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Giving finger millet a push in Uganda

Millet contaminated with stonesReaching into a sack, Mary Tamale scoops out a sample of grain and studies it carefully. Scattered among the hundreds of tiny finger millet seeds are numerous small brown stones, and a fair quantity of dust and sand. For Mary, managing director of Kampala-based Maganjo Grain Millers, it is a disappointing, if familiar sight. The source of the contamination is not entirely certain, she says. The stones and dust could be accidentally caught up among the seeds during drying, if the farmers have not taken the precaution of finding a clean space to spread the crop. Perhaps more likely is deliberate addition, whether by the farmers or the middlemen. And while her company has invested in a de-stoning machine, many smaller millers cannot afford to do so, limiting the quantity of finger millet that they can process and ultimately holding back commercial production of the crop in the region.

A demand for millet

Mary Tamale is not the sort to leave a problem unsolved. She is one of the driving forces behind a finger millet promotion effort that aims to link small-scale producers to a flourishing demand for millet products among urban consumers in East Africa. Millet products marketed by Family DietShe is currently working to source the grain from producer groups, and is trying hard to persuade some of Uganda's agricultural investors that small-scale millet growers deserve some financial backing.

For Family Diet, another of Kampala's large millers, sourcing grain from farmer groups has already begun. Three hundred farmers, members of the Katweyombeke Cooperative Society in Kibale district, western Uganda, are supplying millet at a stable, agreed price. Their grain, threshed and dried on smooth rocks, is prized for its cleanliness, and is processed by Family Diet to be sold as pure flour or blended with soya or cassava flour. Despite having a stigma as poor man's food, millet is increasingly being recognised for its nutritional qualities, being higher in calcium and protein than most other grains, including wheat and rice. As Issa Wamala, managing director of Family Diet explains, having a steady supply of a clean product from the farmers is essential if his company is to meet the demand from supermarkets and other buyers. The success of his arrangement with the Kibale co-operative has made him keen to expand the number of supplying farmers to a thousand or more.

Forging links

Establishing links in the finger millet industry between farmers and processors has been one part of a wider effort to boost production of the crop in the region. The work, funded through DFID's Crop Protection Programme, began by studying constraints to production. A survey in Kenya identified blast disease to be a major problem, causing yield losses of 10-50 per cent. Work followed to study the pathogen and routes of infection, in particular through seed and weeds. The next step was the identification of blast resistance in over 80 millet accessions, drawn from the gene bank of ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) and from farmers' fields. These were narrowed down to the eight most promising varieties, which were tested in farmers' fields under different management systems through 'mother and baby' trials. At a field day at the end of the trial, four of these were picked out as the clear winners, both by farmers' votes and researchers' results. These are to be tested further, but are already being grown and spread by the participating farmers.

Other lessons that emerged from the trials included the benefits of row planting. Millet is normally broadcast, but this makes weeding extremely laborious, especially as many weed species are very similar in appearance to young millet plants. Row planting removes much of the doubt about what is a weed and what is not, and dramatically speeds up the process both of weeding and harvesting. The issue of how to scale up and distribute the better varieties is, however, a challenging one. Very few millet farmers buy seed, instead usually saving it from their own crop. Community-based seed multiplication, already under trial for potato and groundnut in Uganda, may provide a solution, but implementing such a system will depend on finding a willing partner, such as an NGO or extension office.

Getting organised

In Uganda, the government believes finger millet could be a valuable source of food and income for the thousands who have been displaced by the country's internal conflicts. But, stresses Mary Tamale, if small-scale farmers are to profit from commercial production, they need to get organised. Expanding their production and improving their drying systems will require investment, and there is also a need for grain stores, so that large quantities of grain can be easily supplied to processors. At a millet showcase event in Kampala earlier this year, several potential investors, including the Uganda Investment Authority and the Standard Chartered Bank, seemed enthusiastic. It remains to be seen whether this enthusiasm turns into genuine funding offers. But the future of the crop will also depend on continuing growth in demand. To this end, another workshop is being organised for July this year, targeting potential consumers: local chiefs, head teachers, staff from nutrition clinics, managers of children's nurseries and university caterers are all invited. And, says Mary, they can be sure of getting tasty millet products - biscuits, cakes and porridge - throughout the day.

For further information see DFID CPP website

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1st July 2006