Malian farmers abandon pearl millet as rainy season shortens

by Soumaila T. Diarra | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 11 June 2012 11:22 GMT
Sorghum poised to become the dominant crop as changing seasons hit the region's favourite grain

GWELEKORO, Mali (AlertNet) – Binta Samake is waiting for the rainy season to start.  But she will not be planting her most traditional crop.

“We won’t grow pearl millet on our farm in the next rainy season. And we haven’t done so for a long time,” says the 50-year-old widow, eating fruit from a nere tree on a shaded bench with some of her grandchildren.

Pearl millet is a nutritious crop much favoured in the local diet. But like Samake, many farmers in this village 60 km (38 miles) south of Bamako, Mali’s capital, have abandoned growing it as the rainy season in this West African nation has become shorter and shorter.

“We used to grow pearl millet when there were sufficient rains, when rains would spread over four months,” Samake said. But, “if you grow pearl millet now you won’t make a good harvest because it rains for only two or three months, while the pearl millet cycle is almost four months. So the rains may stop before the crops become ripe.”

She is hardly the only farmer in the area making the change.

“I will grow sorghum next year,” said Bala Keita, a farmer from the nearby village of Djoliba. “The instability of the rains and the poverty of the soils determine my choice. It would be too risky if I grow pearl millet,” he explained.

Rains traditionally began in June in the south of Mali and would last until early October. But for several decades the rainy season has begun only in late July and ended in September. According to Daouda Zan Diarra, a scientist at Mali Agro-Meteorological Assistance Programme, this change in rainfall patterns appeared to be linked to climate change.

Because millet will no longer grow well, farmers are increasingly switching to sorghum, another staple crop in this region.

“Abandoning pearl millet has allowed us to avoid a total loss of harvests. For example, last year (2011) rains didn’t last more than two months, but we harvested a bit of sorghum. That wouldn’t be possible with pearl millet,” Samake said.

Her family would like to continue eating pearl millet, which is favoured for some traditional meals. But Fatoumata Samake, Binta’s daughter-in-law, said that millet is very expensive and scarce in their region this year.

“I prefer millet when I cook dègè (a cream made with milk and cereal). But I use sorghum instead,” Fatoumata said.

STAPLE FOR 50 MILLION PEOPLE

Pearl millet is the staple food for 50 million people living in the Sahel, according to the Development Research Institute (IRD), a French research organisation.

Aghate Diama of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), an international nongovernmental organisation, said that Mali produces 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of pearl millet and 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of sorghum each year. Yields range from 500 kg (1,100 lb) to 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) per hectare for pearl millet and 800 kg (1,760 lb) to 1,200 kg (2,650 lb) per hectare for sorghum.

 In the absence of a survey it is hard to assess how much pearl millet production is falling in Mali as farmers switch to sorghum.

To confront the increasingly harsh climatic conditions in the region and ensure sufficient yields, Sahel farmers need a choice of suitable seed varieties of millet, including varieties with a shorter growing cycle, according to a report published by IRD in 2009.

ICRISAT and IRD are among organisations working to introduce short-cycle pearl millet to central regions of Mali like Koulikoro and Segou. But some farmers in Gwelekoro are sceptical.

“I heard about the short-cycle seeds of pearl millet, but I don’t want to grow them,” said Samake. She worries that birds will eat the grain before it can be harvested because it begins to ripen before the grasses that they would normally feed on.

Besides, adds Samake, the short-cycle variety pearl millet isn’t as tasty as the traditional variety.  

But Ntji Diarra, village chief of Gwelekoro, said he believed the new variety could help mitigate the food shortages that residents regularly face.

“The problem of short-cycle pearl millet is bird attacks, but I have seen in other regions people growing it successfully,” he said.

There’s a straightforward, low-tech solution to the bird problem, Diarra believes.

“Children (need to) wake up early in the morning to threaten and chase birds, screaming and using scarecrows,” he said.

Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.

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