Press Release

New Research Shows Challenges African Farmers Face in Adapting to Climate Change

Dec 10, 2008

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Addis Ababa—The vast majority of African farmers interviewed for a recent climate change study perceived long-term changes in both temperature and rainfall. Surprisingly, however, more than a third of rural Ethiopian households in the Nile River Basin and two-thirds of South African farmers in the Limpopo River Basin did not adjust their farming practices in the face of global warming.

Ethiopian farmers identified shortage of land as the single biggest constraint to adapting to climate change, followed closely by lack of information and credit, labor, inputs, and water, as well as poor soils. South African farmers identified lack of access to credit as the major obstacle to adapting, followed by lack of water, information, and market access, and insecure property rights.

As part of the study on adaptation strategies and constraints, researchers surveyed approximately 1,000 households in the Nile Basin in Ethiopia and nearly 800 farm households in the Limpopo Basin in South Africa. The research project was conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Center for Environmental Economics and Policy in Africa, the Ethiopian Development Research Institute, the Ethiopian Economics Association, and the University of Hamburg, Germany. The study provides insights into the ability of poor farmers and livestock herders—who will likely bear the brunt of climate change—to adapt to climate-related shocks, especially drought and long-term global warming.

Farmers who did adapt irrigated more, planted different crops or crop varieties, changed planting dates, planted trees, and practiced soil conservation. Farmers were more likely to adapt if they had access to credit, agricultural extension, information on climate change, owned private property or livestock, had more farming experience or education, and were economically better off.

“In the coming decades, climate change will have a major impact on the availability of water and food, particularly in rural areas of developing countries, where agricultural production is the major source of income and employment,” said Claudia Ringler, IFPRI senior research fellow and project leader. “African countries are particularly vulnerable because of their limited ability to adapt due to dependence on rainfed agriculture, high levels of poverty, low levels of human and physical capital, poor infrastructure, and already high temperatures,” she explained.

Vulnerability to climate-related shocks, such as droughts and floods, varies by location, indicating the need for targeted, region-specific policy responses. In South Africa, households are generally more vulnerable if they rely heavily on rainfed agriculture, are relatively large rural families with limited farming experience, or do not own farm animals. In Ethiopia, poor farmers are often extremely risk averse, because they subsist on the edge of survival. To respond effectively to climate change, they need careful introduction of adaptation technologies that can both enhance productivity and reduce their risk. Additionally, these technologies should be combined with insurance or other supporting measures in case of losses.

“We hope this research will support the development of better programs and policies to assist African farmers in adapting to global warming,” said Dr. Ringler.

In addition to the household surveys, the study also used state-of-the-art computer modeling to determine the impact of two different adaptation scenarios to climate change. The first scenario doubles irrigated areas in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, but keeps total crop area constant. The second scenario increases both rainfed and irrigated crop yields by 25 percent for all countries in the region.

“According to our analysis, increasing agricultural productivity by 25 percent would be much more effective in countering the negative consequences of climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa than doubling irrigated areas,” said Mark Rosegrant, director of IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Division.

The study also projects that improving crop productivity would almost fully eliminate the expected increase in the number of malnourished children as a result of climate change. In addition, it would not only counteract projected income losses due to climate change, but would actually increase overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the region by U.S.$25.7 billion—not considering the cost of investments needed to increase productivity.

“Adaptation strategies should go beyond improved water storage, additional irrigation, and new crop varieties to promote overall growth and development and improve farmers’ access to information, credit, and markets,” Dr. Rosegrant said. “Investments, policies, and extension services should target those who are most vulnerable to climate change—subsistence farmers, women, the poor and less educated—so that the right information gets to the right people,” he added.

“Through careful planning and sound investments, African countries can ease the burden of climate change on poor rural households and succeed in the fight against poverty, hunger, and malnutrition,” concluded Dr. Ringler.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. IFPRI is one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an alliance of 64 governments, private foundations, and international and regional organizations.

The climate change project is associated with the CGIAR’s Challenge Program on Water and Food, an international research initiative concerned with increasing the productivity of water used for agriculture, leaving more water for other users and the environment. Please visit the program’s website at

Contact Information: 

  • Michele Pietrowski, +251 (0)913 499126

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