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East African Farmers Plant Seeds of Innovation

Workshop on developing climate-smart crops for a 2030 world. December 6-8 2011, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (CGIAR)
Workshop on developing climate-smart crops for a 2030 world. December 6-8 2011, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (CGIAR)

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Joe DeCapua
East Africa has felt the effects of climate change over recent years. There have been frequent prolonged droughts, erratic seasonal rains and floods, all of which have put food security at risk. As a result, regional farmers have taken the initiative to begin innovative agricultural methods.



Agricultural economist Patti Kristjanson said East African farmers are aware of the extremes of climate change. But the driving factor behind their innovations is to ensure there’s enough to eat.

“When you find out in a country like Kenya that a huge percentage of households are still struggling to feed their family from any source at all – from markets, from food aid, from their own farms, from any source for several months a year, you have to say, oh my goodness. So what they’re thinking about is how am I going to get through this next season, this next month, maybe this next week and feed my family? That’s what they’re thinking,” she said.

Kristjanson took part in a study by CGIAR’s Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

“I’ve been working with farmers across Africa for 25 years now and they’ve always been making changes and trying different things and testing new approaches and switching what they do and trying new crops, for example, or new varieties,” she said.

A survey was done of East African farmers, without specifically asking them how they’re adapting to climate change.

“We were asking about the whole range of what they’re doing with their crops, with their livestock, with their soil management, with water management, with trees on farms. And basically the way all these households were asked the question was tell us about the changes you’ve been making and then tell us why you made those changes,” she said.

The survey found that more than half were using varieties of crops with shorter growth cycles, including drought resistant crops. This helps farmers adapt to heat and water scarcity. Also, half of the farmers planted trees to stop erosion and increase water and soil quality. The trees led to yields of coffee, tea, energy and medicinal products. Also, 50 percent of the farmers used intercropping or alternating different plants in the same plot.

“So they might be doing it because markets are changing and because there are more people around and because there are more opportunities. They may be making these changes driven by prices for example. What that means is they’re still going to be in a better position to deal with the change in climate when it hits them,” she said.

Kristjanson said these farmers often take great risks in changing to crops they may have never grown before. She said that while farmers are using innovative techniques, they could still be using even more.

“If you think about climate change in the sense that water is going to become more of an issue – increased variability and more frequent extreme events – we would like to see much more transformational changes in the sense that they start storing water. Whereas very few of them are currently storing any kind of agricultural water and they’re not even storing household water,” she said.

What’s more, the study recommends further soil enhancement through terracing, planting hedges, mulching and the use of manure.

Kristjanson said East African farmers are learning about new agricultural methods through programs provided over cell phones, radio and TV. There’s even a popular TV reality show in Kenya where experts choose a small farm and modernize it – similar to home remodeling shows in the United States and elsewhere.

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