Understanding rainfall vital to ensuring Africa’s food security against climate threat

Nearly 90 percent of African food is produced from rain-fed agriculture. The uncertainty of the weather makes this a risky operation, limiting farmer’s willingness to invest. The riskiness will probably increase with climate change. Careful analysis of weather changes and related risks can reveal viable options for farmers, according to new research published in the journal Experimental Agriculture.

“Decades of poor investments in rain-fed agriculture, partly because it is viewed as risky, leave millions of Africans vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and climate change,” said World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) scientist Ric Coe, co-author and editor of a special issue of Experimental Agriculture devoted to analysing tools researchers and farmers can use to manage climate uncertainty in sub-Saharan Africa.

While the majority of African farmers rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods, investment has stagnated, according to Coe and Peter Cooper, a co-author from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and coordinator of the project.

“Rain-fed farming is largely viewed a high-risk activity by governments, donors, and lenders,” said Coe. “The perceived risks have led to decades of under investment in research and infrastructure that have increased poverty. With further variability inevitable as a result of climate change, farmers need help to minimize risk so they can build resilience and cope with changing weather conditions, not just in the face of climate change but also current seasonal variations.”

Case studies show that, in many instances, current year-to-year variation in the weather is much larger than changes in means expected under climate change scenarios. Thus, farmers already experience many of the conditions they will experience under a future changed climate, and learning to cope with current variability puts them in a good position for adapting to climate change. One of the studies shows that improving land management can counteract some negative impacts of climate change on soil and water.

Coe points out that decades of research have produced a wealth of information for sub-Saharan Africa on tested and proven crop, soil, water, biodiversity and livestock management innovations that are affected by the variable rainfall characteristics of any given season. The studies also show that farmers are often poor at estimating weather-related risk, and confuse the effects of changing climate with other environmental changes.

“If researchers and extension staff working with farmers could use climate data more effectively, then farmers would be able to make more realistic investment decisions,” said Coe.

Coe, together with Dr. Roger Stern from the University of Reading, UK, summarize the key lessons learned from the studies on various risk management tools, which the latest issue of Experimental Agriculture chronicles. According to Coe and Stern, seasonal forecasts that give a better indication of the coming season can help farmers make decisions for the coming cropping season. However, institutional barriers to farmers accessing and using the forecast information still exist, as it is not easy to convey probabilistic information. Furthermore, the skill of the forecasts is currently limited so there may still be only a few rational choices for a farmer to make on the basis of a forecast.

The research suggests that farmers’ perceptions of climate variation, risk and change may need to be backed up with climate data from nearby recording stations, and that authors recommend staff from national meteorological services be involved as research partners, not just data providers, in order to ensure access to relevant data, tools and expertise.

This special issue of Experimental Agriculture was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). In addition, most of the studies reported in the journal were initiated and supported by a project funded by the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA). The project aimed to inform agricultural decision-makers and investors on coping with risks and realizing opportunities associated with climate variability and change in Eastern and Central Africa.

“There is a considerable and justified concern about the effects of climate change on African agriculture and food supply. The starting point for understanding the effect of future climate is understanding the current situation,” said Coe. “We have the tools. More effort is needed to make the data available, build climate analysis into every agricultural project and bring relevant and accurate climate information to farmers.”