Africa and climate change: Adapt, survive, thrive?

A Tanzanian onion farmer Copyright: USAID

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Faced with a changing climate, projects to help Africans adapt are springing up across the continent, reports Patrick Luganda.

Across the continent of Africa, the landscape is changing. The snowy caps of Mount Kilimanjaro, Kenya and Elgon are melting. The shorelines of Lakes Chad, Tanganyika and Victoria are receding; Lake Chad is one twentieth of the size it was 35 years ago.

Lake Chad’s disappearing act: in 1972, 1987 and 2001
Credit: United Nations Environment Programme

Droughts and floods, out-of-season rain and dry spells are affecting the welfare of millions of people.

The suspected root of the problem, climate change, is a reality for the people of Africa. These and many other changes have led to unreliable farming seasons and low water supplies — a dire problem for a continent almost entirely dependent on rain for its agriculture.

Humanity’s role in this changing climate is more or less certain (see Scientists united on human-induced climate change), and despite the fact that Africans have contributed the least to human-induced climate change, there are widespread fears that Africa will be the worst hit.

Yet many scientists agree that Africa’s best course of action is not to blame, but to adapt, before the changing environment impacts even more severely on people’s lives. In response, adaptation projects are springing up across the continent.

Experience and flexibility

The first to be affected by any changes in the weather are those people who live by the seasons and are dependent on rainfall: the farmers.

And because farmers and rain-fed agriculture are critically important to food security and African economies in general, helping them adapt is a prime focus of many adaptation projects.

Better forecasting will help
Africans adapt
Credit: F.Sands, USAID

Learning what farming practices work best in changing climates and putting those changes into practice is an important part of adaptation, and something that the programme ‘Climate Change Adaptation in Africa’ (CCAA) — jointly funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development — is focusing on.

The programme will document the experiences of various communities, especially smallholder farmers, looking at the vulnerability of their farms to changes in rainfall, and how communities have acclimatised to these changes ― specifically how they have adapted their farming practices and how resilient they have been.

CCAA team leader Fatima Denton, speaking at the programme’s inception in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in April this year, said that by bringing community perspectives to bear on adaptation research, and by learning from activities at the local level, the project will boost knowledge at a regional level.

Funded with US$8.6 million over several years, the first round of ten projects has recently commenced in 18 countries in northern and sub-Saharan Africa.


A team based at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania will implement a CCAA project in the Greater Horn of Africa, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan.

Project leader Henry Mahoo told SciDev.Net, "These countries are particularly vulnerable to drought, exacerbated by widespread poverty and dependence on rain-fed agriculture. Even with normal rainfall, the region does not produce enough food to meet its needs. The result is frequent climate-induced famines that are addressed using short-term emergency relief."

Mahoo says that in the past, little or no attempt has been made to encourage smallholder farmers to prepare for these extreme events.

The goal of the research, says Mahoo, is to help them prepare by learning to be flexible in the face of changing weather. If they can modify their farming methods accordingly, then they can reduce the impact of drought and poverty in the region, he says.

Researchers will collect information from farmers on the impact of droughts, and their successes and failures. Farmers will then collectively be able to use this information, in conjunction with climate predictions, to make better decisions on when to plant crops or what type of seeds to plant.

If, for example, scant rains are expected, farmers may decide to plant seeds that mature early and that are resilient in dry conditions.

The inherent adaptability of small-scale farmers, Mahoo says, makes the outlook positive.

Governments may also benefit from the information, says Mahoo. For example, they may use it to inform politically sensitive decisions, such as convincing farmers to plant certain types of crops within a specific growing season, depending on the timing and quantity of rain expected.

Africans working for Africa

If these climate adaptation strategies are to take root and flourish, many believe the projects and ideas should be driven from within Africa.

Activities must begin at the local level, says Gilles Forget, the West and Central African director for Canada’s International Development Research Centre, one of the funding bodies of the CCAA programme. If there is grassroots support, this will soon develop into community and national action, he says.

At the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, another CCAA project is working in the area of science and innovation to build the capacity of participating African institutions and individual researchers to conduct this kind of research.

Paul Mapfumo, who is leading the project team, says the aim is to enhance the ability of relevant institutions, as well as communities and individual households, to respond to a changing climate.

CCAA climate specialist Anthony Nyong, of the International Development Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, emphasises the importance of finding answers to the challenges of climate change from within Africa.


"We seek to promote African leadership in finding solutions to support both the science and practice of climate change adaptation," said Nyong.

Enlisting the media

The CCAA is also funding research into using the media to enhance climate change adaptation.

One project, led by the African Radio Drama Association, will commence in Nigeria, where there is a need to produce and disseminate information that will help smallholder farmers adapt their farming methods.

A community radio station in
Sierra Leone
Credit: L. Lartigue, USAID

Radio broadcasts — produced locally in two local Nigerian languages, with scripts available in English and French — will be broadcast weekly by five radio stations for two years to test the effectiveness of informing smallholder farmers of climate change adaptation measures and strengthen their capacity to mitigate the impact on their livelihoods.

Foday Bojang, head of the Environment Program at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, told SciDev.Net, "This is the time for action and adaptation of new technologies at a large scale in Africa’s rain-fed agriculture. The use of mass media including radio, print and Internet communication systems is effective."

The building blocks of adaptation programmes are in place, and ways of disseminating them to those most affected — ordinary people — are being tested. Time and goodwill are on Africa’s side, and with support from governments and the people, these various fledgling projects may reap large benefits.