Having grown up in some rural parts of Zimbabwe being exposed to peasantry farming since childhood, some of the main crops grown were cereals maize mainly for household food provision and cotton which was a cash crop. The introduction of marginalized crops came as a result of a fall in the cotton price on the market which was mainly a result of a fall in cotton price on the global market. This left most farmers in my communal area with no option except to dump the cotton farming business and look for alternative cash crops.
This period resulted in the introduction of the Sesame crop which came as a rightful substitute for the unpopular cotton crop in which farmers felt it was a loss in investing in producing the crop. Sesame came with few requirements in terms of inputs as well as management practices compared to cotton hence the huge uptake by many farmers in the area. Several contracting companies flocked to once major cotton-growing parts of my community to contract farmers to grow the ‘new’ crop. Most of these companies were contracting farmers to grow the crop for export since they were linked to export markets. Sesame growing became popular with my community as it relieved farmers with the much needed foreign currency as well as bringing back the flourishing life that used to be played by the cotton-growing era.
With most community members in my area, only a few elderly people knew about developing some consumable products from the Sesame. The major product common was sesame butter (dovi) as it is commonly called in our local language. Having worked with the same community under different donor-funded projects in the Non-Governmental sector, and also having been exposed to several health and nutrition projects, I discovered one of the major challenges affecting children and even adults as they try to meet their day to day nutritional requirements for normal growth and development. Hidden hunger and deprivation from necessary micronutrients were reported in several Government reports and surveys as one key challenge affecting smallholder communities despite growing some of the most nutritious crops as in small grains and other legumes that have a great potential to supplement these micronutrients. The introduction of the sesame crop as an edible crop and also able to be processed into peanut butter (dovi), invited me to have a closer look at the crop and start research on determining what other benefits can this crop bring to my community other than a contribution to cash from sales.
My enrolment with the Bindura University of Science Education, for the Master of Science Degree in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture, opened the opportunities I had long been waiting for. I got the opportunity and joined the RUFORUM project as a Research Assistant and was part of the RUFORUM CARP+ project led by Prof George Nyamadzawo. The project was funded by the RUFORUM/MasterCard Foundation (RU/2018/CARP+/05) focusing on Rainwater harvesting, legume and cereal post-harvest handling and value addition project. My focus in this project was to work toward the value addition of small grain products for the improvement of micronutrients in such food products. The quality of most products from small grains deteriorates mainly due to processing procedures hence what remains is the provision of mainly starch with the essential micronutrients having been lost during processing. Under the supervision of Dr. Blessing Masamha, my task as a student assigned on the value addition component of the project was to develop a food product that would solve the problem of micronutrient deficiencies associated with consumption of mainly starchy diets by smallholder farming communities. This work resulted in my MSc thesis and two scientific manuscripts that are under review in peer reviewed journals. This gave me an opportunity to explore further the sesame crop which had become a crop of interest before. Under the guidance of Dr. B. Masamha, I applied for the Field Attachment Programme Award (FAPA) grant (RU 2020FAPA 09) and I was awarded US$4,000 by RUFORUM. These funds were instrumental in initial commercialization activities of the developed porridge product.
My research project focused on determining what could be the possible benefits of Sesame in terms of micronutrients that are essential for healthy and normal body functioning. This required laboratory analysis for both macro and micronutrient benefits of the crop. Results from the proximate analysis of the Sesame crop showed that the seed is rich in protein, fats as well as essential micronutrients such as zinc, iron, and calcium. This became the basis of product development as I looked to include Sesame seed in cereal grain flours which are used mainly to provide early morning porridge to children and even adults in smallholder farming areas.
My field attachment program was a great eye-opener for me as it exposed me to various avenues in the food production industry which as an upcoming entrepreneur gave me a stepping stone as I pursue establishing my food product on the market. However, there were so many lessons learned during this field attachment program that will help shape my road map in the food product development industry. The following are some of the challenges experienced during the field attachment program.
Food product development requires some set of equipment coming from sorting and cleaning right up to milling and packaging. Such equipment takes time to invest in hence for new guys in the industry this would take a lot of capital investment as such equipment is very expensive. Another challenge experienced involved meeting the standard legal requirements needed in order to operate a food product development business. These processes involve registration of the product as well as patenting the product. The processes require huge capital injection whereas the business is starting hence pose a huge challenge for beginners. New products require strong marketing in order to penetrate the market. Under normal circumstances, this becomes a project on its own to market the product and penetrate different shelves with different customers. This was also another challenge that I faced during the field attachment program.
While the field attachment program had its own challenges especially the COVID-19 disruptions and the red-tape associated with meeting the legal standards, there were a lot of positive outcomes from the experience. One of the main positives coming from the field attachment program was that my food product was highly acceptable to both laboratory staff as well as in the community. Calls for the porridge product were high from individuals and corporates an indication that there is huge potential in following up on Sesameal porridge product development as an entrepreneur project.
By Farai Desire Marongwe, Bindura University of Science Education, Zimbabwe