Trees on farms help smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa reduce climate-related risks

Evidence shows that agroforests in Africa act as buffers against risks associated with climate change but there are obstacles to widespread adoption, say Rodel Lasco, Jane Delfino, Delia Catacutan, Elisabeth Simelton and Dave Wilson


Stresses on traditional agricultural practices are predicted to disproportionately affect smallholding farmers.

The changing temporal and spatial patterns of rainfall and temperature are exposing Africa’s smallholders to additional risk of crop failure, with some estimates predicting a reduction in maize production of up to 20% by mid-century.

Africa, adaptation, climate change, smallholder

Farmers can reduce their vulnerability to climate change by growing trees on their farms. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

When combined with existing stresses, such as loss of soil fertility, reduced soil-water storage capacity and population pressures on natural resources, a compounding effect could lead to an even more insecure food supply and the likelihood of disaster. It is imperative to avoid this dangerous convergence between increasing demand for food and the erosion of natural resources and the agricultural base.

Researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre, writing in the journal, Current Opinion in Sustainability, argue that there is a growing body of evidence that incorporating trees into agricultural landscapes is part of the solution to meeting this challenge.

Smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa are no strangers to changing climatic and soil conditions and have adapted in the past through using their indigenous knowledge and selecting adapted cultivars. But analysis of this ‘in-built’ resilience—including why and in what way trees are used and, specifically, how they provide a buffer against climate changes—is largely missing in climate-change adaptation studies.

Yet it is estimated that at least 30% of the world’s rural population use trees in some way by incorporating them into the agricultural landscape. Various case studies and examples reveal that different agroforestry systems play a variety of roles, including maintaining ecological functions (for example, enhancing water storage and increasing soil productivity); augmenting household incomes by spreading risks through diversification; and even providing social security and health benefits through improved access to nutrition, especially at times of crisis generated by extreme events.

For the team of researchers, this evidence was a reason for cautious optimism, however, they also outlined a number of stiff challenges that need to be addressed to fully realise the potential of agroforestry.

More research

First, more research is needed, not just into the benefits of different agroforestry systemsbut also into farmers’ attitudes, perceptions and, crucially, the barriers to adoption of agroforestry. Ensuring that research is relevant in light of future climate change is, of course, of utmost importance.

Better policies

International and national policies about agroforestry remain largely incoherent and lack prominence in the midst of other agricultural and natural-resource policies. An enabling environment provided by supportive legislation is required and should be based on sound science from researchers and best practice by farmers.

Share knowledge

Building on solid research and well-designed policies, agroforestry advice (aka ‘extension’) and technical support to farmers needs to focus on the risk-reducing and buffering benefits that agroforests provide. Strengthening collaboration with government agencies, NGOs, capacity-building organizations and the private sector will also likely increase adoption by farmers. The latter could also be improved in several ways: first, by making sure that the types of agroforestry being promoted are compatible with local practices, cultural norms and traditions. Second, information about the sustainability, risks, costs and benefits of agroforestry versus existing farming systems needs to be made easily understandable for farmers. The ability of farm households to make decisions also needs to be improved through better technical knowledge, access to accurate climate information and understanding how agroforestry contributes to creating a buffer against climate risks.

Be specific to the local context

Research, training and extension activities that are linked to supportive policies are all needed to expand the adoption of agroforestry by smallholders. Technical support in identifying suitable agroforestry systems and practices that are well matched to local biophysical and socioeconomic conditions is crucial. For example, carbon-forestry schemes that have included agroforestry have been more successful at augmenting often meagre carbon payments and supporting the farmers’ transition to more sustainable land-use practices.

Fundamentally, the challenge that needs to be addressed is how best to use trees to provide environmental services and achieve more sustainable farming practices in the face of climatic and environmental changes.


Read the journal article

Lasco RD, Delfino RJ, Catacutan D, Simelton E, Wilson DM. 2014. Climate risk adaptation by smallholder farmers: the roles of trees and agroforestry. In: Mbow C, Neufeldt H, Minang PA, Luedeling E, Kowero G, eds. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 6:83-88.
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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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