Strengthening Climate Services for the Food Security Sector

The Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) enables vulnerable sectors and populations to better manage climate variability and adapt to climate change. How? By developing and incorporating science-based climate information into planning, policy and practice. The GFCS places the decision context and information needs of “users” at the centre of the design process. The development of such climate services alters the dynamic between the “user” and the “provider,” valuing each actor's knowledge and engaging them both in a co-production process. This approach challenges the conventional linear supply chain for weather and climate information, in which data are generated, information produced, a product designed, and handed over to the user for consumption, without a real understanding of whether this information is useful for decision-making.

In late 2013, with support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the GFCS embarked on a multi-agency1 proof of concept. The GFCS Adaptation Programme for Africa aimed to increase the resilience of those most vulnerable to the impacts of weather and climate-related hazards, through the development of more effective climate services in Tanzania and Malawi. It focused in particular on the sectors that address food security, health and disaster risk reduction.

This article outlines the learning generated through the food security component of the project. The component was jointly led by the World Food Programme (WFP) and CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), with activities implemented with the Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA), Malawian Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS), and a range of national and local partners.


Developing climate services for agriculture and food security

Rural populations in Tanzania and Malawi are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change. Intense droughts and floods in the past decades, coupled with increased rainfall variability and changes in precipitation patterns, have diminished the ability of vulnerable communities to recover after each event and contributed to higher levels of food insecurity. The initiative targeted food insecure, vulnerable communities in Longido, Kiteto and Kondoa districts in Tanzania, and Balaka and Zomba districts in Malawi. Whenever possible, programme activities were integrated with the WFP’s Rural Resilience Initiative (R4), which provides an integrated risk management package of microinsurance, credit, savings, and disaster risk reduction activities.


Understanding user needs

At the outset of the programme in 2014, WFP coordinated national stakeholder consultations in both countries to learn what climate information was available and how it was disseminated to end users. A separate set of consultations were also held with community members through a community-based participatory planning exercise organised by WFP.  The consultations allowed partners to understand different community member climate information needs, including their preferred communication channels, their current ability to access and trust in weather forecasts, and the types of information products that communities would find most useful. CCAFS (through the World Agroforestry Centre) also conducted a study to assess farmers’ information needs, and establish a baseline. This study surveyed 660 farmers and interviewed 85 key informants (Coulibaly et al.2015a,b). The outcomes of the stakeholder consultations and survey assessment were validated through a national Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Radio Stakeholder Consultation workshop (Hampson et al., 2015; Kaur et al., 2015).

The baseline assessments and validation workshop guided the development of climate services and the integrated delivery approach needed to reach community members. The baseline survey helped to define an integrated, participatory approach to the production and delivery of information. It identified the priority needs of community members, such as farmers and pastoralists, for climate information products. The findings indicated that community members consider a range of issues in order to take decisions on their livelihoods: seasonal forecasts; timing of rainfall onset; probability of extreme events; timing of rainfall cessation; and intra-season distribution of rainfall. They emphasized that information should be timelier and relevant to local scale. They also want information that would guide their understanding on the best available decisions and options depending on the content of forecasts. In both countries, agricultural extension officers, radio and mobile phones (particularly for women) were identified as the preferred communication channels for climate services. The interviews revealed that community members continue to take crop and livelihood management decisions on indigenous climate knowledge even though they recognized that these were not always reliable. In the majority of cases, community members would trust traditional knowledge more than official weather forecasts.


Climate Service Delivery

Agricultural extension workers, meteorological service staff, Red Cross volunteers and other intermediaries were trained to access, understand, and communicate climate information through the Participatory Climate Services for Agriculture (PICSA) methodology. PICSA, developed by the University of Reading, combines local climate information with participatory planning tools to support farmer decision-making around relevant management options and risks. In an initial workshop, farmers evaluate their farming and livelihood strategies in light of climate risk with the aid of participatory resource mapping and seasonal calendars. Climate time-series information is used to understand local climate variability and trends, and to calculate probabilities of meeting requirements for different management options in the seasonal calendar. The farmers identify options for changing agricultural and other livelihood practices as well as the associated risks, costs, benefits, and sensitivity to seasonal rainfall conditions. Just before a new growing season, facilitators introduce the seasonal forecast, review its interpretation, and use it to update the seasonal calendar developed earlier with the crop/cultivar-specific risks. Participants then review their earlier plans and decide on adjustments for the upcoming season. The PICSA approach was used to train 325 intermediaries in both countries, through five training workshops.

Climate Service DeliveryIn addition to training intermediaries, climate services were also delivered through radio and SMS. Farm Radio Trust (FRT) and Farm Radio International (FRI) were chosen as partners for the development and delivery of interactive climate services radio programming (Perkins et al., 2015). Zodiak Broadcasting Station was engaged in Malawi, where agro-climatic information was delivered to 3 595 farmers through SMS, and an estimated 5 000 farmers through nation-wide radio programming in 2016. FRT implemented a system to collect feedback on climate services through the national radio programme and an interactive SMS platform. In Tanzania, Farm SMS, developed in 2012 through a partnership between TMA, CCAFS and Sokione University of Agriculture, was leveraged and further expanded under this programme to 6 000 registered users – a tenfold increase from its original user base pre-programme.

Because scoping studies found that men have much greater access to radio, particular attention was given to increasing women’s access to climate information delivered by radio. For example, in Malawi, dedicated radio listening groups were created and solar power radios purchased to ensure that women would also be able to access information. The listening groups proved extremely popular and members were deemed  ”local climate experts” as they were able to further convey the key messages from the programmes.


Co-production of climate information

One of the novel components of this programme, which supported co-production of climate information, was the use of district-level Planning and Review (P&R) Days. These were held with a range of actors when a seasonal forecast was released. Together district government, NMHS staff, agricultural extension staff and other relevant local and district-level stakeholders discussed and co-produced the messages to be delivered to food insecure communities, together with a portfolio of options (advisories) prior to the start of each agricultural season. P&R Days also enabled regular assessment of progress, and feedback to NMHSs to improve the services provided to communities. They were conducted in Malawi in October and November 2015 and in Tanzania in December 2016.

Historical climate data are a key input to PICSA. Where data were not available or adequate, the NMHS undertook data rescue, quality control, and digitization. The NMHS analysed the historical data in order to characterize the climate of the district, and presented the analyses to intermediaries, and later the farmers, to help them to understand their local climate. This was achieved with the support from the University of Reading. In Tanzania, TMA trained staff on the best available seasonal forecast downscaling tools, including the IRI’s Climate Predictability Tool (CPT). Since 2014, the seasonal forecasts in Tanzania are downscaled for the seasonal rain periods in five districts.  In Malawi, DCCMS downscaled the national seasonal forecast to 27 of the country’s 28 districts, and updated the district seasonal forecasts midway through the season. In doing so, DCCMS tried to develop a locally-derived, tailored seasonal forecast for Balaka district, thus responding to a direct request from beneficiaries for better and more accurate seasonal forecasts.



CCAFS and WFP commissioned Statistics for Sustainable Development to conduct an independent assessment of how effective the various climate service activities were at serving the needs of farming and pastoralist communities.  This was complimented by the overarching monitoring and evaluation of the programme led by CICERO and CMI.


Climate services influence decisions

Climate Services improved agricultural livelihoodsAlthough access to climate information, and the communication channels used, varied by location, the majority of farmers who accessed climate information reported changing one or more management decisions (see Table 1 on page 24). In Malawi, 97% of respondents of the sample population reported making changes to their crops, livestock or livelihoods from one season to the next, while 52% of respondents in Tanzania reported changes. There were, however, substantial differences between the three districts in Tanzania: 70% of respondents in Kiteto and 68% in Kondoa changed management decisions in response to climate services, but only 8% of respondents in Longido reported any changes.

Most of the reported cases of climate information use involve crop management. For example, in Balaka, Malawi, seven out of eight farmers interviewed reported switching to an earlier-maturing variety of maize based on their local climatology. Pastoralists did not act on climate information, as indicated by the small percentage of respondents who used climate information in Longido, Tanzania. The overarching monitoring and evaluation efforts of the programme, led by CICERO in Tanzania, provide a possible explanation. During the interviews in Longido, extension officers reported they had not provided seasonal forecasts during the PICSA training as planned because they felt they were consistently inaccurate (West et al., 2018). Another possible explanation is that the project launched in the district before P&R Days were introduced to translate/tailor seasonal forecasts. A lesson learnt here is the need to develop more specific guidance/advisories for pastoralists.

“Above all, [the interventions] opened my mind such that I now know what is happening in terms of weather and I am able to plan accordingly.”   - Malawi case study interviewee

The CICERO report highlighted the importance of recognizing social constraints on adaptation strategies and that inputs of climate information alone do not always result in behavioural change (West et al., 2018). For example, some interviewees found it undesirable to switch crop varieties when the proposed alternate varieties could not be substituted for household consumption (West et al. 2018).

“I know I sustained [through the hunger months] because of the combination of different crops that I made.”  - Malawi case study interviewee

The results differed in Malawi where farmers, for example, reported adopting hybrid seed, mulching and conservation agriculture practices in response to PICSA training, resulting in increased crop yields.  Livestock herders reportedly began vaccinating their livestock and consulting more with veterinary officers after receiving climate information through radio and SMS.


Climate services improved agricultural livelihoods

Most farmers who received climate information and PICSA training perceived that their families were better off as a result.  A large portion of respondents reported approaching agriculture as more of a business, and increased confidence in farming and livelihood decision-making (Table 1).  Resulting benefits included increased farm production and income, improved ability to provide for family healthcare and school fees, reduced need to work as day laborers on other farmers, and improved standing within communities and households. In Balaka, interviewees reported being admired by neighbours for achieving even a small yield during a year when many people had completely failed harvests.

“I can say [the initiative] has influenced my yield because if I still planted local maize last season, I would not have been speaking of one bag that I harvested.” - Malawi case study interviewee

Although women reported using the climate information training activities more frequently for decision-making than men, a higher proportion of men than women reported that their households benefited. A possible cause is access to resources and decision-making within the households – men are most likely to be able to invest greater resources and have more effective access to markets and resources (i.e. better seeds) than women.

“After selling some of my cattle that were of the local breed, I used the money to buy a new breed (Boran), which has started producing more milk. I also used some of the money to build a house and toilet.”  - Longido case study interviewee


Effectiveness of communication channels

Local communities found the tailored radio programmes particularly useful, especially the presence of guest experts who offered advice and to whom questions could be addressed. The co-production of the content delivered by the radio programmes, brought together NMHS staff, experts from Ministry of Agriculture and extension officers, WFP and Farm Radio. Field reviews, conducted by WFP with radio listening groups to ensure women had an opportunity to listen, found that this was a very useful way of communicating information.


Lessons Learnt

Both the successes and the challenges encountered in the first phase of the Adaptation Programme in Africa offer useful lessons.

A one-time community consultation and needs assessment are not adequate for tailoring services to the needs of vulnerable user communities. Responses focused on existing generalized climate products, and were not adequate for prioritizing new or improved products or communication channels.  It is important to implement periodic co-design processes that capture users’ evolving understanding of climate services.

Reported change in response to PICSA
Table 1. Proportion of farmers/pastoralists interviewed who reported that PICSA participation influenced management and well-being. Source Stats4SD (2017).

Effective and sustainable mechanisms for co-production of climate services at scale remained elusive during the initial implementation of the programme. The P&R Days and the development of messages for radio programmes proved successful examples of working together. However, the programme saw only incremental changes to the way the two participating NMHSs provided services.

Smallholder farmers are now able to act on and benefit from climate services. Co-design processes remain relevant for enhancing understanding of the forecasts. However, NMHSs could consider applying recalibration procedures to model outputs and making skill assessments publicly available to address concerns related to accuracy. It is also recommended to incorporate indigenous knowledge into the climate services in order to support confidence in the products (West et al., 2018 and Kakota et al., 2016).

Routinely providing location-specific historical and climate forecast information, tailored to farmers’ needs and participatory communication processes, places heavy demands on NMHSs. Both NMHSs faced challenges in processing and analysing historical station records to provide the information that PICSA requires.Gaps in digitized, quality-controlled, long-term station observation data were an obstacle to scaling up climate services tailored to farmer needs, at the local spatial scale of decision-making. Capacity and resources are required to scale climate services.

Well-structured participatory processes, such as PICSA, enable communities to understand and act on historical and seasonal forecast information, but require substantial effort and investment to scale up. While PICSA is a promising tool, it needs to be calibrated to the local context and the seasonal calendar, then refined throughout the growing season based on user feedback. Furthermore, it is crucial for countries lacking a strong agricultural extension agency to leverage other intermediaries such as Red Cross volunteers, as was done in Malawi and Tanzania. Training sessions are more effective when the training plan is developed together with the community.

The experience in Malawi and Tanzania highlighted that radio programmes can achieve a relatively high coverage of people without too much investment, and should receive more attention in climate service delivery. Interactive radio programming is a cost-effective channel for building awareness and providing regular access to information at weather time scales.

The integration of climate services into other risk management and resilience-building efforts can generate greater success in overall adaptation outcomes. For example, farmers targeted by the R4 initiative in Malawi received an integrated set of risk management services that included climate information. Extending farmers’ access to climatic information as well as to training and knowledge on new agricultural practices and tools better equips them to make livelihood decisions in face of a forecasted climate risk.

Finally, the experience further highlighted some of the underpinning principles of climate services – it is an interdisciplinary undertaking and partnerships are key. Not all partners may understand what climate services are at the outset, thus implementers should invest time early on to explain the concepts and the co-dependencies of different climate service activities. This joint planning can help ensure that the co-production feedback loop is well understood by the producers of climate information, the intermediaries channelling that information, and the organisations helping the target audiences access climate information. Genuine co-production means that these different interdependencies are continuously being improved and prioritized. It also helps to facilitate institutional cultural shifts towards service delivery at the timescale needed for ensuring communities can adapt to climate change.


Next Steps

In September 2018, the second phase of the GFCS Adaptation Programme launched in Tanzania and Malawi. Phase II will build on the achievements and lessons learnt from Phase I. It aims to operationalize the National Frameworks for Climate Services and increase the resilience of vulnerable populations to the impacts of weather and climate related risks. It will accomplish this by strengthening the capacities of actors involved in the co-production of climate services (including producers, intermediaries and end-users) so that they can work together to deliver climate information that will help vulnerable populations make better-informed and actionable decisions when faced with the prognosis of a climate risk.



Coulibaly YJ, Kundhlande G, Amosi N, Tall A, Kaur H, Hansen J. 2015a. What climate services do farmers and pastoralists need in Tanzania? Baseline study for the GFCS Adaptation Programme in Africa. CCAFS Working Paper no. 110. Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Programme  on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Coulibaly YJ, Kundhlande G, Tall A, Kaur H, Hansen J. 2015b. Which climate services do farmers and pastoralists need in Malawi? Baseline Study for the GFCS Adaptation Programme in Africa. CCAFS Working Paper no. 112. Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Hampson KJ, Chapota R, Emmanuel J, Tall A, Huggins-Rao S, Leclair M, Perkins K, Kaur H, Hansen J. 2015. Delivering climate services for farmers and pastoralists through interactive radio: scoping report for the GFCS Adaptation Programme in Africa. Copenhagen, Denmark: CCAFS Working Paper no. 111. CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Kakota T, Tostensen A. 2016. Global Framework for Climate Services Adaptation Programme in Africa: Malawi 2014-2016. LUANAR and CMI.

Kaur H, Tall A, Mwanga S, Kisanga J. 2015. Scaling Up Climate Information Services for Farmers and Pastoralists in Tanzania through ICTs and Rural Radio, Dar es Salaam on 27-28, April 2015: GFCS Adaptation Programme in Africa. CCAFS Workshop Report.

Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Perkins K, Huggins-Rao S, Hansen J, van Mossel J, Weighton L, Lynagh S, 2015. Interactive radio’s promising role in climate information services: Farm Radio International concept paper. CCAFS Working Paper no. 156. Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Stats4SD. 2017. Evaluation of Climate Services Interventions in the GFCS Adaptation Programme for Africa: Beneficiary Assessment Final Evaluation Summary Report. Report prepared by Statistics for Sustainable Development and Cramer-Njihia Consultants for the World Food Programme and CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

West JJ, Daly ME, Yanda PZ. 2018. Evaluating User Satisfaction with Climate Services in Tanzania 2014 – 2016 Summary Report to the Global Framework for Climate Services Adaptation Programme in Africa. CICERO Senter.



1 WMO (lead implementing partner), World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) and Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).



James Hansen, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Earth Institute, Columbia University, Palisades, NY, USA

Katiuscia Fara, World Food Programme, Rome, Italy

Kathryn Milliken, World Food Programme, Rome, Italy

Clement Boyce, Malawian Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS), Blantyre, Malawi

Ladislaus Chang’a, Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Erica Allis, Global Framework for Climate Services Office, WMO

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