Do you know which birds will start to sing before a significant rain arrives or which trees grow new leaves before the dry season? Could you describe the wind patterns during the summer versus the winter? Traditionally, farmers across the Sahel have relied on environmental signs such as these to guide their agricultural decisions, but climate variability and change has decreased the reliability of these traditional indicators and introduced new challenges.
In this context, weather and climate information services can provide crucial support for community actions that increase resilience, enhance production and improve food security. For farmers across the Sahel, this information is often disrupted, poorly communicated or incomplete so they are unable to use it to increase and protect their harvests.
Under the USAID-funded Climate Information Services Research Initiative (CISRI), a Mercy Corps-led consortium is piloting a participatory systems mapping methodology to investigate how climate information reaches smallholder farmers. Through a series of participatory workshops, the CISRI team works with climate information providers, users, and interpreters to jointly identify the factors that influence delivery, access and use of climate
information. Conversations around the systems’ inefficiencies and breakdowns became the foundation for locally led action plans that will bring about improvements.
Earlier this year, the CISRI field research team piloted this approach with four village-level mappings around Zinder, Niger. The workshops kicked off with development of a seasonal calendar that introduced climate terminology and opened up conversations about indigenous knowledge. The farmers then mapped their climate information system, including actors that deliver climate information; the social, cultural, economic and political factors that influence the external environment; and services needed to improve delivery, uptake and use. They also discussed current gaps within the system, and the trustworthiness and usefulness of the information they receive.
Preliminary findings show that most information reaches farmers via radio broadcasts, mayoral offices and word of mouth. While public and private climate research organizations operate in Niger, climate information is rarely shared back with farmers, comes largely after they needed to make key decisions, or lacks the context needed to inform their decisions.
In the next stage of the research, the CISRI team will bring together farmer representatives with regional government representatives, members of national meteorological services, farmers’ organizations and the media. In these workshops, participants will expand upon the village-level maps and discuss opportunities for locally led solutions, the support needed to take those steps and each participant’s responsibilities.
Communities and national stakeholders alike value this farmer-focused approach as they gain insights into a system many recognized as broken but could not change alone. Maman Ousmane, a Nigerien farmer, says it best. “These discussions were useful because there was a consideration of our answers. It was our experiences and our observations that were asked each time. We are very grateful that we have been brought together to share our perspectives and knowledge and to speak with one voice.”
Kelly Kurz is a Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellow working with Mercy Corps to advance the West, Central, and North African region’s learning and thought leadership on resilience. As a Food Security and Resilience Learning Advisor, Kelly plays a central role in adding to the evidence base for Mercy Corps’ resilience work by exploring the impact of climate and conflict-related shocks and stresses on household food security in the Sahel. Prior to becoming a Leland Fellow, Kelly worked throughout sub-Saharan Africa on non-profit development, women’s rights, and environmental policy. Most recently, Kelly served as an Agroforestry Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal implementing better practices and techniques for increasing farmers yields, accessing markets, and improving health and nutrition. Kelly Kurz graduated from the University of Richmond with a B.A. in International Development, Geography, and Linguistics and is from Wenatchee, Washington.
Kristin Lambert is an Agriculture Advisor on Mercy Corps' Technical Support Unit, based in Washington, DC. She works on the Food for Peace-funded SCALE award, which supports FFP-funded emergency and development food security programs in the technical areas of agriculture, NRM and alternative livelihoods.