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Seasonal climate predictions have been limited in their ability to meet the needs of rural farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a study.

Uncertain rainfall and climate affect 70 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa's population, hampering efforts to promote agricultural production, improve food security and reduce poverty, according to a paper published in Experimental Agriculture this month (5 April).

Farmers could use seasonal weather predictions in many ways to boost food production, said the authors.

Research has shown that demand for climate information is widespread among farmers. A study in Burkina Faso found that 91 per cent of farmers participating in a pilot project applied seasonal forecasts to their decision-making.

Seasonal climate information can be a powerful tool for farmers, but there is a "significant gap" between the information available and what farmers need, said the researchers.

"When to crop is the biggest gamble of the season," Rose Goslinga, agricultural insurance initiative coordinator at the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, told SciDev.Net. By understanding farmers' requirements, climate information can be made more relevant, she added.

Poor access to relevant climate information for farmers results from a number of factors, such as the agricultural sector lacking ownership and a voice in climate services, the study concluded.

Interaction between researchers and farmers can reduce communication barriers and improve the use of seasonal weather forecasts, studies show. Workshop participation in Zimbabwe increased crop yields by 19 per cent, for example.

"A lot of co-learning can happen if farmers and meteorologists can work out the meaning and management implications of seasonal forecasting," James Hansen of Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, United States, the study's lead author, told SciDev.Net.

Seasonal forecasts do not have enough information to help farmers, agreed Peter Webster of Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, who emphasised the need to respond to farmers' requirements.

The authors recommend five changes to enhance the use and benefits of seasonal forecasting.

These include integrating seasonal forecasting into agricultural research and development strategies, developing the capacity to use and demand climate information, and giving the agricultural sector and farmers an effective voice regarding climate information products and services.

Malaria outlook forums, which are operated by a user community, offer some lessons, the report suggested.

The authors also said that national meteorological services could provide services for development and that weather data should be viewed as a free public good and a resource for sustainable development.

Hansen hopes that the Global Framework for Climate Services and Climate for Development in Africa initiatives will re-invigorate seasonal forecast information for the agricultural sector by focusing attention on the design of climate information.

Goslinga agreed: "The agricultural sector has been neglected in Africa but now it's back on the agenda."

Link to full paper in Experimental Agriculture