Farmers facing long periods of dry weather and floods have expressed hope that a new climate change adaptation initiative being rolled out in Tanzania and Malawi will spell an end to dismal crop yields.
The Climate Services Adaptation Programme launched in November 2013 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) presents a window of opportunity for African farmers to use scientific knowledge to battle weather challenges.
With $10 million in funding pledged by Norway, the pilot project is expected to equip thousands of farmers in Malawi and Tanzania with skills to combat extreme weather, especially drought and floods.
Farmers will be taught ways to boost the resilience of their crops and protect their farms, such as using drought-tolerant crop varieties, changing planting dates to cope with shifting rainfall patterns and planting barrier crops to reduce pest infestations.
Other techniques include using drains to avoid water runoff in their fields, and other harvesting and irrigation systems to cope with fluctuations in the availability of water. Farmers will also learn how to plant tree nurseries to increase carbon sequestration.
"Every one of us has in one way or another been affected by bad weather. When the experts are empowered, they should help us with skills to prevent unnecessary losses," said Hamisi Ali, a farmer from Matombo village in Tanzania's Morogoro region.
"This is a pilot project, but the ultimate goal is to see (that) every single farmer across the country is able to use these skills to deal with the effects of climate change," said Richard Muyungi, director of climate change in the office of Tanzania's vice president.
"We have chosen Tanzania because it is exemplary as far as meteorological services and climate change issues are concerned," said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud at the UN climate change conference in Warsaw in November.
Farmers in Morogoro who are already bearing the brunt of climate change impacts urged the Tanzanian government to give agro-meteorology experts and extension officers specific training on how climate change affects agriculture, so that they can pass on information and skills to the farmers they work closely with.
LACK OF SKILLS
"Most farmers lack the skills to manage dwindling water and to prevent soil erosion in their fields," said Robert Selasela, a farmer and councillor in Kiroka village in Morogoro. "If we get the right information, I am sure these problems will be history."
The new programme, the first ever multi-agency project of its type for farmers across Africa, aims to help them cushion their livelihoods from the effects of climate change when it begins next year.
According to WMO, farmers will have the chance to fine-tune their planting and marketing strategies based on seasonal climate forecasts. The programme will also give disaster risk managers access to high-tech equipment and communications technology to detect and prepare for emergency situations.
Most farmers in Tanzania are increasingly susceptible to extreme weather because they practise rain-fed agriculture. The sector accounts for over 30 percent of the country's GDP. Tanzania has about 44 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture, but only just over 10 million hectares are used for this purpose.
The Tanzanian government estimates that without proper adaptation average maize yields could decrease by up to 16 percent by 2030 (a loss of around 1 million tonnes per year) and by 25-35 percent by 2050.
Omari Jaka, a paddy rice farmer in Morogoro, wants the Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA) to expand its mobile SMS weather service to reach more people in rural areas.
"Most people own a mobile phone these days. Farmers should have unlimited access to weather information which is relayed through their handheld gadgets," he said.
Agnes Kijazi, TMA director general, said that the use of meteorological information and services in climate change adaptation is crucial for achieving the country's Development Vision 2025 and its Kilimo Kwanza ("Agriculture First") strategy, which aims to transform agriculture into a modern sector.
"This programme will be a significant opportunity for enhancing availability of (a) wide range of data and information," she said. "It will empower the meteorological agency to better serve our key customers."
Augustine Kanemba, principal meteorologist at the TMA, said that climate change is predicted to exacerbate crop production risks in agriculture as conditions keep changing.
"Weather and climate information is very important to the farming community, especially during times of poor seasons when low harvest are encountered," he said.
According to Kanemba, meteorological services in Africa are not adequately funded because most governments have yet to realize their important contribution to socio-economic development.
Africa is vulnerable to a wide range of climate change impacts which are affecting food production by causing floods, droughts and the inundation of coastal zones. Experts warn that without proper adaptation measures climate change will cause millions of farmers to lose their livelihoods.
Henry Mahoo, professor of agricultural engineering at Tanzania's Sokoine University of Agriculture, said that due to climate change water resources are dwindling in many parts of the country, and as a result people are fighting for water.
A study on the economics of climate change in Tanzania commissioned by the government in 2011 suggests that adaptation could reduce the impacts of climate change, although significant funding will be required.
According to the study, an estimate of immediate needs for building adaptive capacity and enhancing resilience against future climate change is $100 million to 150 million per year.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.