Communication for development Knowledge

Posted August 2000

Meteorological services and farmers in Africa: Is there shared meaning?

by Elijah Mukhala
Research Fellow in Communication Science, University of the Orange Free State, South Africa


Meteorological services in many African countries have the responsibility of monitoring and sharing information on weather with potential users. Seasonal climate forecasts issued for many years have not had expected impacts on agricultural production, especially among resource poor small-scale farmers. Communication of weather information overall has not been effective. The meteorological services have not identified the characteristics of the users. At the same time, there is also a lack of skills among the institutions responsible for communicating the information, suggesting the importance of training personnel in communication skills.

Introduction and background

In Southern Africa, meteorological services issue seasonal climate forecasts in September/October proceeding the growing season to provide vital information for farm management purposes. The forecasts have been issued for many years, but the impact on agriculture production and food security has been minimal. In recent years, sub-regional organizations and United Nations agencies have held meetings to discuss the occurrence of frequent droughts in Africa. These meetings culminated in the establishment of Drought Monitoring Centers (DMC), one located in Nairobi, Kenya, and the other in Harare, Zimbabwe. One of the tasks of the DMCs is that of preparing and disseminating on a regular and timely basis materials on drought, including onset and cessation, severity and extent. This involves the preparation and dissemination, in map form and other formats, parameters such as rainfall and temperature anomalies, drought severity indices, drought risk and moisture stress (Marume and Garanganga, 1997). Preparation and dissemination of drought related information commenced in 1991.

In September, 1999, a World Bank funded workshop titled "Users responses to seasonal climate forecasts in southern Africa: what have we learned" was convened in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The objective was to present, discuss and compare meteorological research, primarily in relation to the agricultural sector in southern Africa. Two aspects came out as significant for sustainable agricultural production and food security. The first was that there were communication barriers and that there is need to develop appropriate information channels. The second was that there were bottlenecks in the effective use of seasonal climate forecasts by farmers (Cicero Report, 1999). In any agricultural development programme, effective communication is a requirement to success. In the case of seasonal climate forecasts, users frequently have not been able to 'decode' the information disseminated. Clearly, users cannot make use of information provided if they do not understand the information in the first place.

Field studies of the impact of climate forecasts in southern Africa suggest that there is a considerable gap between information needed by farmers and that provided by meteorological services (Blench, 1999:1). There are communication barriers since the two parties have been interacting for a long time, but apparently have not been communicating effectively. Farmers know what they want and the meteorological services know what they need to provide the farmers, but there are no, or few shared meanings. The effectiveness of meteorological communication is determined, amongst other things, by the extent to which all persons involved in the communication transaction are competent in communicating and interpreting meteorological messages. A failure of communication means that there may be 'noise' in the communication transaction. The concept of noise refers to any factors, which disturb the communication and interpretation of messages.

This paper discusses the principles of communication that may help to improve communication between meteorological services (meteorologists) and farmers or other potential users. There is need to separate the issues of information, dissemination and communication. Meteorological services have been content with using existing channels of communication while ignoring fundamental principles of communication. While appropriate channels of information dissemination have been identified, dissemination does not necessarily guarantee communication. This paper concentrates on farmers as users because the agricultural sector makes up the large majority of the users of climate seasonal forecasts in Southern Africa.

Definition of communication

While the definition of communication varies according to the theoretical frames of reference employed and the stress placed upon certain aspects of the total process, most definitions include five fundamental factors: an initiator, a recipient, a mode or vehicle, a message and an effect. Simply expressed, the communication process begins when a message is conceived by a sender. It is then encoded and transmitted via a particular medium or channel to a receiver who then decodes it and interprets the message, returning a signal in some way that the message has or has not been understood (Hill & Watson, 1997). This shared understanding, or meaning, is a critical factor to successful communication.

To Marais (1979), the sharing of meaning can be considered to be the general aim of communication. Tubbs and Moss (1994) refer to human communication as the process in which meaning is established between two or more persons. Bittner (1985) defines communication as the action by means of which symbols are shared, while Wenburg and Wilmont (1973) refer to any attempt to achieve understanding.

Agricultural communication can therefore be defined as a communication transaction in which agricultural related information is transmitted and interpreted with a view of sharing the meaning thereof (Terblanche and Mulder, 2000). Likewise, meteorological communication can be defined as a communication transaction in which meteorological information is transmitted and interpreted with a view of sharing the meaning thereof.

One of the requirements for good encoding and decoding is knowledge. Knowledge in this case includes knowledge of another person's language usage (e.g. scientific terms), knowledge of the subject matter (e.g. meteorology) and general knowledge (Adey and Andrew, 1990: 1-9). If the farmers or users have no knowledge of the subject matter, then encoding of information has to be in such a way that it is not difficult for them to decode (understand).

Figure 1 applies a basic communication model to the subject under discussion - - seasonal climate forecasts. It suggests the following questions: Are the meteorological services or meteorologists able to encode climate seasonal forecasts? Is the correct medium or channel being used for the coded message? Are farmers or users able to decode seasonal climate forecasts encoded by meteorological services or meteorologists? Unless the communication model, and in particular the importance of shared meanings between encoder and decoder, is understood by those that disseminate information, communication will always be a problem.

Figure 1

Communication model applied to climate forecasts

There are several types of media that can be used as channels of communication for seasonal climate forecasts in southern Africa. Both the print media and electronic media are extensively used to disseminate seasonal forecasts and other information for agricultural management in southern Africa. In a survey conducted in villages in Phaswana in South Africa, Bembridge and Tshikolomo (1998) found that among the respondents, 92 percent owned radios, 52 percent owned television sets and 32 percent were connected to telephone facilities. With regard to television and telephone facilities, the survey results may not be representative of the situation in southern Africa given the relative economic advancements of South Africa. However, the survey provides basic information that target audiences in South Africa have access to electronic media as indicated in table 1. Being in possession of a television or radio does not guarantee understanding of information through these media, however. The survey findings show that farmers in South Africa make use of electronic media as sources of agricultural information. Electronic media can potentially be reliable channels to communicate seasonal climate information as long as appropriate terminology is applied to ensure shared meanings. The fact that information has been disseminated does not necessarily mean that communication takes place.

Table 1
Availability of communication channels for agricultural information in South Africa (N=50)

Source: Bembridge & Tshikolomo, 1998

The Bembridge and Tshikolomo (1998) survey ascertained how the respondents obtain information for agricultural management (Table 2.). They found that 46 percent of the respondents had access to written information, mainly in the form of popular journals with little research-based information. The majority of the respondents (76 percent) claimed to listen to radio broadcasts on farming, but indicated that the information did not contain technical information for farm management. The information was of a general nature. The same was claimed regarding information through television. Table 2 shows that respondents also obtained information from other farmers, farm demonstrations and government and corporate extension officers.

Table 2
Distribution of heads of household according to contact with sources of agricultural information (N=50)
Source of information
Mass media
Printed media
Group media
Farmer demonstrations
Farmer discussions
Farmers' days
Other farmers
Government extension
Corporate extension
Source: Bembridge & Tshikolomo, 1998

Table 2 shows that farmers obtain information for farm management from printed media (newspapers, journals, etc.) and electronic media (radio and television). This may be true for meteorological information as well. They also have other sources of information, including farm demonstrations, farm discussions, farmers' days, meetings with other farmers, government. extension and corporate extension. Among these media, the most popular is radio (76%), farm demonstrations (72%), farm discussions (58%), and other farmers (56%). The least contacted source is government extension officers. The reason for the low level of Interest in government extension officers as sources of agricultural information could be due to the low training level of the officers (Mukhala and Groenewald, 1998).

Effective communication

The above findings indicate that appropriate media and channels of communication are already established to provide meteorological information. If the message or information is not getting through to the target audience, the problem most likely is the way the information is coded or packaged, or other factors that create barriers to effective communication. Effective communication is often hampered by communication barriers, among which are noise, differing perceptions, language barriers, inconsistencies, difference in status, distrust, apathy and resistance to change. The use of jargon in communication often results in failed communication. Meteorologists may tend to assume that potential users understand the jargon they use (meteorological terms), although frequently this may not be the case. The use of jargon tends to blur communication and makes the audience feel 'excluded' if they do not understand. Some members of the audience may not attend to the information because they do not understand all or some part of the messages.

Information intended for farmers to improve their farming practices should not be designed in the same way as that intended for scientists. Below (Box 1 and Figure 3) are typical examples of forecasts intended for users of seasonal climate forecasts, including small-scale farmers. These forecasts are issued for the entire Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Box 1
SADC Seasonal climate forecast for 1999-2000 growing season

Seasonal forecast for the 1999-2000 growing season...
There are high probabilities of normal to above-normal rainfall conditions over much of southern Africa during the period January - March 2000. However, there are high probabilities of below-normal to normal rainfall over the far northern part of the region and over the extreme south-western part of South Africa.

Is it reasonable to assume that all farmers or users of seasonal climate forecasts understand the 'probabilities'? Is this a bottleneck in the effective use of climate forecasts by farmers? The problem could be due to lack of comprehension of the terms used in the forecasts. The term 'probability' may create misunderstanding resulting in communication failure. The mathematical calculation of normal rainfall is known to meteorological services or meteorologists and other scientists. Normal is taken as the mean of the middle 10 years of the 30-year period ranked from the least to the most. Do most farmers share the same meaning of normal? Do most farmers share the same meaning of below normal or above normal? In other words, are farmers able to decode this information? If the answer to these questions is No, then communication is not taking place. Clearly, the value of the seasonal climate forecasts or any other information depends on the understanding of that information by the involved user.

Figure 2
Map of seasonal climate forecasts for January to March 2000

Source: The SADC Food Security Programme. Seasonal Forecast for 1999-2000 Growing Season.

Target audience

The problem of communication breakdown has been identified as critical in seasonal climate forecasts. To communicate effectively, meteorologists need to recognize the characteristics of the target audience. This helps them to encode information in ways that will be easy for farmers or other users to decode. If the information intended for users is to be acceptable and understandable, meteorologists should have a clear picture of their target audience. Meteorological services or meteorologists should ask questions like: What are the characteristics of the target group audience? What type of farming systems do they operate? What are their levels of education and literacy? What is their native language? What is their socio-economic status? How many are women? What media or channel can be used best to transmit information? Unless such questions are taken into account, communication may not take place.

Meanings are in farmers

Language is a basic tool of communication through which simple or complex ideas are conveyed. An effective communicator should be sensitive to the nature of his or her language (Whitman & Boase, 1983:139). When writing for public consumption, Yopp and McAdams (1999: 124) stress that technical terms should be avoided. The use of technical terms creates a perception that the information is for 'insiders' only, those who are familiar with the jargon. 'Outsiders' or non-experts who could benefit from the information can be estranged both from the source and the message. If jargon is used for farmers with low education levels, technical terms may create a feeling that the information is reserved for elite farmers. As a result, poorly educated farmers may feel excluded or perceive the information as exclusive.

Meteorologists should understand that words do not have the same meaning to all people. To assume that they do, is to ignore a fundamental principle of language -- Words do not have meaning, only people do. Meteorological services or meteorologists know what they want to convey in seasonal climate forecasts, but farmers may perceive the information differently. A simple anecdote will help explain this problem.

Box 2
Communication attempt between a farmer and an extension officer

A farmer offered an agricultural extension officer a banana after a long day's work. Upon recognizing the cultivar of the banana as his favorite type, the extension officer decided to ask for 'another' one. Certainly, affirmed the farmer, leaning forward to where the extension officer was seated and replacing the banana with 'another' one.

As this simple example shows, a failure in communication can occur even when using everyday language. If misunderstanding can take place so easily in everyday language, imagine the problem with scientific or technical language. Information only has value when it is disseminated in such a way that the end-users get the maximum benefit in applying its contents (Weiss, et al. 1999).


This paper first identified the problem of communication between meteorological services and farmers or users of seasonal climate forecasts. Communication was defined and a communicating model was used to explain the process. Often, the media or channels for communicating meteorological information are already established. Therefore, what remains is effective communication of relevant information. Characteristics of target audience are essential. Scientists involved in the dissemination of information for farming purposes should understand the intended audience of the information. The use of jargon or technical terms only makes the intended audience feel excluded and possibly inferior. Information intended for small-scale farmers should be prepared in a language style that they will be able to understand.

Training programmes for scientists and extension officers in communication skills would help them in understand the importance of communication. There is also a need to conduct training programmes for users or farmers so that they are able to understand the information and be able to apply it. Weiss, et al. (1999:15) propose that in order to facilitate the communication of information to a user community, agro-meteorologists should interact with social scientists to provide a messge structure that is suited to the target audience.

If the information is effectively communicated and understood correctly by the farmers or users, is it right to assume that the farmers will know how to use the information? In an event of low rainfall or drought, will the farmers know what water conservation practices to use? This area requires further research, and should be pursued if agricultural production is to be sustainable.

There is also a need to research the effectiveness of other channels of communicating meteorological information. These include farm demonstrations, farm discussions, farmers' days, meetings and other farmers. Whatever media or channels are used, the time-tested adage 'know your audience' is the best starting point.


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