26 November 2012

Africa: Do Farmers Get the Message?

We all know the game, the one we played many times growing up.

It's called the telephone game, pass it down, grapevine, Chinese whispers, and though it has many different names the idea is always the same: a single phrase whispered by several successive participants usually results in the phrase heard by the last player differing wildly from the phrase heard by the first.

Small errors and misunderstandings accumulate to make a complete failure of the communication effort.

The game of communication is indeed a complicated one, and prone to failure if it is not closely moderated. This fact is especially true when attempting to convey a complicated theme-such as climate projections or weather information-to an audience with no background or even cultural reference to the subject, across multiple levels of information technology.

This is the challenge facing researchers with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) as they attempt to help farmers cope with increasingly erratic climate and weather patterns via improved information and advisory services, ones that connect all the way to the "last mile."

Smallholder farmers are an extraordinarily adaptive bunch. They are well aware of changes occurring in their environment and usually take quick steps to accommodate them, or even benefit from them if they can. However, the increasing unpredictability of climate patterns and the rapid pace of change are becoming overwhelming; traditional knowledge and coping mechanisms often can't keep up.

To support farmers' decision-making processes in the face of such uncertainty, CCAFS is looking into the effectiveness of delivering climate information and advisory services through radio, public media and other communication channels using the example of successful initiatives in India and Mali.

DROPPED CALLS, MIXED MESSAGES

What if, after all the work that goes into creating the kind of climate information services that are useful to farmers, the message never arrives? Or what if it does arrive, but is not understood when it does?

A number of road blocks complicate the process of climate information delivery. These include incomplete knowledge about the needs of end users, insufficient infrastructure to deliver information (electricity, cell phone towers, etc.), and inappropriate timing, content, scale, or format of climate and weather information.

Farmers' lack of access-or inequitable access-to communication technologies is also a problem, along with their lack of understanding of complex information or lack of trust for what they do understand.

The lack of appropriate data is another hindrance. Gaps in historical climate data for developing countries often preclude making future climate projections. Complete datasets for agriculturally relevant variables, including precipitation, river flow and humidity, are lacking. Little coordination among researchers complicates the delivery of information according to farmer needs.

It takes a concerted effort to make sure all the elements of effective climate and weather communication (delivery, salience, legitimacy, and equity) are delivered to and used by the individuals in question.

BRIDGING THE GAP

With combinations of monitored information, short-term weather forecasts, and management recommendations, agro-meteorological advisory services in India and Mali have been able to reach a large number of farmers over several decades. CCAFS aims to take the lessons these programs offer and scale them up across Africa and South Asia.

The keys to implementing successful climate information communication in these regions include, first and foremost, clearly identifying farmers' needs so that the provided information can efficiently aid in their decision-making process.

The information must be relevant, tailored, and properly downscaled-not too much, and no jargon allowed. Most importantLY, that information must actually arrive, down to the "last mile," a goal which requires the involvement of farmers in all stages of the process to ensure the continuity and usability of the product.

Preliminary national workshops on climate services provide the platform to engage national and international partners and stakeholders, while capacity strengthening activities enable national agricultural extension services, non-governmental organisations, community organisations, and farmers' organisations to access, disseminate, and support the uptake of tailored climate information.

Finally, an ongoing series of seminars and farmer training modules makes sure the information gets used where it's most needed, that is, that the farmers themselves know how to access, understand, and make use of climate information.

Effective information delivery means effectively managed farms, ones that are resilient to quickly changing and often extreme climate conditions. CCAFS is making sure that farmers get the message, and that they use it, too-for better farms and better livelihoods.

Caity Peterson is a visiting researcher and science writer based at the Center for International Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia. Arame Tall is a climate-service scientist for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). CGIAR is co-hosting Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods Day on 3 December, held in parallel with the climate change negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

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