Zimbabwe’s smallholders are notorious for resisting appeals from the agriculture ministry to grow small, drought-resistant grains. They have always planted maize and weaning them from that tradition has proven difficult. While extension officers warning about changing climate patterns continue promoting small grains such as sorghum, pearl millet, and finger millet (rapoko) this has found no takers on a large scale.

With the Zimbabwe government increasing its agriculture industrialisation program, small grains have been left behind in the commercialisation of food production. Smallholders and subsistence farmers typically grow small grains for their own domestic consumption, while commercial small grains remain of little economic value. This is seen in shortages in supermarkets of nutritional food such as sorghum meal recommended for people with various medical conditions. Commercial farmers driving the country’s maize production have sometimes been critisised for choosing to grow maize exclusively for stock feed at a time when the country’s grain reserves that feed the nation were low.

They also did not particularly favour small grains. However, in recent years the promotion of small grains has attracted other players such as faith-based humanitarian agencies who are responding to the effects of climate change. They are assisting rural smallholder subsistence farmers to navigate the climate change and food security nexus using methods that rely on traditional knowledge. As part of efforts to address hunger and provide long term responses to the food security crisis, small grains are slowly being embraced under the guidance of these agencies. The agencies are working with different rural communities across the country’s provinces including the historically low-rainfall south-west where subsistence farmers are warming up to small grains. According to officials, smallholders getting assistance in the form of adopting millet, sorghum, and other small grains are embracing the crops promoted by their faith-based affiliations.

“It makes sense to approach these issues from the perspective of already existing religious networks,” one church official said.

“Because we already work and fellowship together, putting the message of climate change and the need to adapt becomes relatively easy,” the official added, asking not to be named because of official ethical considerations. Zimbabwe’s agriculture activities have for years been promoted by a government whose politics have shaped people’s reaction to messages of development. Because there have been accusations of politically selective farm input and food assistance, the message of climate change and adaptation has become a victim of resistance by skeptical audiences, researchers say.

Receiving seeds is a way of ensuring that someone can learn how to work the field.

Small grains remain a difficult subject to preach despite all evidence of the need for climate resilient crops, and extension workers have their work cut out. “We are happy to get help and receive knowledge from our church regarding embracing new types of crops. We have been reluctant to adopt this as we have not been getting enough knowledge,” said Getrude Lubimbi, a subsistence farmer in low rainfall Matebeleland South.

“I received seeds last year from my church and am eager to see what we, as a family, will get from the fields. I think this is better than getting free mealie meal as it ensures we are working the fields, doing what we have always done all our lives,” she said.

The country’s provinces have remained stuck in a food assistance loop, with agencies such as the World Food Programme noting that poor agricultural performance will see a continued need for food relief. Getrude is not alone in embracing the new message of adopting small grains preached by her faith-based agency. Other subsistence farmers have also expressed hope that the challenges brought by poor rains can be overcome through growing crops other than the staple maize.

“When my pastor mentioned that they were bringing people knowledgeable in climate change research and different crop varieties I thought it was time to learn more about this stuff,” said Naison Bhebhe, a subsistence farmer in Matebeleland North.

“It is not like we have not heard about small grains. People have just not been interested,” he said. And this is a complaint that has been regularly raised by the agriculture ministry in a country where some smallholder farmers continue to favour cash crops over promoting food security efforts. As the country continues to seek ways to lift smallholders out of cyclical crop loses, faith-based humanitarian agencies are stepping in the breach, complimenting government efforts to boost food security.