Climate change poses a major threat to the food security of rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where the environment is already severe. The vulnerability of rural communities in the region is particularly acute due to their dependence on rain-fed agriculture and natural resources. To improve the adaptive capacity of farmers in SSA and help protect their livelihoods, it is essential that all of the climate information available is harnessed to help anticipate and respond to climate risks, such as drought or flooding.
There are two key sources of
climate information: formal meteorological forecasts and indigenous knowledge
(IK). The former are based on the application of formal science and technology
to predict climatic conditions. IK, on the other hand, refers to the knowledge
accumulated by indigenous communities over generations, which informs their
understanding and interaction with the surrounding environment. Farmers use IK
to predict climate forecasts for the coming season based on a variety of
environmental indicators, including the timing of fruit production by certain
trees or the behaviour of birds and insects.
However, as climate change affects the traditional rainfall patterns in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the behaviour of these indicators is becoming increasingly unpredictable, which could make them less reliable as a method of forecasting. “There is a need to identify the different IK practices that are still used by smallholder farmers to manage climate change in SSA, and determine to what extent IK is still relevant in contemporary situations, taking into account population growth and climate change,” explains Dr Oluyede Ajayi, co-editor of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Climate Change Management in Africa and CTA’s Senior Programme Coordinator responsible for climate change.
Bridging the gaps in scientific forecasting
Meteorological forecasts are becoming increasingly accurate with advances in crop and climate models, improvements in remote sensing technologies and access to spatial environmental databases. However, significant uncertainties remain in relation to intra-seasonal rainfall variability and forecasts are often not specific enough, or available in real-time, to meet farmers’ needs. In addition, the capacity of end-users, such as agricultural extension workers, farmers, NGOs and policymakers to understand and respond to seasonal climate forecasts in SSA is low. This is not only due to poor interpretation and communication of forecasts, but is also the result of farmers’ lack of access to seeds, fertiliser and machinery to adapt to the forecasted climate.
Apart from improving farmers’ access to inputs and credit to pay for them, the use of participatory workshops designed to help farmers interpret seasonal forecasts is an effective way to encourage use of this climate information in rural communities. However, the workshops should not just be about transferring scientific knowledge to farmers; they should also encourage farmers to complement meteorological forecasts with their own indigenous forecasting methods, which focus on different parameters and scale. Whereas meteorological forecasts look at the total volume of rainfall across whole regions over the season, IK is concentrated on the type and timing of rainfall in more localised areas. Farmers can identify the impacts of different rainfall patterns on crops depending on when and how the rain occurs; such insights require in-depth IK and cannot be provided by science alone.
Promoting the co-production of new knowledge
With access to reliable and localised climate information, through a combination of IK and meteorological forecasts, farmers can manage their crops and livestock to reduce risk during unfavourable seasons, as well as exploit opportunities under favourable conditions. Both vulnerable communities and the institutions responsible for managing the impacts of climate change must work together to effectively integrate the climate change information available to them. As Dr Ajayi emphasises, “it is important to learn from farmers the knowledge they have acquired as they contend with the impact of climate change in their daily lives, and identify how development planners can use this to develop appropriate policies and strategies to help farmers adapt.”
Given the high risks of climate change and the associated impacts on agriculture, there is urgent need for policies and actions that foster the co-production of new knowledge. “Policies need to be planned and formulated through interdisciplinary research that brings together IK holders with scientists from various fields,” says Professor Paramu Mafongoya, co-editor of CTA’s publication on IK. “We also need to document IK so that communities and other stakeholders can continue to use it for generations to come.”