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Wants African farmers to use climate information services to improve food security

Wants African farmers to use climate information services to improve food security


Published: 28.02.2024
Oppdatert: 19.03.2024

Thomas Hovmøller Ris

Climate change is a threat to African smallholder farmers. They depend on making the right decisions at the right time on their fields if they want to feed their family. A new project aims to improve food security for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia and Malawi through climate information and services.

Erik Kolstad, NORCE, Community visit in Ethiopia, Ethiopia1, <p>Photo: Erik Kolstad, NORCE</p>,

Erik Kolstad, NORCE

Community visit in Ethiopia

Rondrotiana Barimalala – or just Rondro as she prefers – grew up in a farming context outside Antananarivo in Madagascar. As a young girl she believed local knowledge about the weather was the only way to know when it was best to plant and harvest crops.

When I grew up in Madagascar, I was not aware of the usefulness of weather forecasts. I fully trusted using local knowledge based on experience, Rondro recalls.

This personal anecdote illustrates the challenge for many millions of African smallholder farmers. Instead of using forecasts and advisories from national meteorological institutes or other relatively reliable sources, they rely on local knowledge based on their experience and take choices from them. Choices that worst-case can prove to be fatal when there is no food on the table.

Depending on agriculture and producing your own food

The number of people depending on agrifood systems for their livelihoods in Africa is 940 million people, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Of Ethiopia’s 120 million inhabitants and Malawi’s 20 million, it is an estimated staggering 80 percent who are depending on producing their own food, according to the ministries pf agriculture in those two countries.

Read more on the FAO website

Rondro just got back from a 10-day trip to Ethiopia and Malawi where she along with NORCE colleagues Erik Kolstad and Mathias Venning visited local farmers and the ministries of agricultures in both countries. In Malawi they were told about a recent instance where the current rainy season provided an example of the usefulness of weather forecasts.

In December, early in the season, after the first rains, many farmers sowed their seeds in the hope that the rainy season had started. However, the forecasts indicated that there was a risk of dry spells, and when these came to pass, many farmers lost their crops due to lack of soil moisture.
  • Photo: Erik Kolstad, NORCE

  • Photo: Erik Kolstad, NORCE

  • Photo: Erik Kolstad, NORCE

  • Photo: Erik Kolstad, NORCE

  • Photo: Erik Kolstad, NORCE

  • Photo: Erik Kolstad, NORCE

Climate change an increasing threat to Africa

After almost 20 years within climate research, Rondro is fully aware of the discrepancies between science-based weather forecasts and empirical local knowledge. She is involved in several projects in Africa, and the trip to Ethiopia and Malawi was the first activity in a new African project named ‘ARCS’. ‘ARCS’ is short for ‘Agricultural Resilience through Climate Services’.

The main goal of the project is to improve food security and resilience for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia and Malawi through climate information and services to make them less vulnerable to climate change.

What is climate information services?

The CARE Climate Justice Center defines climate information services like this:
"Climate information is the collection and interpretation of weather and climate data that is credible, relevant and usable. Climate Information Services (CIS) involves the provision of climate information in a way that assists decision making by individuals and organizations."

Read more on the CARE website

Since Rondro grew up in Madagascar in the 1980’s and 90’s, climate change has become an even more increasing threat to Africa.

– The farmer’s local knowledge based on experience is gradually getting out of sync with the rapid changes we are seeing in the climate system. As a matter of fact, if the farmers used to start planting on a certain day each year, this might have changed a lot because of the impacts of climate change. Therefore, they need climate information and services based on scientific studies.

There are a lot of projects going on in Ethiopia and Malawi to make farmers able to tackle a changing climate.

– But the main challenge is farmers do not adopt the outcomes of these projects. As such, we want to investigate why that is the case and how farmers can start using climate services for their benefits. At the same time, we as researchers are striving to produce usable and useful climate information for these farmers, Rondro says and explains:
– The forecasts from the Meteorological Service have improved in recent years, but back in the days the farmers perceived these products be less reliable. For instance, if the Meteorological service said that there was going to be rain and the rain did not come, it broke the trust between them and the farmers. So, this is a matter of trust.

The definition of a small-holder farmer

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) define small-holder farmers as having from one to ten hectares of land. They mainly produce food to feed themselves and their family. If they have extra, they sell it locally.

Read more here

Understanding the local context

One of the purposes with going to Ethiopia and Malawi was to gain a deeper understanding of their local context and practices.

– We want to understand the main gaps and identify where our contributions could add value and make a difference in people’s lives in these countries, Rondro says and exemplifies:
– We need to understand how the information flows from the meteorological services to the farmers. It does not go directly to the farmers. It goes through different levels such as the ministries of agriculture, the extensive workers, then to the farmers. Understanding these steps is part of our contribution to the project. Depending on the depth of structural levels or/and the length of the communication channel that this information has to navigate, they could easily become obsolete before reaching the farmers

A valuable take away from the trip was also learning that the Meteorological Service in Malawi provides day-to-day, week-to-week and seasonal forecasts (three months ahead).

– These are not very useful for the farmers as they need information on what is going to happen in two- or three-weeks’ time. Therefore, we consider the possibility of co-producing these products. This requires a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that drives rainfalls in these countries so that we can improve the forecasts.

The next generation of African climate scientists

One of the components in the project is about long- term capacity building and sustainability, both at community and at institutional levels.

– At a community level, We need to train people on what does the forecast present. It’s usually expressed in terms of probability and a forecast of 60% chance of rain does not necessarily mean it will have to rain, Rondro explains and adds:
– Starting with such understanding could help build the trust between the meteorological offices and the farmers. There was also a high interest in climate literacy among the extension workers, which is very encouraging. They are keen to understand the basics of the climate system and how it impacts their daily activities.

The training and education in climate might also take place at institutional level.

– Both at Meteorological Service and academic communities, there is a high demand for climate science training. This is both relevant for Malawi and Ethiopia. That being said, they do have a research group on climate in those countries, but they need to build capacity. Among other things, we have discussed writing research papers together or teaching/ co-supervising students in both countries.

A broader African perspective

The new project also supports the NORCE-led CATER Schools programme, which holds annual schools for students and early career researchers and professionals. The curriculum of the CATER schools addresses issues related to climate action and has a strong focus on inter- and transdisciplinarity. In 2024, the school will be held in Arusha, Tanzania in October, and the plan is to recruit participants from both Malawi and Ethiopia.

In addition to the clear links between ARCS and CATER, there is substantial synergy between the research in the NORCE-led Horizon 2020 project CONFER and the research that will be performed in ARCS.

Brings researchers and NGO’s together

Norwegian Capacity (NORCAP), a part of the Norwegian Refugee Council aiming ‘to improve aid to better protect and empower people affected by crises and climate change’, is leading the consortium behind the project. NORCE, Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) are research partners, while The Development Fund (Utviklingsfondet) is the second NGO partner.

– We are bringing researchers and NGO’s together which is a bit unusual for research projects. The NGO’s are going to implement the project locally since they have been working with the farmers before, Rondro explains

The project received 230 million NOK from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

The project officially began this year and ends in 2027.