Putting Science into Action for Climate-Smart Agriculture

This blog post first appeared on the CCAFS blog on October 28, 2011.

Discussing Climate-Smart Agriculture in Ede, Netherlands. Photo: C. Schubert (CCAFS)

The Global Science Conference on Climate-Smart Agriculture wrapped up three intensive days focused on deepening understanding of the climate-smart agriculture (CSA) concept. The event, held in Ede, the Netherlands brought together researchers  from around the world to share best practices on the ground. Together, they worked to identify key priorities for further knowledge development as well as ways to effectively implement known solutions. The participants ranged from scientists, non-governmental organizations, farmer’s associations to ministry representatives and universities. Continue reading

Livestock Insurance – A Chance to Outsmart Drought?

This blog post by Neil Palmer first appeared on the CIAT Blog on October 24, 2011. It also appeared on Reuters Alertnet –Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2011′s official media partner–on October 27, 2011. 

New satellite-based scheme makes first payments to pastoralists

What hits you when you get out of the truck at Ginda Village, in Northern Kenya, is the smell.

Farmer Haro Sora’s land is littered with the carcasses of cattle and donkeys that have keeled over following an intense, prolonged drought. A skull here; half a ribcage there. In some places there are whole animals slumped on the roadside. Some have died in the last few days, and the wind does little to clear the air.

Ginda, in Marsabit District, has been affected by the now infamous Horn of Africa drought, which triggered a food crisis affecting around 13 million people in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. After more than a year, the rains finally returned to Ginda a fortnight ago.

The fact that the food crisis in the Horn was the result of a livestock crisis has been well documented. A major pastoralist zone, when vegetation for grazing began to dry-up and livestock started to die, the knock-on effects on farmer livelihoods became strikingly clear.

Now, whatever your gut reaction to the principle of a financial institution selling insurance to already cash-strapped smallholder farmers to protect them against the risk of drought, there are 650 livestock keepers in Marsabit this year who are delighted to be receiving their first payouts.

The Index-based Livestock Insurance (IBLI) scheme, run by CIAT’s sister-center the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and a number of partners including the UK Department for International Development (DFID), is an example of a market-based, climate-smart innovation that could gain much wider currency in Africa and beyond. It’s now at the end of its second year.

What triggers a payout is not how many livestock die, but whether satellite images confirm that forage availability in the region’s rangelands has dropped below a certain level. When this happens, farmers who took out insurance get paid. Using satellites to track forage cover gets around all kinds of problems, such as claims being made for animals that have died of disease or neglect, rather than drought.

At a meeting in nearby Dirib Gombo Village, last Friday, where some of the farmers received their payouts, others were still to be convinced. Inevitably some were frustrated that they had taken out insurance in the year the scheme was launched, and despite losing animals, had received no payout because the forage threshold was never breached. They decided not to renew their policies – and then the drought hit.

Back in Ginda Village, the cruel irony is that even if Haro Sora had taken out livestock insurance, he probably wouldn’t have received a payout for many of the dead animals we saw scattered around us.

Already weakened by months of near-starvation, the animals were unable to endure the colder weather that followed the long-awaited return of the rains. They died from hypothermia, with green shoots springing up around them.

Kenya: A Glimpse of Climate-Smart Agriculture

This blog post by Neil Palmer first appeared on the CIAT Blog on October 14, 2011.

 From “madman” to model farmer – perseverance pays off for Maurice

There are many ways to describe Maurice Kwadha: farmer, entrepreneur, and climate-smart are some of them.

But some in Kombewa, in western Kenya’s Nyando Basin, used to call him a madman. Once, when he was collecting discarded milk packets at the local market, he was physically attacked by someone who thought he had lost his mind. But Maurice had a plan. And his small farm, with its burgeoning tree nursery, is the proof.

Standing in the afternoon sun at his farm in Kochiel village, he’s full of smiles. The day before he hosted a special event for World Food Day – which saw over 100 people, including the area’s provincial commissioner – take a tour of his farm. Even though Maurice has less than half-a-hectare of land, what he’s done with it is nothing short of inspiring, and is perhaps one of the best examples of climate-smart, sustainable, agricultural intensification in the region, if not the country. It’s little wonder it’s starting to get attention.

His agroforestry system has been established at just the right time, as the Nyando Basin, and many parts of East Africa, struggle to deal with increasingly unpredictable rains, and more intense dry spells. It shows that with a bit of lateral thinking, a small plot of land is no barrier to boosting food production, increasing resilience to climate change, and developing a profitable business.

In an area barely larger than a tennis court, he has dense, leafy plots in all shades of green. Areas of maize and the bushy fodder grass napier sit next to rows of banana and high-value papaya trees; several alleys of multi-purpose border trees including calliandra and grevillea help to stabilize and replenish the soil, maintain soil water, protect the topsoil from wind erosion, provide shade and fodder, and eventually fuel-wood and building material. He uses leaf mulch from tithonia plants as green manure for his fruit trees; further up he has a small area for onion, sweet potato and tomato.

His next-door neighbour’s farm, sown almost entirely to maize, seems horribly exposed in comparison. While heavy wads of mud cling to my shoes as we walk along the border of Maurice’s farm, the soil over the fence is dusty and dry. Maurice likens soil-use to having a bank account: you can’t keep withdrawing indefinitely if you have nothing saved up. At the moment, it looks as though his neighbour is in the red.

Maurice also has a unit for a dairy goat and hopes to establish a zero-grazing unit for his dairy cow. He’s also hand dug a large pond, fed by water pumped from a nearby seasonal river, installed an EcoSan toilet, and has a 3000 litre tank to capture rainwater from the tin roof of his home. Furthermore, he’s a committed composter, with various systems in place, and even has an ultra-efficient “rocket stove” for cooking.

“The mother of everything”

What Maurice is most proud of is his growing tree nursery, which despite being less than a quarter of the size of his cropland, is by far his most profitable enterprise. Here there are a whopping 20,000 seedlings of mango, calliandra, grevillea and local tree species. Some are for his farm, but the majority are for sale.

Many of the seedlings are growing in the discarded plastic bags used for milk, the same ones that caused Maurice to attract the wrong kind of attention as he picked them up off the floor at his local market. He says that recalling the incident still brings tears to his eyes. In farming, sometimes you have to act like a person who is mad, he explains. But as long as you know what you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

As well as collecting old milk packets, Maurice also picked up discarded mango seeds to establish his mango nursery. He now sells seedlings to a variety of customers, including the Kenyan government. He’s also started grafting mango.

The money from the tree nursery enabled Maurice to buy and install his water harvesting tank. His water pump was also bought with money from the nursery. Water pipes too. And his television. Money from the tree nursery enables him to send one of his children to school and another to college.

If we want to talk more about what he has bought with money from the tree nursery, we‘ll be here until evening-time, he chuckles. With a sweep of his hand, he says simply, that the tree nursery “is the mother of everything here.”

Despite this, Maurice concedes that for one person alone, environmental conservation is not easy – networking and collaboration are essential – and he admits there is still a long way to go. But he believes that if the whole community can see what he is doing, and adopts similar practices, together there will be a significant change for the better. His involvement as chairman of the the a local youth group, is one step towards this.

“What I’ve learned in farming here is, however small it is, what matters is the way you utilise your farm.”

Now, whichever words the the local community uses to describe Maurice, mad is definitely not one of them.

*In July 2011, Maurice helped to coordinate the first of a series of workshops with the CGIAR’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) research program, with partners from the University of Oxford. The workshops aim to improve the capacity of rural communities to address their most pressing challenges. More on this coming soon. Kochiel is also one of several villages participating in Africa’s first soil carbon project operated by Swedish NGO SCC-ViAgroforestry (ViA) together with the World Bank and the Kenyan government.

Climate-Smart Agriculture Has to Add Up

This post summarizes a substantive reply from Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security, to the preceding post by Jeffrey Bretz of IFAD.


The point that climate-smart agriculture builds on what we “already know how to do” is well taken. But it could come across as a potentially dangerous endorsement of the status quo. On the contrary, climate-smart agriculture must add to current knowledge and resources in various ways.

To start with, this concept explicitly adds climate-change adaptation and mitigation to the conventional goals of agricultural development, like increased production.

And that will invariably mean dealing with additional trade-offs. Rising temperatures in South Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plains, for example, will require earlier planting of wheat; but the easiest way to do this is by burning the residues of the previous rice crop, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Sometimes, it will be necessary to “subtract” practices that are not climate-smart – such as fertilizer subsidies that enhance food production but boost emissions.

To achieve climate-smart agriculture will also require many additional partners, for example, from the climate-science community, meteorological departments, and insurance sector.

Markets will have to change as well, involving alternative products that have less impact on the environment and more efficient exports with a smaller carbon footprint.

These shifts imply an expanded research agenda that addresses urgent needs, like better seasonal forecasting for climate-risk management, down-scaled climate projections for agricultural adaptation, and a new generation of climate-smart crop solutions. The recently launched Adaptation and Mitigation Knowledge Network brings together a lot of information about these issues and links it to interactive maps.

New policies are urgently needed as well that give due attention to agriculture, including its role as a driver of deforestation.

Above all, climate-smart agriculture is about envisioning a different, more uncertain world and knowing in advance how to respond. The response will vary from one location to another. In places that suffer from food deficits, emissions may have to increase, while in others, agriculture should de-intensify to reduce its environmental foot print.

But all these responses, taken together, must add up to a climate-smart agriculture that reduces hunger and poverty while dealing successfully with the climate challenge.

Climate-Smart Agriculture: Yes, We Can

This is an abbreviated version of a post by Jeffrey Bretz on the Social Reporting Blog of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). He describes an “intense and lively discussion” about climate-smart agriculture at the Second Global AgriKnowledge Share Fair, held late last month at IFAD headquarters in Rome.

There was no consensus on exactly what climate smart agriculture is or should be. But boundaries seem to be forming. Most agreed that perhaps 80 percent of the concept consists of what we already know how to do (integrated pest management, organic and conservation agriculture, etc.). However, there’s a tricky and evasive 20 percent that is new – linked to emerging challenges brought about by climate change.

There was a consensus that climate-smart agriculture is strongly influencing agricultural research and development, presenting an opportunity to move towards a more integrated, cross-sectoral approach. Yes, mindsets are changing, but what’s missing is a global vision for agriculture, including the role of smallholders, into which climate-smart practices would fit. We need this!

Speakers also agreed that more must be done to make the transition to climate-smart agriculture happen: better assessment of farmers’ vulnerability; new policies that reward climate-smart practices; ICT solutions that better connect smallholder farmers to seasonal climate predictions and trends; better education and extensions services; easier access to new technologies like drought-tolerant seeds; and mainstreaming of climate-smart agriculture into agricultural and rural development, which is where the bulk of the funding will remain, despite new climate funds.

Perhaps, the strongest point of consensus was that farmers are natural adapters. But for most of them, climate change is happening too fast and creating too much unpredictability. Successful adaptation often involves traditional practices. The oases of the Maghreb are a case in point: Water is used efficiently, and livestock are integrated into cropping systems. Let’s not waste time or money reinventing the wheel!

Climate Change not just a Threat to Staple Food Crops

Climate-smart agriculture must include a broad range of crops and farming systems, and not only the headline-hogging staples.

Millions of smallholder farmers depend on cash crops like tea and cocoa to make ends meet, and to raise enough money to buy food.

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Many cocoa farmers in West Africa, for example, treat their cocoa trees like ATM machines, picking a few plump pods to sell in order to pay school fees or medical expenses.

But as recent studies by scientists and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have shown, climate change poses a significant challenge to these and other cash crops, as well as threatening the headline-hogging food staples we often hear about.

CIAT’s climate models predict that high-quality tea-growing zones of Kenya and Uganda, and the cocoa regions of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, will experience an average temperature rise of over two degrees Celsius by 2050.

This is enough to cause the crops to struggle – and at worst – fail.

While on the face of it, this looks like a devastating blow to a huge number of smallholder farmers, this particular cloud has a silver lining:

There is time to adapt. Not much, but time nonetheless.

While there will always be some uncertainty in prediction tomorrow’s weather, let alone the climate in three decades’ time, one thing is clear: effective adaptation to a warmer world needs to start straight away, and must be a joint effort by producers, other members of the chocolate and tea value chains, national governments, and donors.

Encouragingly, the CIAT reports have been received in earnest and the ball is already rolling. The speed with which these industries are reacting could be an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Click to read more about Africa’s chocolate meltdown and the trouble brewing in the tea lands of Kenya and Uganda.