"When is it going to rain again?"
That seems to be the question being asked all over Africa. Irrigation levels are low, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where less than four percent of cropland is irrigated, which means farmers tend to go for rainfed agriculture.
This compares to 40 percent irrigation in south Asia, which is the world's next poorest region after Africa, and 18 percent globally.
At the climate energy conference in Durban, COP 17, the panelists and audience at a forum on food and agriculture in the Africa Pavilion there found it impossible to separate the critical element of water from the issue of agriculture and food security due to extremes of water supply affecting all aspects of agriculture from crop failure to land erosion.
Efficiency in the use of resources was a key theme throughout the discussion, whether it is the agriculture inputs such as seed and fertilizers, or water and land. This matters all the more as because the parcels of land cultivated by smallholders are getting smaller.
Innovative approaches are vitally needed, said Ken Johm, manager of the Natural Resources and Environment Management Division of the African Development Bank who said: "Already up to 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted before it gets to the table in Africa"
He went on to say that climate change was adding to existing challenges, such as this dependency on rain-fed agriculture and lack of irrigation together with inadequate market access.
Johm commented further: "It also creates new challenges, such as confusion about the seasonal cues for planting and harvesting, as well as proliferation of rodents, pests and diseases increasing post-harvest losses; or degraded grazing resources leading to shrinking herds and so to wavering livelihoods."
Much discussion focused on rises in temperature which is harming yields of major cereal crops, such as rice, wheat, maize and sorghum, the staple foods in much of Africa.
If uncountered, climate change may devastate livelihoods, lifestyles and industries. Reports also suggest South African deciduous fruit is under stress because apples and pears are not enjoying long enough cold periods to bloom properly.
Also, an increase in woody plants in former grasslands in southern Africa is causing some farmers to move from livestock to game-farming.
However, Gerald Nelson, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute said climate change had to be considered holistically.
"Climate change will probably cause more water to be available in Uganda than now - we simply don't yet know when and how," he noted. "We must therefore learn to manage water much better."
During the discussion, Johm also commented that: "Climate change can create new opportunities, such as being able to replace growing grapes for export with olives for olive oil in Namibia, often with small-scale producers using new technologies,"
Supporting smallholders with improved crop varieties and drought-tolerant livestock are two creative responses to these challenges, Johm went on to say.
Supplying fertilizers is another, but that is controversial because while they boost productivity, they also drive emissions, said Alexandre Meybeck, a senior policy officer at the UN's Food and Agricultural Office.
"Where input levels are very low and the productivity gap is very high, there is a role for fertilizers - but it's a case by case basis," he said. "This is an element of integrated nutrient management and underlines why we need climate-smart agriculture."
"To be effective, agro-ecology methods are usually very specific to particular, limited areas," agreed Nelson. "We could say we need to respond to place-based challenges with place-based solutions."
To develop those solutions, pointed out Johm, there's a need for better information on specific African circumstances, more African-trained experts and better public-private partnerships, researching and then disseminating the information. "Instead of sending one extension officer from place to place, we need to use the resources of the 21st century to inform everyone about the best in African-oriented research."
And as new networks emerge, so too will new agricultural livelihoods, believes Meybeck, with people needed to breed and retail the new weather-tolerant seeds. Even more broadly, concluded Martin Bwalya, head of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme at NEPAD
Bwalya said: "New solutions will emerge from the natural instinct of farmers to innovate in response to whether they're going to wake up tomorrow and have food to put on the table and to send to market. They're not just willing but able to adapt to best practice if this will give them food, income and livelihood security. Adaptations through agricultural value changes can reduce vulnerability and contribute to mitigation."
"This is why agriculture is too broad an issue simply to be tagged as a climate change issue," agrees Nelson. "It should be addressed in forums such as this, and finance should be made available to agriculture from climate change funds."