USAID/Rwanda agriculture extension personnel in the field

Can CIS Serve African Farmers’ Context-Specific Needs, at Scale?

By Isabela Barriga

Face-to-face participatory processes, merging weather station observations with satellite data, and bridging the supply and demand side of climate information services (CIS) are some of the promising options for improving CIS. While access to relevant climate services for farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased substantially, uptake and integration of this information into decision-making remains highly variable.

Following the November Adaptation Community Meeting, Isabela Barriga from the Climatelinks Team sat down with Dr. Jim Hansen to discuss his recommendations for advancing CIS in practice, including addressing data and human capacity constraints, and improving communication of the benefits in reducing agricultural risk for farmers.

Climatelinks (CL): First, how would you define CIS?

Dr. Jim Hansen (JH): Climate services link climate knowledge and information with climate-informed decision making and climate-smart policy and planning. According to the Climate Services Partnership, this process involves the production, translation, transfer, and use of climate information. The most useful climate information product may not be rainfall or temperature, it might be crop yield or an analysis of a real choice that the decision maker may face. Therefore, translation is an important aspect of translating climate information into product impact. Communication includes the support and assistance that farmers would need to process information equitably, timely, and act on it.

CL: What are some barriers that farmers face with CIS?

JH: Some examples of barriers are arbitrary rainfall categories (such as “normal” or “below/above normal”), lack of information about the accuracy of forecasts, or the mismatch between local climate and farmers’ information needs. Probabilistic information about climate is more challenging to understand than weather information, this requires different communication processes and more support to use it appropriately.

CL: What are some good practices for agricultural climate services?


Climate Information Services example
To fill in gaps in historical weather data, satellite-based rainfall estimates and temperature reanalysis can be merged with long-term station observations to create high-resolution gridded data sets. This example shows rainfall amounts for a single day over Ethiopia from rain gauges, satellite data, and from merging the two. Yellow, orange and red represent increasingly high rainfall amounts.

JH: Making sure that the information available meets farmers’ needs is a starting point for improving the usefulness of services that National Meteorological Services (NMS) provide. Good practices include geographically downscaling forecasts, providing a full probability distribution, and making historical climate information more available at a local scale. The International Research Institute for Climate & Society (IRI) works with NMS to merge available rain gauge data in Ethiopia with satellite data to produce high quality time series data. This gridded time series finds enough spatial data relevant for farmer decision-making and addresses both the data gap problem and the human capacity constraints of NMS. In Rwanda, USAID is successfully bridging the supply and demand side of climate services and the co-production process by working in a balanced way and addressing bottlenecks that are reinforcing both sides.

In addition, structured face-to-face participatory communication processes help farmers connect abstract statistical information to personal or collective experience when they are incorporated into activities or dialogue. Institutions providing information to farming communities can offer an entry point to scale up face-to-face processes. As they go from a pilot to a national scale, some projects switch from participatory communication processes to broadcast media. However, broadcast media and mobile phones are not substitutes for face-to-face communication but play complementary roles in CIS. Evidence from the Learning Agenda on Climate Services in Sub-Saharan Africa, displayed in the following table, suggests different communication channels may be suited to different types of functions in climate services.



CIS Comms Channels table
A set of functions from climate services were evaluated for four communication channels based on general knowledge and experience. Stars indicate preliminary suitability of communication channels for climate service communication functions: *** = well suited, ** = moderately suitable, * = less suitable. (Source: Hansen, Nov. 2019, ACM)

CL: What is the evidence for the economic benefits of climate services?

JH: The economic benefits from climate information vary from year to year, and climate service projects are usually not run long enough for evaluations based on services to provide robust estimates of benefits. Most crop farmers who access climate information use it to change their farm management decisions. The use of climate information seems to be more limited for livestock farmers and pastoralists, but the fact that farmers access and use climate services shows that they perceive some benefit. A number of studies attempted to estimate the economic benefits of acting on climate information, however, thus far the evaluation methods had significant limitations.


USAID/Rwanda agriculture extension personnel in the field
A team from USAID/Rwanda visiting farmers and agricultural extension personnel who are using climate services and products in pilot districts.

CL: Where do we start to improve methodology when evaluating climate services?

JH: Combining traditional survey-based evaluations with models of the impacts of climate-sensitive farm decisions may allow more years to be included in the evaluation. Building monitoring and evaluation early into the design of project and collecting baseline data to allow changes resulting from expanded climate services to be measured can also strengthen the evidence for climate services.

CL: What’s holding us back from implementing good practices at a national scale?

JH: On the supply side, one of the barriers that most African NMS face in responding to farmers’ climate information needs are policies that require them to raise money by selling data instead of using the data as a public good for national development needs. In addition, regional climate outlook forums’ design decisions, made in the 1990’s, were driven by climate forecast providers, and not users. The resulting practices ended up being a barrier to responding to user needs for more relevant, local climate information. On the demand side, the community of organizations and researchers that seek to improve the communication and use of climate information is not well organized, limiting knowledge sharing within the community, and their influence on climate information providers.

CL: Do you have any recommendations/solutions to the barriers you addressed above?

JH: Promising technical solutions provide downscaled seasonal forecasts and historical climate information tailored to user needs. Making CIS work for farmers on a national scale will require strengthening the capacity of NMS to provide actionable climate information. CIS will meet their full potential when national policies treat the data from weather stations as a public good, and not as a commodity. At the same time, strengthening the capacity of users, and the organizations that support them, will effectively articulate demand for climate services. Finally, this work requires that institutional arrangements and processes enable the supply and demand sides to co-produce services with effectiveness as a priority.

Dr. Jim Hansen shares lessons from the USAID-supported Climate Information Services Research Initiative (CISRI) project within the Learning Agenda on Climate Services in Sub-Saharan Africa, including an examination of the evidence and remaining gaps in agricultural climate services activities in Africa from the Evaluating Agricultural Weather and Climate Services in Africa. The projects mentioned above include the USAID-supported Rwanda Climate Services for Agriculture project and the Enhancing National Climate Services initiative (ENACTS) of the International Research Institute for Climate & Society (IRI).

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration
Adaptation, Climate Change, Infrastructure, Resilience, Weather

Isabela Barriga

Isabela es gerente de redes sociales y coordinadora de contenido para Climatelinks a través del proyecto SEEK de USAID. Ella ayuda con la gestión de la información, la investigación y la redacción de blogs. Anteriormente, Isabela brindó apoyo de comunicación y gestión de contenido a organizaciones intergubernamentales, asociaciones público-privadas y misiones diplomáticas, incluidas las Naciones Unidas, GAVI (actualmente, la Alianza de Vacunas) y la Embajada de Ecuador. Isabela tiene un B.S. en Salud Pública y estudios completos en Desarrollo Internacional y Gestión de Conflictos (Universidad de Maryland, College Park).

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