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This article was originally written by Caroline Jacquet and published in ISAN Magazine (page 16).

The United Nations declared 2023 the International Year of the Millets. Millets, in their diversity, are affordable sources of nutrients for healthy diets that can be cultivated in adverse climates and arid regions with minimal external inputs.

The Zimbabwean diet was historically highly diverse and nutritious. Millets were grown in Zimbabwe for centuries until they lost their lustre when European food crops (and farming techniques) were introduced. Surplus millet produced after 1910 became unpopular and unmarketable as maize now dominated. This change in diets over the past five or six generations has taken a toll on the health and nutrition of Zimbabweans.

Millet is an integral part of Zimbabwe’s culinary culture © PELUM Zimbabwe & Tall Grass Media

At the same time, crops like maize are agroecologically ill-suited for most regions of the country. Smallholder farmers struggle to produce them, and as rainfall patterns and distribution become an increasingly limiting effect of climate change, yields continue to decline, and crop failures become more and more common. A shift to drought-resistant, locally adapted crops (such as small grains and local legumes) helps smallholders diversify their production and ensure a more reliable, nutritious food supply for their families and the country.

The Zimbabwe Traditional and Organic Food Forum, a network of organisations whose aim is to increase the cultivation and consumption of nutritious traditional and organic foods, started the Good Food and Seed Festivals in response to these twin problems: a shortage of healthy foods made from local ingredients available to Zimbabwean consumers and limited markets for the traditional crops and plants that grow best for local producers.

Farmers from around Zimbabwe exchange seeds and knowledge on these seeds’ days © PELUM Zimbabwe & Tall Grass Media

During the seed fair day, farmers from around Zimbabwe exchange seeds and knowledge on these seeds. The festival day has stalls selling a wide range of local produce, products and seeds including traditional grains, legumes and herbs, teas, cosmetics, appropriate technology, and small livestock, and locally adapted seed varieties.

There is also a food court offering diverse cuisines and dishes all made with Zimbabwean ingredients; cooking demonstrations and chefs’ battles; activities for kids learning about traditional foods, nutrition, climate and agriculture, and traditional dance, music, stories, games and crafts; and live music.

The 2023 Good Food and Seed Festival is focusing on millets and chose svoboda as its special millet crop. 

This forgotten millet was revived in Masvingo province. Svoboda is the local name for barnyard millet or Echinochloa esculenta in Bikita; there is a high probability that this grain is found in other parts of Zimbabwe under different names. Masvingo province is a dry area. The region experiences low rainfall which is not evenly distributed; it suffers long periods of dry spells and hot summers. Climate change is devastating crop production.

Embracing these resilient and nutritious crops reconnects communities with their rich culinary heritage © PELUM Zimbabwe & Tall Grass Media

While discussing the grains farmers used to grow in the area, svoboda was mentioned for the first time. Mai Mukondo, a farmer from Bikita, had inherited a few seeds stored in a clay pot from her grandmother. During a seed show, the now late Mai Mukondo demonstrated the seed to farmers who showed great interest in it.

From the handful of seeds left in her storeroom, svoboda was multiplied and the crop is now widely grown in Masvingo. The small white, round grains have a nutty flavour and a slightly chewy texture. Svoboda grains are usually parboiled, dehulled and cooked and consumed like rice. The grain can also be roasted and ground into flour. Svoboda is also used to make traditional beer. Only millet grains can be used to perform rituals and appease ancestors.

The revival of forgotten millets, exemplified by the spotlight on svoboda in the 2023 Good Food and Seed Festival, marks a significant step towards reimagining Zimbabwe’s agricultural landscape. Embracing these resilient and nutritious crops not only reconnects communities with their rich culinary heritage but also provides a sustainable solution to the challenges posed by climate change, offering a path to a healthier, more diverse, and locally resilient food system.