Gaborone — In his home country of Mozambique, Micas Luis is a darling of the farmers he advises on how best to grow their crops and vegetables.
An award-winning agricultural extension officer, Luis is considered a walking encyclopedia on all matters agricultural. But in the area of climate change he confesses he falls short.
"Climate change is a new challenge facing farmers, and I have to learn about it," said Luis, while attending a regional symposium for agricultural extension and advisory service providers, held in Botswana. "With my current knowhow I cannot answer questions posed by farmers who are grappling with a rise in pests, diseases, poor rainfall and flash floods in my country."
Smallholder farmers, who keep Africa fed, need extension officers who are well informed about climate change, as its impacts - already being witnessed in more extreme and erratic weather - threaten the continent's food security.
Knowledge of climate change among agricultural information providers was a key topic for discussion at the first ever Africa Extension Week, which took place in Gaborone, Botswana's capital, earlier in August.
Researchers and extension practitioners spoke of a huge knowledge gap, not just on the links between climate change and agricultural policies but on the phenomenon of climate change itself.
According to the African Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services (AFAAS), an umbrella body for providers, there is a greater need than ever before for extension officers to adapt their knowledge to the new climate threats faced by farmers.
"In Mozambique, farmers are facing high temperatures, irregular rainfall and flash floods which are affecting crop growth," said Luis, who works with 350 small-scale horticulture and maize farmers in Gaza Province. "I have to help them adapt if they are to keep producing, making it essential for me to update my knowledge on climate change."
AFAAS executive director Salim Nahdy sees extension services as the frontline for agricultural transformation in Africa, but says officers are not well versed in climate change issues, to the disadvantage of farmers who must cope with weather variability, water shortages and floods.
The chairman of AFAAS, Adolphus Johnson of Sierra Leone, believes that climate change is the most worrying of all the emerging challenges to Africa's agricultural development because most extension officers were trained before it became a global issue.
"Extensionists are strategically placed to influence productivity and need the correct information, skills and approaches to implement climate-smart interventions," said Johnson, whose organisation is studying the impacts of climate change to help members develop relevant strategies within three years.
A joint research initiative by AFAAS, the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa and the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) of the UK's University of Greenwich aims to close this knowledge and skills gap.
LOW POLICY AWARENESS
The two-year Climate Learning for African Agriculture (CLAA) project is investigating the extent to which agricultural research and advisory services in Africa are incorporating climate change into their policies, management and practices.
The CLAA initiative is currently refining findings from four African countries, which indicate a high awareness of climate change but low awareness of policy issues.
John Morton, head of department at the NRI, explained that research and extension organisations in Africa were found to have multiple failures of communication, and that agriculture was barely mentioned in climate change policies, which were commonly developed by environment ministries.
According to Morton, national agriculture policies only mentioned climate change broadly, without detailing plans for dealing with particular threats or adapting research and extension services to help farmers.
"Extension workers and extension managers are only vaguely aware of climate change as an issue but do not know what their national climate change policies are, as they are only given specific training and do not see it as part of their remit," Morton said.
"In most African countries extensionists are very much still involved in the transmission of knowledge, but the question of climate change involves them also helping farmers with input supply, crop marketing and market value chains," he added.
The CLAA initiative notes that research and advisory services that want to help farmers adapt to climate change must themselves be adaptive in their structures, governance, funding and partnerships.
Francisca Ansah, an extension officer working in the Brong Ahafo and Upper West regions of Ghana, takes these aspects seriously.
"Our projects with farmers help them in value-chain development and in growing crops without destroying the environment," said Ansah, who coordinates the food security and livelihood programme of Concern Universal, a nongovernmental organisation in Ghana. "We have encouraged farmers to plant boundary crops to save the watersheds."
"I realise a lot is changing in the farming environment because of climate change," Ansah added. "I have to keep up by reading and learning about what others are doing to adapt so that I better serve the 7,000 farmers I work with."
Ghana is experiencing climate stresses in the form of floods and droughts. Soy bean and maize farmer Victoria Adongo says this raises questions that she puts to the extension officer in her village.
"When we experience extreme weather patterns, we know we have a problem on our hands, and the immediate question for our extension officer is why and what can we do about what is happening?" said Adongo, who is also the programme coordinator for the Peasant Farmers' Association of Ghana.
"We have found ways of adapting to the changes," Adongo explained. "For example, we used to plant early millet to meet our immediate food needs before the rainy season, but now we do not plant with the first rains because they come with a long break and the millet dies. We wait for the second rains to plant."
As governments seek to integrate agriculture into climate policy and vice versa, extension officers like Mozambique's Micas Luis hope they will be recognised for their potential to help farmers adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Busani Bafana is a freelance contributor for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, based in Zimbabwe and covering climate change issues.