Most African countries have distinct rainy and dry seasons. They also increasingly face and feel the consequences of climate change. (Photo: CIF Action/

How can better climate services prevent children dying of malaria? How can meteorologists in collaboration with researchers contribute to reducing food insecurity and malnutrition? A new research project aims to improve climate services and advise people at risk to adapt to extreme weather events such as floods and droughts.

Most African countries have distinct rainy and dry seasons. They also increasingly face and feel the consequences of climate change, despite the fact that they emit comparatively modest amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Exacerbated by climate change, Africans face risks and challenges due to extreme weather events such as floods and droughts – be they poor farmers, health workers or ordinary citizens whose livelihood is affected by weather conditions.

Before each rainy season, meteorological agencies issue seasonal forecasts. Based on this meteorological knowledge in combination with agricultural and medical expertise, climate services – or advisories – are provided to different categories of users down to the grassroots. However, for climate services to be effective they must be tailored to the needs of the users and conveyed in a language that lay people understand.

-Meteorological agencies use concepts like average and probability. In the meteorological sense normal means an average of weather observations spanning at least 30 years, which is not the way the term is understood in common parlance. Probability is even more difficult to understand. A farmer would like to know with certainty – however unrealistic – when the rainy season will start in her or his area, exactly how much rain will fall, and whether there will be dry spells after planting causing crops to dry up, says Arne Tostensen, senior researcher at CMI.

Forecasts combined with practical advice
Targeted information about weather and climate conditions and advice about how to act upon that information can save lives. A new research project will seek new knowledge about conditions that could facilitate and optimise the climate services currently provided to groups that are vulnerable to the adverse effects of weather conditions. Failure to understand the real-life conditions of farmers and health workers will hinder the uptake of the climate services offered.

Tostensen is the project leader of the inter-disciplinary project funded under the NORGLOBAL programme of the Research Council of Norway. It comprises partners from Norway, Ethiopia and Tanzania.  For climate services to work efficiently, they need to be more targeted, more precise and more practical than they are today. Well-functioning and effective climate services provide ways to deal with and reduce risks. If meteorologists predict there will be 25 per cent less rain than normal in the forthcoming rainy season, climate services should advise farmers to plant crops that need less water. Maize is a most common and preferred crop in Tanzania, but it also needs a lot of water.

-If we know that there will be less rain, the farmers need to grow drought-resistant crops such as sorghum and millet, cassava or sweet potatoes. Well-functioning and effective climate services will contribute to preventing food insecurity, says Tostensen.

Good climate services are also important for preventing malaria. Higher temperatures combined with more rain produce fertile breeding grounds for mosquitos as vectors of the malaria parasite, which dramatically increases the risk of malaria prevalence. In such circumstances, well-functioning and effective climate services will advise the distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets through local health clinics and other outlets.

Efficiency grounded in contextual knowledge
As a part of developing targeted climate services, the new project emphasises the importance of gender. In many African countries, men tend to be at the centre of information and decision-making processes. In agriculture, the role of men is usually confined to land preparation before planting, which involves hard physical labour. Yet, in effect, women are the farmers and the health carers in families. Women are involved throughout the entire process from sowing to harvest, says Tostensen. Similarly, as the primary care takers, women play a key role in the provision of health-related services. Therefore, women are likely to make the best use of climate services.

How to design climate services and how to target them to different user groups are key questions for the researchers who are set to improve flawed systems. The researchers will cooperate closely with the meteorological agencies, and the Ministries of Agriculture and of Health in Ethiopia and Tanzania. From the national level, information and advice will be communicated to the regional and district levels alike, all the way down to the grassroots. Agricultural extension workers, local health clinics as well as civil society organisations are likely stakeholders who can play a pivotal role in disseminating climate services.

-The use of different communication tools and to assess which ones work better is a question we will look into. For example, we know that most people, even poor farmers, have mobile phones and can be reached via text messages. Radio is also potentially an important communication channel for climate services, says Tostensen.

Another crucial question for the researchers is behaviour change. There may be many reasons why people do not act on what seems good advice based on evidence. The project will seek more knowledge about those reasons.

-Will more people use mosquito nets if they are handed out free of charge than if they have to pay for them? Are Tanzanian farmers willing to give up the maize porridge (ugali), which is their staple food? For climate services to be effective, they need to build on solid contextual knowledge, says Tostensen.

COGENT (Co-producing gender-responsive climate services for enhanced food and nutrition security and health in Ethiopia and Tanzania) is an international and multi-disciplinary project. The partners are CMI, CICERO, Uni Research, Sokoine University of Agriculture, Hawassa University, the National Meteorology Agency of Ethiopia, and Tanzania Meteorological Agency.