Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for managing 80 percent of the region’s farmland and contributing up to 90 percent of its food production (FAO 2012), making these farmers critical to reducing poverty and enhancing food security. They are also at the frontline of climate change impacts, with increasingly scarce natural resources and changing rainfall patterns affecting crop yields, income and food security.
Poverty, insecure land rights and lack of access to resources such as quality seeds, fertilizer and storage facilities are some of many challenges smallholder farmers face. Climate information services (CIS) can empower smallholder farmers to take actions that reduce losses, improve food security and increase income by providing critical weather and climate information related to agriculture.
As CIS increasingly enters development agendas, there is growing awareness that it must be tailored to the needs of its users. New directions for CIS are materializing, with the emergence of participatory practices and user-centered research identifying how to more effectively meet the needs of its users.
Contributing to this larger effort is USAID’s Climate Information Services Research Initiative (CISRI). The Mercy Corps-led CISRI consortium is addressing key gaps in knowledge around how CIS can best protect and sustain smallholder livelihoods. At the annual conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in April, CISRI partners shared research on two topics of key importance: the identification of users and needs of CIS, and methodologies for monitoring and evaluating CIS.
The first paper, led by Ed Carr of Clark University’s Humanitarian Response and Development Lab, assesses methods to understand users and their needs for climate information in sub-Saharan Africa. It also prioritizes knowledge gaps for improving user-centered CIS design and implementation. Following the presentation, experts Kevon Rhiney (Rutgers), Kripa Jagannathan (UC Berkeley) and Helen Rosko (Clark University) provided feedback and contributed to a discussion on the identified challenges and the means to overcome them.
Cathy Vaughan of Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate & Society led the discussion of a second paper that reviewed the evidence and methods to evaluate agricultural climate services in Africa. Input from experts Meaghan Daly (Leeds University), Sophie Webber (University of Sydney) and Kassie Ernst (University of Tennessee) helped elaborate on strategies to fill existing evidence gaps.
One example animating this topic concerned issues of valuation, the challenge of determining the economic and social benefits of CIS projects during an evaluation. The panel, along with audience members, noted the ways valuation shifts across different users and producers by discussing and acknowledging the underlying politics around CIS knowledge production. There were also questions of how the valuation may or may not open the door to the commercialization of climate services, and when and whether that is desirable.
These sessions provided the CISRI team an opportunity to engage the diverse AAG community, which includes academic researchers as well as multidisciplinary practitioners. These contributions provided valuable feedback for moving CISRI’s learning agenda forward.
“Both sessions were very dynamic and involved a lot of good discussion,” said Carr. “While we got a lot of good feedback, it was gratifying to see that our learning agenda was broadly confirmed by both the panelists and the participants.”
The CISRI project is working to publish both papers in academic journals.
Helen Rosko (HRosko [at] clarku [dot] edu) is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, 01602. Her research interests include development geographies, climate adaptation and livelihoods, with a special interest in West Africa.
Cathy Vaughan is a senior staff associate at the IRI, where she has worked since 2008. Cathy also conducts research on factors that determine the relative success of climate services, particularly in Latin America. She is completing doctoral studies in climate service evaluation at the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds.