kilogram to one kilogram per acre.
Some farmers prefer to broadcast the seeds after mixing it with fine loam soil or sand or fine wood ash and afterwards rake them into the soil.
“To be effective, they need to use one kilogram of amaranth in six kilograms of mixing material. However, it is difficult to weed or thin grain amaranth that was sown using the broadcast system”, he explains.
When planting in rows, the recommended spacing is 23cm to 30cm between plants and 60cm to 75cm between rows.
Seed germination occurs in three to five days depending on soil moisture and planting method. The germination rate is usually 98% if the seeds are good.
Weed control is critical to obtain a good plant stand and to avoid contaminating the grain with weed seed during harvest.
According to Iga a delay in harvesting leads to sprouting especially if there are high temperatures and moisture, dew should be avoided during the harvesting.
“It leads to sprouting. If left too long in the field much of the grain may shatter and fall to the ground. Golden and cream varieties mature in 45 to 60 days and 70 to 120 days respectively. To find out whether the grain is mature, cut the head bunch slightly below the end of the stem (inflorescence) at a slanting angle using a sharp knife”.
Next, put the heads together and spread them on a tarpaulin or polythene sheet to dry.
When dry, the seeds are removed from the heads and winnowed to remove chaff. The bunch heads can be hit using a stick coming off easily. It can also be easy to crash them between hand palms if the bunches are few.
He says grain amaranth is affected by the same diseases and pests that affect other leafy vegetable crops.
Insects and birds also target the crop, although their effect on yields is usually negligible.
Some grain amaranth varieties can produce over 100,000 seeds per plant. Because of the short period it takes to mature, the crop can be grown twice in one rainy season.
Grain amaranth is a high nutritional value crop. It has the potential to contribute to nutritional needs of vulnerable people because of its high quality protein content, essential fatty acids and micronutrients.
Nulu Zalwango, a nutritionist, says this crop is a cheap protein source 14% to 16% and well-balanced.
The locals consume it with other crops like millet, maize soya, groundnuts and beans. It is also used for seasoning stews.
Zalwango says amaranth has also been associated with higher milk production among breast feeding mothers.
Compared to other grains, amaranth seeds have a higher mineral content of calcium, magnesium, iron and amino acid Lysine than wheat, maize or barley.
Amino acid composition of amaranth is favourable in comparison with other crops.
Amaranth seeds are also high in potassium, zinc, Vitamin B and E depending on the variety.
Amaranth leaves contain three times more calcium and three times more niacin (vitamin B3) than spinach leaves and seven times more iron than lettuce.
Amaranth leaves are an excellent source of carotene, iron, calcium, protein, vitamin C and trace elements.
Amaranth seed contains between 12%and 15% crude protein.
Ecological requirements; grain amaranth tolerates a wide range of soil conditions in most tropical but does best in soils with good water holding capacity not water logged soils. It does
One of the challenges facing Iga and other farmers who have taken up grain amaranth growing on a commercial scale is maintaining quality of their harvest.
“Lose about 10% of our grain to rats,” he says.
Delayed payment is another challenge that farmers sometimes have to face.
The average Ugandan still regards amaranth as an inferior vegetable meant for poor people.
It will take time before they begin to appreciate the nutritional value of amaranth.
With a dependable irrigation system in place, it is possible to have more than four amaranth harvests in a year, on the same plot of land, however very few farmers can afford to irrigate.