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African farmers are finding new ways to cope with droughts, erosion and other ravages of climate change but need to develop even more techniques to thrive in an increasingly uncertain environment, according to scientists.
Smallholders have started to plant more drought-resistant and faster-growing crops to keep the harvests coming in, according to a survey of 700 households in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania.
"The good news is that a lot of farmers are making changes," said Patti Kristjanson, who heads a programme on climate change, agriculture and food security at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and led the study.
"So it's not all doom and gloom ... but much more needs to be done," she said.
Farmers need to be proactive
Measures famers can adopt include:
- finding better ways to store rain water,
- increasing the use of manure, and
- bringing in hardier crops like sweet potatoes.
In the past decade, 55% of households surveyed said they had taken up faster-growing crop varieties, mainly of maize, and 56% had adopted at least one drought-tolerant variety, according to the findings in the journal Food Security.
Fifty per cent of the households were planting trees on their farms – helping to combat erosion, increase water and soil quality and bring in new crops like nuts.
Half of the farmers had introduced inter-cropping – planting alternate rows of, for instance of beans and maize, in the same field and then swapping the rows next season. Beans fix nitrogen in the soil, helping reduce the need for fertilisers.
The study also found just a quarter of farmers were using manure or compost – avoiding the use of more expensive fertilisers. And only 10% were storing water, it added.
The study said that global warming, leading to erosion, less reliable rainfall and changes in the length of growing seasons, was adding to other stresses for farmers worldwide such as price spikes and a rising population.
Adapt or starve!
Kristjanson said the study showed encouraging signs of many farmers' willingness to adapt.
But faster change may be needed because Africa is especially vulnerable to climate change, according to the UN panel of climate scientists which blames heat-trapping emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.
In Africa, up to 220-million people could be exposed to greater stress on water supplies by 2020 and yields from rain-fed agriculture in some countries could be cut by up to 50% by 2020, according to a 2007 UN report.