For farmers facing climate change, radio means resilience

Photo: Jesse Winter

One of the ultimate injustices of climate change is that those who have contributed to it the least are those most vulnerable to its impacts. Highly dependent on small-scale and rainfed agriculture, sub-Saharan Africa stands to be struck severely by climatic instability. Thankfully, radio has immense power to help farmers adapt in the face of severe and unpredictable weather patterns.

Africa’s vulnerability to climate change

A cruel irony of climate change is that those who have contributed to it the least are also those who stand to be the hardest hit. Although its per capita greenhouse gas emissions pale in comparison to other regions of the world, sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Much of Africa is already hot and dry. Climate change will make it even hotter and drier. In fact, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suggested that land temperatures in Africa will rise faster than the global average, especially in more arid regions. Increases in temperature could also increase the size of arid and semi-arid zones in Africa — by as much as 8% by 2018 — as well as the number of people who live within them.

Climate impacts like these hit Africa especially hard because of the importance of agriculture on the continent. Agriculture is responsible for about 15% of total GDP across sub-Saharan Africa, and close to 50% in many countries.

Agriculture is also a huge employer, providing jobs to more than half of the total labour force in the region. It is especially important in rural areas, where small-scale farming is how most people provide for and feed their families. Smallholdings make up about three-quarters of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa, directly employing about 175 million peoplehalf of whom are women.

In low-income countries, agriculture has immense power to lift people out of poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, growth in agriculture is 11 times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in non-agricultural sectors. Countries in the region that have invested in agriculture are already reaping the rewards. But climate change could jeopardize these gains.

Because rainfed agriculture accounts for about 96% of the cropland in sub-Saharan Africa, farming there depends almost entirely on the timing and quality of the rainy season. More frequent and intense weather events such as droughts thus have the power stifle food production and socio-economic development more broadly. In some African countries, yields from rainfed agriculture could decrease by up to 50% by 2020 because of climate change.

For people living harvest to harvest, a single crop failure can have dire consequences. With lower yields and earnings, farmers may also resort to unsustainable land use practices such as deforestation and bush burning that work to exacerbate climate change.

Promoting climate-smart agriculture through interactive radio

Climate change presents a serious challenge to the food and economic security of those who rely on small-scale agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. But it is not an insurmountable one. Adaptation is key to resilience.

There are a number of farming practices that can help farmers produce crops in dry conditions, conserve water, and protect the soil. The challenge is getting information about these climate-smart techniques to small-scale farmers in far-flung rural areas. That’s where radio comes in.

Even in 2016, radio is still the best and most cost-effective way to reach and serve small-scale farmers. In fact, newer technologies are making radio more effective and efficient than ever before.

With the spread of mobile phones, radio has become a two-way medium. Interactive radio programs like phone-in shows give farmers the opportunity to shape what they hear on the radio to meet their needs — which is especially important when dealing with new, complex, and evolving environmental challenges like climate change.

At Farm Radio International, we’ve been working with our radio station partners across sub-Saharan Africa to produce targeted programming on climate change adaptation since 2007. Our innovative, interactive radio programs help small-scale farmers access detailed and practical information on specific adaptive and restorative agricultural techniques that are tailored to local needs and priorities.

Utilizing mobile phones, farmers are also able to alert their local stations about the specific climate challenges they are facing, such as prolonged and severe drought— even before official announcements are made. They can also utilize specialized mobile-enabled services like beep4weather to access weather forecasts and advice on demand, free of charge. Tools like these help farmers quickly get the information they need to stay nimble in the face of climate change.

And it works! Dozens of evaluations prove that interactive radio programs about agriculture are often listened to by the majority of farmers and lead to measurable gains in knowledge, helping a sizeable portion of families apply new, more sustainable farming practices. This is no small feat. With everything resting on the productivity of the land under their feet, farmers are justifiably cautious when it comes to adopting new ways of doing things.

So, although the impacts of climate change may fall disproportionately on the shoulders of small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, there is much reason for hope. Farmers are resourceful and resilient. And simply turning on the radio can help them find new ways to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, now and into the future.

This is an adaptation of “Communication for Climate-Smart Farming,” published on the Huffington Post Impact Blog.


About the author
Kevin Perkins is the executive director of Farm Radio International, a position he took up in 2006. Since then, he has had the pleasure and privilege of participating in its growth into a leading communication-for-development organization that specializes in applying interactive radio to a variety of rural development challenges in Africa.


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  1. Michael on January 6, 2017 at 11:26 am

    Hi Kevin – Thanks for the post. It’s easy to see how a call-in format radio show would benefit farmers in any region.

    I’m curious – does your organization do any promotion of permaculture principles and concepts? Or do you pretty much always go with the flow of what callers want to talk about? Thanks!

  2. Farm Radio International on March 8, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Michael,

    Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. To clarify, our organization works in partnership with existing radio stations across sub-Saharan Africa. Our network currently consists of more than 650 radio partners in 40 countries. Our broadcasting partners receive script packages and other resources designed to help them serve the needs of local farmers. We also work with some of our broadcasting partners on specific impact projects that use carefully designed radio programs to address a particular local need or issue. Call-in shows are a useful way for stations to get feedback on their programs and understand whether and how they are helping listeners. Typically, callers are asking about or commenting on the topics explored in the radio program. Our partners do not broadcast programs that are unplanned and only go with the flow of what callers want to talk about. However, in some cases, feedback from callers may contribute to a shift in the focus of the radio program. For example, in Ethiopia last year feedback from callers was instrumental in alerting radio broadcasters to the drought situation in certain regions of the country even before official proclamations of drought were made, and radio programs were quickly adapted to meet the new and evolving needs of farmers dealing with drought. Does that answer your question?


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