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Building resilience and inclusion in sub-Saharan Africa through social learning around climate risks

Building Resilience project title:
Building resilience to climate change through social learning
PI: Dominic Kniveton

How do we learn best? Education is widely accepted as the key to improving your life chances. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all process and the way people are informed is critical to success; different styles of learning can work better than others in different contexts.

This co-funded Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) -funded project explores whether changing the way in which people are exposed to useful information can more effectively change attitudes and practices in rural communities in Africa.

In particular, it looks at how social learning - where people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modelling - could help encourage communities to use climate forecasting to build resilience and make weather-related decisions about what they do with their crops and livestock, when and why.

It’s hoped that this particular style of learning may succeed where other techniques have so far failed.

For the past 20-30 years there has been a big drive to encourage rural communities in sub-Saharan African to use climate forecasts. The region is particularly vulnerable to droughts, floods and other natural disasters, and access to climate forecasting could mitigate this by helping rural communities make more informed decisions, such as when to plant their crops and what kind of crops to buy and plant if it is likely to be a good rainy season or not.

However, so far there has been a very low uptake.

But Dominic Kniveton, Professor of Climate Science and Society, University of Sussex, believes social learning may be able to succeed where other ways of promoting climate forecasting have failed. 

“Social learning is about what a community has learned is the best way to approach a problem and what is agreed by a group of people,” he says.

At the moment his research is focussed on specific communities in Kitui and Isiolo counties, Kenya but will expand to cover other communities at risk.

In addition, the project is also seeking to address the fact that not all communities – or everyone within those communities - are receiving forecasting information; particularly the more immediate forecasting, such as weekly and daily reports.

As a result, Kniveton is interested in how climate information percolates within a community and in what he calls the ‘shadow spaces’. 

“How do you get access to those hidden spaces where learning is going on?” he says. “What happens in informal spaces in a small community and when someone mentions the weather this season? It is hard to get access to conversations that happen when people are cooking or washing clothes.”

In particular, the project is interested in marginalised groups, such as women, who are much less likely to have access to climate information.

“We have got to engage with them,” says Kniveton. “We are trying to see what processes are going on, where the power is in the communities and what they are doing with information.”

Kniveton says social learning has to be about helping groups of people to learn something for the individual and collective good: “How can people facing problems help themselves? In this case, it’s how to use climate forecasting to improve resilience and how to ensure that information is getting to everyone who needs it, when they need it.”

Intended outcomes and impact

  • To improve our understanding of social learning in rural communities in sub-Sarahan Africa
  • To build knowledge and understanding of the learning processes that lead to greater resilience
  • To reach out to marginalised groups, such as women, and establish how information does and doesn’t percolate through communities
  • To produce both a practice and a policy brief, thereby influencing and informing policymakers in Sub-Saharan Africa about ways in which climate forecasting can be better used