“Small-scale farmers in the West African Sudan Savanna need functioning institutions to respond more adequately to climate -change risks”.

February 26, 2020.  

Doctoral research reveals policy options for improving small-scale farmers' capacities to cope with climate-change risks in West Africa.

Read about the doctoral research of David Boansi, former junior researcher at ZEF (you can read the full doctoral thesis here).

Major messages:

  1. The major climate-related risks to small scale farmers in the West African Sudan Savanna are: droughts (dry spells), low rainfall, intense precipitation events, flooding, erratic rainfall patterns, extremely high seasonal temperatures, delayed onsets of rainy season and early cessation of rains.
  2. To be able to respond to these challenges in an adequate way farmers in West Africa need: functioning institutions that can improve their access to credit (cash or input credit), extension services, markets for the timely purchase of vital inputs of production, and access to timely and accurate weather forecasts (for efficient and effective planning of seasonal activities).

Introduction: How West Africa’s farmers cope with risk

Climate risk studies indicate that climate variability has been and will continue to be an inherent and regular attribute of farming systems worldwide. Especially farmers in West Africa take this as a fact and integrate it into their risk management strategies. But, extremes in climatic events subject farmers to significant losses in agricultural production, as well as consumption and income. Especially the vulnerable farmers are thus coerced into implementing strategies to cope with these phenomena. These often short-term strategies may at the same time weaken their ability to appropriately adjust to future shocks. Thus, the negative impacts of extreme weather events are expected to be generally higher on the rural poor, smallholder- and subsistence farmers. The majority of them live as sedentary croppers or nomadic pastoralists and depend on agriculture and other weather-sensitive enterprises for their livelihood.

The goal of this doctoral research

So the drafting and implementation of pro-active measures to enhance the resilience of vulnerable agricultural regions to climate risks have been among the main priorities of local and global policy processes, especially after the global food crisis in 2007-2008. Efficiency and effectiveness of such measures will, to a greater extent depend, on appropriate identification and documentation of pressing risks, barriers to adaptation and of the impacts on farm households’ welfare.
The main goal of my doctoral research was thus to make relevant propositions towards the formulation and implementation of appropriate measures in this regard.

So one of my research goals was to analyze the current state of farming in areas in Upper East Ghana and Southwest Burkina Faso, which are dominated by rural poor and smallholder farmers. Therefore I identified the climatic risks to which they had been exposed in recent years, looked into how they responded to such risks and what effects they had on their welfare. The outcome of my research could prove to be very useful in policy formulation and investment decisions to enhance local farmers’ resilience to weather extremes.

Farmers’ identification of major climatic threats

The first chapter asks which climatic manifestations do farmers in the study area consider to be major threats to their farming activities, and to which intra-seasonal climatic risks farming systems have been exposed recently.

Farmers identified as major risks: Droughts, low rainfall, short-duration intense precipitation events, flooding, erratic rainfall patterns, extremely high temperatures, delayed rains and early cessation of rains. The seasonal weather conditions in 2010-14 deviated from farmers’ expectation, leading to at least a 40% decrease in the yields of the major staple crops.

Farmers’ reactions in Ghana and Burkina Faso

Farmers in Upper East Ghana reacted to the delayed onset, early cessation of rains and decreased length of the rainy season during the period 2010-2014 with late and mixed planting strategies. Farmers in Southwest Burkina Faso reacted with early and mixed planting strategies to the early onset, a more stable cessation date and a slight extension of the length of the season. In the early and latter stages of the rainy season, we found high risks of moderate to longer duration of dry and hot spells whereas during the mid-season there is a high risk of intense precipitation and flooding.

Conclusion chapter 1: To moderate harm from climatic shocks, there is a need for supplemental irrigation, the adoption of appropriate soil and water conservation techniques, planting appropriate crop varieties, and providing farmers with accurate and timely weather forecasts to guide crop producers in their seasonal planting schedules.

Farmers’ adaptation measures

The second chapter of this thesis investigates the perceptions thatfarmers have of climatic conditions in the study area, which measures of adaptation they have implemented following recent exposure to weather extremes, and what the determinants of and barriers to adaptation were.

The farmers perceive more erratic climatic conditions; increasing seasonal temperatures and hot days, decreasing rainfall and increasing dry days. These perceptions are found to be in line with meteorological records for the study area. The perceptions held by the farmers are found to be significantly influenced by the level of education of the household head, the share of household income derived from non-farm sources, membership in agricultural unions and cooperatives, and access to credit, extension services, and markets.

Twelve adaptation strategies identified

To adapt to their recent experiences of weather extremes, farmers in the study area implemented in total 12 strategies, namely, crop diversification, planting of drought tolerant, flood tolerant and heat tolerant varieties, planting of early maturing varieties, changing planting dates, crop livestock mix, crop and livestock insurance, the practice of irrigation, use of soil conservation, water conservation and water drainage techniques.

It is found that, although in a non-linear fashion, the net income from crop production increases with the number of strategies implemented by the farmers. The number of strategies adopted increases with access to credit, extension services, cropland area, and the frequency of seasonal hot days, but decreases with access to remittances, distance to the nearest market, and increasing intra-seasonal rainfall variability.

Low-cost adaptation measures vs. high-cost measures.

The adaptation strategies implemented by the farmers can be classified into two groups: direct, low-cost measures and supportive, high-cost measures. While the adoption of low-cost measures is greatly influenced by farmers’ access to extension services and a positive perception about the fertility status of crop fields, the adoption of high-cost measures is majorly enhanced by farmers’ access to credit and the cropland area. While the adoption of the low-cost measures was inhibited by farmers access to remittances, limited access to markets, increasing rainy days, increasing intra-seasonal rainfall variability and farmers membership in agricultural unions, the adoption of the high-cost measures was inhibited by a positive perception about fertility status of crop fields, a high livestock inventory, and a high potential labor capacity.

Functioning institutions appear to be crucial

Conclusion chapter 3: Of all the weather variables considered (being more erratic climatic conditions; increasing seasonal temperatures and hot days, decreasing rainfall and increasing dry days), it was found that increasing intra-seasonal rainfall variability has the greatest disincentive effect on farmers’ adaptive behavior. These results indicate that farmers’ adaptation to weather extremes depends on functioning institutions that could improve farmers’ access to cash, information and skills, markets for timely purchase of vital inputs of production, land, and timely and accurate weather forecast services. Although farmers appear to adopt a mix of strategies, they are found to be approximately seven times more likely to resort to the joint adoption of six direct (low-cost) measures than adopt five supportive (high-cost) measures to moderate harm from climate shocks. This is primarily attributed to the fact that, whereas the majority of the direct measures stand for yielding benefits in the short-run, benefits derived from most of the supportive measures may materialize only in the long-run while requiring current investment efforts.

Impacts on farmers’ welfare

The third chapter looks into the impacts of weather extremes and adaptation responses on farm households’ welfare. Through the estimation of econometric and mathematical programming models, it is found that drier climatic conditions lead to decreases in crop yields (except for sorghum and common beans), and losses in income and consumption. Compared to the current rainfall distribution, a drier future could result in total income loss of about 3.70% to 23.75%. Under this scenario, food available for human consumption is predicted to decrease across all farm types, and the shadow price of rain-fed lands is expected to decrease by 3.33% to 13.6%. Poor households that operate on medium-scale farms under low input conditions and that allocate more than 70% of the cropland area to the production of cereals are expected to record the greatest loss in welfare (in terms of income and consumption) in drier years.

Irrigation expansion and investment in research and development are potential measures that could help to curb the adverse impact of climate and weather shocks, yielding greater benefits to the poor farmers. These interventions could help to reduce the incidence of poverty in Northern Ghana, improve food security and farmers welfare on a broader scale, and contribute towards minimizing income inequality.

First overall conclusion: building seasonal planning and planting schedules on historical trends alone is not enough

First, farmers are known to have a very good knowledge and understanding of local climate conditions and the environment. Based on their historical experience and skills, they are supposed to be able to schedule their seasonal planting activities and optimize their management practices accordingly. So I expected that the farmers would be less likely to record significant yield losses during seasons where observed climatic conditions deviate from farmers’ a priori expectation. I presumed that farmers bear in mind the uncertainty of seasonal weather conditions, as depicted by historical trends, would enable them to develop a good shield against climatic shocks. I observed that farmers, in order to avoid or minimize crop yield losses, adjusted their planting after noting some recent changes in the onset and cessation dates of the monsoon, as well as changes in other climatic variables. Despite the planting adjustments made, about 95% of the farmers in Upper East Ghana and approximately 25% of the farmers in Southwest Burkina Faso recorded more than 40% decreases in crop yields and in egg production during the 2013 and 2014 agricultural seasons. These seasons were characterized by a high frequency of extremely hot and dry days. The unexpected implication of this outcome is that, building seasonal planning and planting schedules on historical trends alone is not enough. Rather, farmers may be in need of information on both historical and potential future climatic trends for better planning of seasonal activities. This would require to supply farmers with timely and accurate short-, medium- and long-range weather forecasts that are understood by the farmers and are tailored to meet their needs.

Second overall conclusion: increasing within-season rainfall variability limits the uptake of productivity-enhancing innovations and makes farmers more risk-averse.

Second, earlier studies have shown that the implementation of adaptation strategies like crop diversification, adoption of improved crop varieties, practice of irrigation and the adoption of appropriate soil and water conservation practices can help to mitigate climate risks and are likely to be practiced and adopted in areas that are more prone to climate and weather extremes.However, my research shows that increasing intra-seasonal rainfall variability discourages farmers from adopting improved crop varieties, practicing irrigation and using water conservation techniques.This implies that increasing within-season rainfall variability limits the uptake of productivity-enhancing innovations and makes farmers more risk-averse. While this outcome is against some documented evidences in literature, it equally confirms findings from other studies in rural West Africa.

Third overall conclusion: Farmers need appropriate weather forecasts.

The observed outcome, especially for the study area was attributed to the fact that risk mitigation through the adoption of the presumed productivity-enhancing innovations could be a risky gamble with a possibility of negative payoffs. The majority of the farmers in the study area, who are known to be vulnerable to climate and weather shocks and are poor may forgo the adoption of such strategies for safety reasons. Providing farmers with appropriate weather forecasts may help to change the observed associations to a greater extent.


David Boansi received his doctoral degree by Bonn University's Faculty of Agriculture in October 2019. His doctoral thesis has been published by Bonn University (link here).