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Farmers need climate information services they can use

by Cecilia Schubert | CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)
Friday, 2 January 2015 19:03 GMT

A woman looks at local rainfall data in Makoja village, Tanzania. CCAFS/Cecilia Schubert

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Results of a new training scheme show farmers changing their mix of crops, varieties and times of planting

After growing maize her whole life, Selina Sellas, a smallholder from Makoja village in Tanzania, decided to change things around with drought-resistant pearl millet. Inspired by participatory training in climate services and agriculture a year ago, Selina hasn’t looked back since.

“We calculated that you will lose your maize harvest seven out of 10 times in our climate,” she explained. “I wanted to reduce my risk, and since pearl millet has little probability of failure, I decided to go for that instead. I still plant maize, but not as much as before.”

Piloted last November, in an arid part of Tanzania, this training has influenced more farmers than Selina, as emerging results show them changing both the mix of crops and varieties they plant, as well as the times of planting.

Climate information services are a powerful tool for farmers to protect crops against drought. However, recent research shows that if end-users are not involved in the development process, or their capacity to use them is not strengthened, the services are less likely to be embraced and expanded.

The “Participatory Integrated Climate Services for Agriculture (PICSA)” approach, being implemented by the University of Reading in Tanzania and Malawi, actively involves and trains farmers to better use and create locally appropriate climate information.

The work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the World Food Programme, as part of the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) Climate Services Adaptation Programme in Africa

Kicking off in three villages last year, including Makoja and Ikowa, a one-hour drive from Dodoma, trainers here have already worked with more than 80 farmers.

“We show participants their local historical rainfall data and climate forecasts, in this case provided by the Tanzania National Meteorological Agency,” explained Elirehema Swai from the Agricultural Research Institute, who led the pilot trainings last year.

“The figures normally create quite a stir among the participants, as they can, for the first time, compare their own experiences of past drought spells and heavy rainfall with the numbers we show them.”


The group merges the climate data with crop requirements - for example how much water a certain crop needs - to calculate the probabilities of different crops failing or surviving during a season.

“This is so they can see for themselves which varieties are best suited for their climate,” said Peter Dorward, a scientist from the University of Reading who is leading the work on the PICSA approach.

Participants discuss how they can apply the information in their daily work, while also touching on best planting practices. They discuss climate change and variability as well as alternative livelihood options.

“(They) are linked to seed suppliers so they can buy the crops and varieties introduced during the training, whether it is sorghum, pearl millet or new short-maturing varieties,” said Dorward.

“Through participatory planning methods and budgets, they are encouraged to decide how to use their new knowledge based on what works for them. We only aim to empower participants, never to make any decisions for them.”

One farmer said that after the training, “I decided to wait for the rain in December and plant various short-maturing crops. Before I used to do dry planting like everyone else... But since I waited for the rains this time, my short-maturing crops were strong enough to survive the dry spell that hit us in March.”

“The best result from this training is that we now know our actual rainwater, and which crops are suitable for these rain patterns,” confirmed Samson Anderson, a farmer from Makoja village.

Through working closely with national meteorological agencies, the ambition is to get more farmers to receive regular climate forecast updates via text message just before and during the season.


The team wants the methods to be as practical as possible, so that agriculture extension workers and intermediaries can easily pick them up in their daily activities with farmers. 

The Climate Services Adaptation Programme in Africa is training additional climate service communicators like Swai, who will work with farmers in Tanzania and Malawi to develop useful climate information services, hopefully reaching thousands of smallholders within the next couple of years.

By training agricultural intermediaries already working with smallholders, climate services can reach more farmers, while making sure they can interpret and use their new skills.

When asked about the training, Selina Sellas said she had since planted “timely” and got some good crops of pearl millet, but also short-term sorghum and beans.

“I am happy about my decisions, as I now have enough food for next year, and I feel like I can better manage climate change,” she said.

By putting at its centre farmers who have few tools to manage an increasingly variable climate, this participatory approach - together with concerted efforts to scale it up - are making sure climate information services become the game-changer rural farmers around the world are seeking.

Cecilia Schubert is a communications officer with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Learn more:
New capacity to produce and communicate climate information services built in Tanzania
Photos from the feedback session in October in Makoja Village, Tanzania 
In a changing climate, information is power [Climate-service infographic]

FootnoteThe University of Reading team, together with local partners, will launch a participatory climate-services handbook featuring the tested methods from the trainings in Tanzania and Malawi. The handbook will be made available on the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) website in early 2015.