Agriculture is the backbone of rural economies in Senegal, and yet warming temperatures and increasing drought pressure linked with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are reducing crop yields in the West African country. This is undermining farmers’ livelihoods and the region’s food security.
The solution to supporting farmers to be more climate-resilient extends beyond just changing their agricultural practices in response to shifting climatic conditions, according to new research from the region. It will also call for institutional responses that apply to the markets where farmers sell their produce, and policies relating to agriculture. This is according to a team of cross-disciplinary researchers from Africa and Europe, working through Future Climate for Africa, who have spent four years expanding on climate modelling processes for the region, and working with regional stakeholders in order to support climate-sensitive decision-making in West Africa.
According to Dr Benjamin Sultan from the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development and an FCFA partner, farmers in the Sahel region need to be able to adopt drought- and heat-hardy crops, and use innovative water harvesting techniques. In addition to this, though, they need institutional support in various ways, including help with accessing fertiliser subsidies, crop insurance, and credit.
‘Farmers also need reliable and accessible weather and climate forecast services if they are to fully realise their potential to adapt to future climate conditions,’ says Sultan.
Millet is a particularly important staple crop in Senegal. The researchers’ climate scenarios show that increased temperature and decreased rainfall in future will reduce yields, or result in a high degree of variability in yield from one year to the next. This will threaten the livelihoods of the rural poor in the region, where farmers will have increased expenses to offset these production gaps and achieve food security, Sultan explains. Coping strategies in the region will most likely include an increase in food imports, expanding planting areas, and an increase in livestock farming or adopting other commercial activities to boost farmers’ income.
Senegalese small-holder farmers are problem-solvers
Smallholder farmers, whose livelihoods are dependent on local production and reliable summer rainfall, are known for being adaptive and flexible in their farming methods in order to cope with natural climate variability and soil depletion.
FCFA researchers say that African farmers have learned to be flexible in response to these inherent risks by using both on- and off-farm strategies. These include employing more diverse farming methods, incorporating a variety of crop, livestock, and forest uses, more intensive farming practices, and selecting crop species accordingly.
But with the uncertainty of a climate-altered future — which Sultan says has no comparison with historic conditions — it is unclear whether farmers’ spontaneous adaptations will be enough to limit the negative effects of climatic shifts on their farming success and livelihoods.
‘Their current practices may need to extend to include a combination of proactive, anticipatory adaptation measures,’ explains Sultan. ‘This includes incorporating new agricultural technologies to improve breeding more resilient crop varieties and innovating water harvesting techniques,’ he says.
Another important factor to enhance adaptation to climate change is related to institutional changes that affect markets and policies.
‘Smallholder farmers from the Sahel should be able to access fertiliser subsidies, crop insurance, credits, and weather and climate forecast services to reach their maximum potential to adapt to future climate conditions.’
Supporting more inclusive climate research and adaptation planning to boost farmer resilience
Through its four-year research in West Africa, FCFA researchers worked with national and international meteorological agencies and research institutions, national and local government, development agencies and smallholder farmer networks to explore ways to boost agricultural resilience in the Sahel.
Emma Visman at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, also with the FCFA West Africa team, says the focus of the process has been to support more inclusive adaptation planning and allow climate research to be more closely informed by societal concerns.
‘We used a number of participatory approaches to co-develop climate services that can strengthen climate-resilient agriculture in Senegal in different ways,’ explains Visman.
These have included modelling that draws together biological and economic computation processes using data from various disciplines, and which was then reviewed through participatory modelling to ensure it represented key farming decision making processes appropriately. For this, researchers used a scenario board game with farmers to allow them to explore different planning approaches across a range of forecast scenarios informed by the project’s climate science research.
‘The outputs from modelling and the board game were then reviewed together with local government decision-makers, and national agricultural researchers to ensure that key factors were adequately integrated into the bio-economic modelling.’
Another innovative approach was to work with a Senegalese Theatre Forum group co-creating a space for inclusive dialogue between directly affected farmers, local and national government decision makers, national and international researchers, and development funders (for more on the Theatre Forum work, see the film J’acclimatise donc je suis).
‘Some of these participatory approaches also had more immediate benefits,’ Visman says. ‘The board game, for example, allowed farmers to share and discuss experiences relating to adaptive strategies, enabling them to improve strategies for coping with current climate-related risks.’
The combination of approaches has offered opportunities to support more inclusive climate research and adaptation planning, enabling these to be informed by, and remain responsive, to current and emerging contextual challenges.
The work reported on in this story is part of the AMMA-2050 (African Monsoon Multi-disciplinary Analysis-2050) research project, which aims to support decision-makers in West Africa to integrate this knowledge into climate-sensitive decisions.
This article was written by Leonie Joubert as part of a series covering the science produced by various FCFA projects, and introduces some of the people behind it.