Driving Agricultural Adaptation

Agriculture in West Africa faces numerous challenges, including soil degradation, market instability, and significant threats from climate change. In response to these obstacles, many adaptation strategies, such as production of non-traditional crop varieties, have been encouraged. It remains less clear, however, what actually drives farmers’ decisions to adopt (or not adopt) these strategies. For example, a farmer may choose to plant a new crop variety in response to a short-term drought or as part of a longer term strategy to adapt to climate change.

A new article in Regional Environmental Change argues that understanding why farmers in the region have adopted certain agricultural practices can help better inform programs and policies to encourage proactive adaptation to challenges such as climate change and unstable markets. Specifically, the authors argue that policymakers need to better understand the role of environmental and socioeconomic challenges in farmers’ agricultural adaptation decisions.

The study looks at 700 farm households in the Sahelian and Sudanian zones of Senegal, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali; these regions all experience two distinct seasons, with the rainy season lasting between three and six months. Agriculture in these areas is mainly rain-fed and dominated by smallholder farmers.

The authors find that over the past ten years, agricultural practices in these countries have transformed rapidly, with farmers across all countries adopting an average of 11 new farm practices related to crop type, variety type, and land use and management. Farmers in Ghana adopted 15 new practices on average, while farmers in Mali were least adaptive, with only five new practices adopted on average.

Seventy percent of farmers across the study group adopted crop-related changes such as introducing a new crop (50 percent) or stopping production of a crop (27 percent). In addition, the new crops adopted tended to be cash crops such as sesame, soybeans, and peanuts. Eighty-two percent of farmers planted new varieties of crops; these included varieties with higher yields and better drought tolerance. Finally, 95 percent of farmers adopted practices related to land use and management, including the use of manure and mineral fertilizers, expansion or reduction of cropping area, crop rotation, and farm mechanization. Land use and management practices tended to be implemented in staple crop production (sorghum, millet, and maize).

In terms of farmers’ motivations to adopt these new practices, 75 percent of the farmers surveyed stated low land productivity and/or availability as a driver; these factors appeared to most impact decisions related to the production of staple crops. Market-related factors, such as higher yields, better prices, and new opportunities to sell, were reported by 71 percent of farmers as the reason for changes in farming practices, particularly for cash crops. Sixty-two percent of farmers surveyed cited weather- or climate-related changes, such as drought and changing rainfall patterns, as the reason behind their adoption of new agricultural practices.

Overall, the study found that changes in agricultural practices in West Africa appear to be characterized by three factors:

  1. Incremental adaptation to socioeconomic and climate challenges: While farming practices in the region have seen rapid changes over the past 10 years, the study found that these changes seem to be geared more toward short-term solutions such as changing crop varieties or using agricultural inputs. Practices that could lead to a more sustainable transformation of the agricultural sector, such as the adoption of water and soil conservation practices or mechanized farming, were only weakly adopted by farmers in the study. This suggests that farmers’ decisions are not taking into account the longer term structural challenges posed by climate change and population growth, the authors argue. As a result, agricultural transformation in the area may require more public policy action, rather than simply depending on farmers’ autonomous decisions.
  2. Context-specific responses: Farmers’ adoption of new farming practices also varied by country. While farmers in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal adopted the use of organic manure and compost, farmers in Ghana focused more on the adoption of new crop varieties. This suggests that new programs, or the scaling up of existing programs, to foster agricultural adaptation will require policymakers and development practitioners to take into account the specific socioeconomic and environmental conditions of each particular country and region. The authors also call for further research to determine those specific conditions more fully.
  3. Multiple purpose responses: Out of the 15 practices considered, the study found that 11 were adopted due to market circumstances (better prices or expanded market opportunities), while nine were related to climatic factors. Eight out of the fifteen practices were adopted due to issues of land productivity/availability. Further analysis revealed that most of the observed changes stemmed from a combination of these factors; no farm practice was found to be based on only one driver. Thus, the changes seen in West African agriculture in recent years have been driven by both environmental and socioeconomic factors.

These findings have some important implications for policymakers in the region. First, it is important that farmers have adequate information in order to make adaptation decisions that minimize their risk and maximize their opportunities in the face of climatic and demographic changes. This calls for increased education and awareness campaigns, as well as increased communications infrastructure in rural areas to make information more accessible.

Second, as both environmental and socioeconomic factors are driving changing farming practices in the region, policymakers and development practitioners should focus on programs and policies that foster the development of agricultural markets and that improve weather- and climate-related information. In addition, these programs and policies must be tailored to specific conditions in each country and region to ensure that appropriate agricultural innovations are encouraged and adopted.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI