Knowledge to adapt

Food Security16 Jan 2013Bruce Campbell

New actors in the food security debate are communication specialists and software developers who are necessary for innovative ways to ensure that information reaches farmers and villages, says Bruce Campbell.

Climate change challenges – both the slow increase in temperatures and the increased severity and frequency of extreme events – are going to pose and are already posing major challenges to food security in developing countries. In a four-degree warmer world, vast areas of Africa will have more than 20% reductions in their growing season. Droughts, floods, unreliable seasons and unseasonable weather are already impacting farming operations. In order to achieve food security, climate change adaptation is crucial.

Farmers have been at the forefront of changes and “shocks” since time immemorial, so are well placed to counter climate change. However, “coping” is insufficient if food security is to be achieved. Farmers need to know what kind of season is coming, and thus what and when to plant. They need to know about the outbreak of new pests and diseases. On the longer term, they need to know whether a shift in crop species or different farming strategies are needed. A cornerstone of active adaptation is information availability: varieties to grow, diversification options, seasonal climate forecasts, flood and cyclone warnings, pest and disease outbreaks, market options.

Public extension services in the agricultural sector in developing countries are essentially in crisis! There are insufficient resources to ensure that the needed information for adaptation reaches farmers and villages.

Fortunately, the explosion in cell phone ownership and coverage has provided some relief to information-poor farmers. It was unimaginable a few decades ago that cell phones would be as accessible as they are now to most rural farmers, even in remote rural areas. Our surveys in coastal Bangladesh show that 70% of households have access to phones. At a site in Kenya 70% of male farmers have access to cell phones, down to 45% for women farmers. Thus we have to be careful that new forms of communication do not reinforce social inequity. At a remote site in Ethiopia, access is down to about 30%. But, given the growth in coverage, such numbers are likely to double in the coming years.

Cell phones by themselves are, of course, not enough. Now we need the creativity of scientists and communication specialists and software developers, working with farmers, to ensure that the messages reaching farmers are timely and appropriate for the specific contexts of different kinds of farmers. In Senegal, scientists and communications specialists have been working with farmers to understand the information needs of farmers and the best way of delivering the information. In Mali, scientists have studying how past efforts at climate services have or have not met the needs of farmers. We need mobile apps developers to turn their attention to the needs of smallholder farmers. All these local efforts need to feed into national and regional dialogues or policy processes, so that lessons can be scaled up and widely applied.

India is leading in extension via cell phones. For example, India’s mobile phone system, which puts market data and weather forecasts in farmers’ hands now reaches millions of farmers. Elsewhere there are initiatives that use cell phones to facilitate crop insurance, bank transfers related to farming, identification of pests and diseases, and irrigation and fertiliser practices. Many are still experimental, but I think we are seeing the tip of the iceberg for a revolution in information provision to farmers in developing countries.

Other innovative ways of reaching farmers must also be explored. For example, Mbaitu FM, a local language radio station in Eastern Kenya aired a weekly programme “The Voice of the Farmer” to get farmers and experts in dialogue about climate change adaptation, and with audience participation through SMS or voice calls. In another initiative a television reality show in Kenya, called “Shamba Shape-up” ( reaches an audience of 7 million viewers. Farm experts select a smallholder farm and modernize it – similar to home remodeling shows in other countries. The show is backed-up by SMS or leaflet provision of information on the selected farming practices.

We see entertainment, communication and science coming together. We need more of that if we are to rise to the challenge of climate change.