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Pearl millet: The Abandoned Answer To Food Insecurity

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Imalingat Fabian is a smallholder farmer in Atirir town in Soroti.

A family man with four children and a wife, he is considered a community model in smallholder farming, thanks to his zeal and lust to always try new things.

Yes, we visit his small plot of land, perhaps two acres, segmented by different small gardens occupied with cassava, maize, beans, sorghum and a relatively bigger portion occupied by pearl millet.

“This is how we have survived as a family, we do mixed farming because we do not have enough land, but we get enough food and sometimes we also sell some,” says Imalingat.

Imalingat says for at least seven years now, he has been relatively relying on pearl millet for two purposes, food for his family and selling some for an income.

He adds that his trust in the crop is rather high due to its survival even in the hardest of conditions.

“When there’s a drought, we do not have rain, and it’s so hot, this millet will stay standing and growing, sometimes it is only affected by birds, but we keep chasing them away,” he explains.

To Imalingat and many other families, pearl millet is not just a crop, not at least to them, but a lifeline providing both food security to the family and the communities as well, but also a crop that draws an income.

Pearl millet is regarded as the sixth most important cereal crop in the World, next to wheat, rice, maize, barley and sorghum.

The crop is important to communities living in semi-arid areas, especially in the Eastern Horn of African countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda.

At least 5 million people in Eastern Africa are threatened by severe hunger, while an estimated 200,000 people have already died.

Pearl millet, commonly referred to as “the survivor’s millet” is viewed by scientists as the ultimate solution to the threatened population by all standards.

The crop easily adapts to the arid and semi-arid harsh conditions including long droughts, high temperatures, violent rains and the changing pests and diseases.

In many communities in Eastern and Northern Uganda, it is highly cherished due to its ability to do well under low soil fertility levels, but above all, its ability to “stay green” even at the peak of long droughts, a common occurrence in the region.

Relatively reach in iron, zinc and calcium; pearl millet occupies approximately 22 million hectares of land in Africa although its production is still considered low.

With the ever-increasing intensity and frequency of biotic and abiotic stresses due to climate change, scientists at the National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) have carried out numerous research sessions on the crop, as a routine process to make the crop better, although amidst a constrained reality.

Faisol Kasule, a research scientist on pearl millet and sorghum at NaSARRI, says continuous research is critical in improving the crop to have more resilient breeds and as well create those early maturing varieties as an escape mechanism to climatic changes.

He says the Institute has been researching the crop and several breakthroughs have been realized although the government has not prioritized the cereal to sustainably finance the proceedings of research.

“We as the station, have produced enough foundation seeds, enough to feed this country and beyond. We have also done enough seed multiplication, we just need the government to make pearl millet one of the key food components in the food chain for the country.”

The station is in the process of applying for DUS- Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability certificate in the Ministry of Agriculture before it’s allowed to release a new breed.

This certificate is given after approval that the breed performs well and relatively gives the same results in the different regions of the country.

“So where we are now, next season we are going to apply for the formal DUS, the ministry will have to come to the different locations in Lira, Arua, Karamoja, Mayuge, Bukedea and Serere to collect the data,” he says.

Kasule says all the new lines under supervision have proven to be resistant to pests and diseases, early maturing, but also high yielding, which is all key aspects in the era of erratic climate changes.

After producing the breed and formal certification is secured, the Station would require one season to have enough seeds to supply to the farmers in the established seed system.

Meanwhile, Kasule says resources have always been a major impediment to having enough seeds among the farmers.

“When you put new varieties on the market, you need to have money for seed multiplication, you have NARO holdings, and the different seed units you can have the seeds out, but we need money as a key resource,” he adds.

Available data indicate that pearl millet is one of the most consumed crops in the semi-arid areas of Eastern Africa, although governments have not paid much attention to the innovations in the crop.

The crop is majorly grown in Eastern and Northern Uganda for both food and a source of income for the communities.

Kasule says the cereal needs consistent funding to have a sustained impact on the communities in the region.

“We need funding, so we can even have independent breeding units for pearl millet. We need to make the cereal a priority for these communities to be helped, remember it is a complete food,” he says.

The crop has numerous health benefits like essential nutrients such as; Vitamin B, iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Manganese, Zinc and Phosphorous, most of which would address challenges like ulcers and type 2 diabetes, but also high potential to reduce cholesterol due to its phytic acids which increases metabolism.

This will not only address the farmers’ food insecurity issues but also deficiency insecurity with added nutritional value.

With the stay-green trait all through to harvesting in the new varieties, the crop is used in producing animal feeds especially during droughts. The stem keeps its green state all through until harvest even in strained long droughts.

Kasule says such a plant would do well with the pastoral communities in the Semi-arid regions and those in the conventional cattle corridor.

“Those pastoral communities in Karamoja and the ones in the Cattle Corridor can benefit more from this particular variety. It gives them food, but also gives fodder for their stocks,” he says.

Production of the crop has been low, as farmers have always relied on the traditional unimproved genotypes as well as using the traditional rudimentary methods of farming.

These coupled with the low soil fertility levels in the region, and the long unexpected droughts, the communities were prone to unending disastrous periods of hunger and famine.

Traditionally, farmers used to plant in the second rains without optimal use of modern resources and let the crop grow before the dry spell sets in. This would spontaneously expose them to calamities like famine and great loss.

With modernity setting in, farmers can now have the luxury of insisting on procuring that improved genotype coded stay green, with other traits like high tillering, high yields, early maturity and resistance to ergot and rust some of the most persistent pests.

Such breakthroughs at NaSARRI are quite important for the Semi-Arid region in terms of boosting food production that would address food insecurity and income generating for communities, especially given the growing population.

Initial research on pearl millet was done in 1958 when scientists collected germplasm from the farmers in Uganda.

It was used as a source of genes to develop improved varieties with wide adaptation in the crop into other regions stretching up to Tanzania and Botswana.

More improved breeds were produced at the then East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organization – Eaafro in Serere, before the station crumbled in the 1970s and 80s due to lack of funding.

Research on pearl millet resumed 31 years later in 2011 still on a small scale with scientists focusing on improving the crop to resist the major constraints at the time, including ergot and rust diseases.

After participatory rural appraisal sessions were conducted, germplasm collection was done in the farming communities in the Karamoja region, Katakwi, Amuria, Kitgum, Kumi, Ngora and Abim in 2011.

Ten years down the research journey, Kasule says several breeds of pearl millet with improved stronger traits have been produced at NaSARRI to address the farmers’ and market demands.

Kasule looks at having a Centre of Excellency for pearl millet at NaSARRI, a status he hopes will pull enough resources for the crop.

“We have trained scientists here on this particular crop, we just need a training complex, with enough resources and in five years, this crop will compete with other cereals,” he states.

He says the country needs enough breeders for the crop, and they will be able to produce enough seeds for all the farmers.

Research Centres have always encountered the challenge of seed multiplication, due to limited resources including land, labour and financial resources.

This has always attracted private seed companies to invest in seed multiplication which on several occasions compromises the seed quality.

Apparently, the National Agricultural Research Organization has established a seed multiplication agency, NARO Holdings which among other tasks takes on checks in the seed system, seed multiplication and other commercial functions to protect the farmer.

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