Strengthening Food Security with Grain Amaranth Production

By Moses Tenywa 

Moses Tenywwa is the Director of the Makerere University Agricultural Research Institute Kabanyolo (MUARIK) in Uganda. This article was originally posted in Uganda’s Daily Monitor.

A crop indigenous to Africa, amaranth is highly versatile—it grows easily and prolifically in the humid tropics, survives in high altitudes and is a well-known “drought crop” that thrives in hot and dry weather. In Uganda, there are over 60 varieties of amaranths (locally known as dodo) but most of these are eaten as leafy vegetables yet other varieties are just fed to animals and others are regarded as weeds.

Indigenous to Africa, amaranth is a versatile, nutritious and lucrative crop. (Photo credit: MUARIK)

In the past two years, Access for Action Uganda (ACFA), a local nongovernment organization operating in Wakiso district and Makerere University Agricultural Research Institute Kabanyolo (MUARIK) has been promoting the production of grain amaranth. This is one of the fastest growing amaranth varieties with a maturity period of only 75 days, as compared to other grain crops, such as maize, millet, and sorghum whose maturity period is between 115–120 days.

When planting grain amaranth, a farmer will only require one kilogram (around 2.2 pounds) to plant one acre of land which costs UGX 2,500–3,000 (US$1–1.30). In order to attain maximum yield, a farmer needs to thin the seedlings twice: after 2–3 weeks of germination and after 2–3 weeks from the first thinning. After 75 days, one can harvest the head using a knife and then dry the grain for 4–5 days. After drying, one must sieve the grain and ensure that it is not contaminated with dust.

Unlike other grain staples like maize, grain amaranth has multiple benefits, such as its high yields of 700–1,000 kilograms (1,540–2,200 pounds) per 1 acre which is equivalent to an income of UGX 3.5–5 million (US$1,500–2,160) compared to 3 tons of maize equivalent to growth income of UGX 1.5 million (US$ 648) in 115 days. The benefit also includes nutritional value content, soil conservation, and adaptation to climate change. Farmers cultivating grain amaranth are liable to attain high incomes ranging from UGX 4000–5000 (US$ 1.7–2) a kilogram for grain when compared to maize price of UGX 500–900 (US$ 0.2–0.4) per kilogram.

Grain amaranth can also be used in numerous recipes, ranging from popped amaranth snack, porridge, chapattis (flat, unleavened bread), creamy soup, snacks, and pancakes. Grain amaranth has a relatively high proportion of lysine, an essential amino acid, compared to other foods. It is rich in other essential nutrients such as vitamins A, C, E and folic acid as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus. All these qualities make the production and consumption of grain amaranth helpful in reducing health risks.

Given the multiple benefits offered by this plant, it is essential that governments develop and increase research efforts and market incentives for amaranth. Growing grain amaranth is a viable option to contribute to the current efforts of addressing food security, poverty reduction and nutritional needs of vulnerable communities because of its high protein mineral content, superior protein quality, high content of essential fatty acids, and other micronutrients.

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