Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Supporting rural producers with knowledge of CSA

Enabling Frameworks

Key challenges and opportunities of RAS to support climate-smart agriculture

Farmers have always responded to new challenges, such as changing weather patterns and natural disasters, and new opportunities, such as improved technologies and better market opportunities. Climate change adds urgency to the need for a quicker response by a range of different agricultural stakeholders at various levels. Responding to climate change does not just require technical change of agricultural practices at the farm level. To bring tangible benefits to smallholder farmers and provide stewardship to the landscapes that support them, changes also need to be made in policies, institutions and financing, and there must be a clear recognition of the driving role farmers play in adapting to changing circumstances and constructing innovative solutions to the challenges they face (FAO, 2016c).

C2 - 3.1 Farmer Field Schools: A successful approach for education and social mobilization on climate-smart agriculture

Farmer Field Schools (FFS), which have been established in over 90 countries, have been embraced by many farmers, governments and development practitioners as an effective mechanism for capacity development and education to promote sustainable agriculture, livelihoods and climate resilience. FFS uses a dynamic, participatory and interactive learning approach that emphasizes problem solving and discovery-based learning. They are designed to build farmers’ capacity to understand and observe their production systems, identify problems and test possible solutions.  Ultimately, participants in FFS are encouraged to make informed decisions for themselves, adopting or adapting the practices that are most suitable to their particular farming system. The learning process in the FFS reinforces the participant's understanding of complex ecological relations in the field.

In FFS, a group of 20-25 farmers, pastoralists or fishers meet to engage in hands-on learning over an entire cropping season or natural production cycle. For crop-based FFS, activities may cover from farming practices from 'seed to seed'; in livestock-producing communities, they may deal with activities from 'egg to egg' or 'calf to calf'. 

FFS have expanded from dealing with a single topic (integrated pest management) on a single crop (rice) in one country (Indonesia) in 1989, to cover multiple crops and many diverse topics (e.g. sustainable agriculture, climate change adaptation, livelihoods and rural empowerment, integrated production, soil health, land and water management, agro-pastoralism, agroforestry, crop-fish systems, aquaculture, disaster risk reduction, credit and savings and resilience funds, and nutrition). FFS group learning is a solid basis on which to build successful community-driven platforms for sustainable territorial development.

FFS provide a risk-free and conducive learning environment for participants to experiment by combining local knowledge on potential adaptive solutions with options proposed by researchers. By building each individual participant's functional capacity to observe, analyse, communicate and take informed decisions, the FFS methodology strengthens their overall capacity to respond to changes in their environment. At the group level, participants learn to organize themselves and their communities, and collaborate with each other. The resulting social capital is a strong asset in the implementation of collective actions to respond to the impacts of climate change and other drivers of change. 

FFS to support climate change adaptation have been undertaken in a number of countries. The socio-economic diversity of different households and the ecological diversity of different agricultural ecosystems require locally adapted field-level approached to ensure the appropriate responses to changing climatic conditions. FFS provide a platform to strengthen individual and community climate resilience (i.e. the ability to survive, recover from, and even thrive in changing climatic conditions in a locally adapted manner). 

Since 2010, a number of countries have started working on strengthening community climate resilience using a field school approach. Climate-related field school projects have been implemented with support from FAO in many countries, including Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Senegal, South Sudan, and Uganda. Projects in Eastern and Southern Africa, particularly Uganda, have integrated disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation to address multiple threats to livelihoods with short- and medium-term interventions. Other groups have also experimented with 'climate field schools' in a number of countries (e.g. Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Nepal). CARE has used Farmer Field and Business Schools to address climate change in Honduras, South Sudan and many other countries. As an outcome of these initiatives, a number of manuals and technical modules on building resilience through field schools have now been made available (FAO, 2013b; FAO, 2015).

C2-3.2. Developing the content of FFS on climate change

FFS that address climate change will primarily focus on learning to improve practices in the field to increase production sustainably and adapt to climate change. Learning processes in FFS reflect the principles of non-formal adult education. Whether they focus on climate change or other topics, the learning processes reinforce participants' understanding of the local ecology to improve their management and decision-making skills. 

In the FFS approach to addressing climate change, a first step involves learning about climate change at the field level. However, a broader production system approach that covers the entire landscape must also be considered. Some management actions (e.g. the restoration of degraded land through vegetated stone rows) for rehabilitating local ecosystems and improving resilience to climate change need to be addressed at a scale beyond an individual producer's farm. Activities in this area, start during preparation work with the communities, when an analysis is undertaken on the climate-related challenges facing the community and possible solutions are identified for addressing them. A broad strategy based on community action can be used to implement these solutions and ensure they are linked to other complementary community initiatives (see Box C2.6).

Box C2.6  Key lessons learned and challenges in Mali

Launched in 2012, the FAO project, Integrating Climate Resilience into the Agricultural Sector for Food Security in Rural Areas, benefited from the 15 years of experience that has been gained by the FAO Integrated Production and Pest Management regional programme in its work with FFS and sustainable crop production intensification. The project had three main objectives: identifying, testing and adapting climate-smart practices in collaboration with farmers; strengthening the technical and functional capacities of RAS and farmers in the experimentation of sustainable and resilient practices through FFS; and advocating at the institutional level for greater support in responding to climate change. After three years of implementation, national stakeholders judged the results very positively.

Some of the challenges that needed to be overcome included limited policy coordination and the marginal status of the agriculture sectors in drafting planning and policy documents on climate change adaptation. This situations was addressed by setting up an inclusive national climate change group that included the Ministry of Agriculture, the Agency for Environment and Sustainable Development (AEDD), the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, the Office of Food Security, farmer organizations, NGOs and civil society organizations, development organizations and research centres, including Mali's Institute of Rural Economy (IER) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Stakeholders met twice a year to exchange information and ideas on climate change; identify climate-smart practices, including those based on indigenous knowledge; and visit field activities. Sensitization was done with political, administrative and local authorities. For instance, FAO and AEDD organized training activities for members of Parliament on the role of agriculture in climate adaptation and mitigation, and training sessions on access to climate finance. In addition, various national institutions (e.g. the National Directorate of Agriculture , AEDD, research organizations) were directly contracted to implement components of the project, which improved national capacities and significantly increased national ownership of the project. This inclusive process led to better integration of the agriculture sectors into Mali’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution for the Paris Agreement; helped improve stakeholder coordination; and generated co-financing of activities by multiple partners. 

Malian smallholders have poor access to advisory services and little awareness of innovative practices for climate-smart, sustainable agriculture. Working with the government, researchers and farmer groups, the project trained several hundred government extension agents and farmer facilitators on technical and functional skills to implement participatory diagnostics, implement field schools and facilitate community action planning with a focus on climate change. In turn, these extension agents and farmer facilitators, using FFS, built the capacities of 23 000 producers, including 5 000 women, to implement climate-smart agriculture. 

The project promoted farmer testing and the adoption of improved seeds in 242 villages; the dissemination of 13 improved and adapted varieties; and the creation of four agroforestry zones and barriers made from trees and shrubs, which were managed by producer organizations whose membership was 75 percent female. These results all contribute to building the resilience of farmers to climatic changes, such as increased weather variability.

The FFS approach to climate change adaptation was scaled up in 134 municipalities thanks to the full commitment from local and national authorities.

Dynamic and innovative rural institutions help support farmers in making the transition to climate-smart agriculture. The project strengthened several farmer organizations, which are now actively promoting climate-smart approaches and have replicated the approach on their own. Networks of FFS farmers, FFS facilitators and government focal points have enabled the approach to expand into several communes where farmers are progressively shifting to climate-smart agriculture.

Source: FAO Mali, M. Soumaré

The activities undertaken in a climate change field school typically are more integrated than actions carried out in field schools that focus on the sustainable intensification of a single crop (see Box C2.7). For instance, in the FFS demonstrations cassava production can be associated with agroforestry rather than being the focus of a single crop production system. Some climate field schools start with an analysis of different elements of farming systems (e.g. crops, animals, rangelands) and work at a landscape level, which creates in integrated curriculum that runs over a number of seasons. In such cases, multidisciplinary facilitation teams are extremely helpful.

The topics dealt with in field schools learning plans will depend on the needs and aspirations of the participants. Some examples of topics that are often addressed are: 

  • indicators to measure climate change;
  • introduction to the subject of rainfall to understand the difference between variability and change, and how to measure it, which is supported by gradual learning that responds to problems that become visible in the field as the sessions progress;
  • difference between weather and climate (e.g. in Colombia, farmers are measuring precipitation and temperature with a low-cost climate station, and they use a soil humidity tool to relate weather behaviour with crop water needs in the soil);
  • an analysis of rainfall, which is done through discussions with farmers that focus on the consequences of changes in precipitation patterns on fields and farming practices, and is based on rainfall measurements used in making seasonal climate scenarios (Indonesia); and
  • sustainable agricultural management practices.

Box C2.7  Climate field schools in Malawi

FAO, CARE and the Evangelical Association of Malawi are implementing a programme with support from the European Union to increase the capacities of rural communities, individual households and supporting institutions to adapt to adverse effects of climate change and contribute to poverty reduction in rural areas. 

The programme adopted a community outreach model where resource users in given micro-catchment are organised into clusters of FFS. Communities map the drivers of the climate risks in respective micro-catchments. This forms the basis for the tailored learning activities and relevant short to medium term adaptation Investments.  

Activities blend three dimensions - technical, social and financial, in a mutually reinforcing way to enhance diversification and accumulation of assets at household and community levels. The technical dimension involves building knowledge and skills on sustainable and climate resilient agricultural production practices, post-harvest handling, bio-intensive backyard gardening, food safety, HIV and gender-sensitive nutrition education among others through 240 FFS. The social dimension focus on group cohesion reinforced through governance structures and conflict management, leadership and dignified safety nets like common savings mechanisms; while the financial incorporates aspects of farming as a business, entrepreneurial skills, income generating activities, savings and investment mechanisms, and group marketing among others. 

Lessons from the activities include:

  • The entire community is affected by the impacts of climate change, not just the selected households. Activities should start with community outreach.
  • Group activities contribute to solving wider community problems and enhance the acceptability of proposed adaptation actions.
  • It is good strategy to have holistic, interventions that consider the entire water catchment area.
  • Integrate disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation to address multiple threats to livelihoods with short- and medium-term interventions. 
  • There is a need for an effective diagnosis of the main problems facing the community, adequate learning tools and sufficient resources in terms of time, personnel and materials.

 Source: FAO Malawi, J. Okoth 

Lessons learned from the FFS approach

Over its 30-year history, FFS have become a well-tested capacity development approach. Some of the lessons learned from its application that RAS providers can use when promoting climate-smart agriculture are presented here. More capacity development approaches are covered in module C1

  • One season of learning in an FSS is not enough to address impacts of climate change and strengthen resilience. Funding and programming need to provide a sufficient time frame (minimum 2 to 3 seasons) for interactions with community. Programmes should have an even longer duration to ensure proper planning and allow for exchanges of experiences and lessons learned among different communities and groups. 
  • FFSs are an effective platform to discuss the perceived impacts of climate change with rural people. Brainstorming about historical trends in the community, combined with meteorological information can be used to learn about experienced changes, and the differences between variability in weather and changes in climate. Different types of changes are also likely to be occurring at the same time, and sometimes mutually reinforcing each other. Factors driving these changes including population trends, modifications in land tenure regimes, the degradation of local natural resources and market dynamics. While climate-smart agriculture development interventions will have climate change as an entry point, they must address broader changes faced by communities if they wish to have a lasting impact on community resilience and the sustainability of livelihoods.
  • FFS groups can be used to discuss how some of the impacts of climate change can be dealt with by decisions made by single individuals or jointly within household (e.g choosing drought-tolerant variety selection, crop rotations and associations or mulching). Other impacts may require action by a larger group or involve a broader community effort (e.g. building vegetated stones rows, slope erosion control measures, restoration of forest cover). Other issues will require improving local or national governance (e.g. securing access to shared water or forest resources). Development interventions should support the articulation of the differences between participatory diagnostics, community adaptation action plans, the FFS group plan and participatory territorial development approaches. Selection of specific management responses might create new risks that will need to be considered.
  • A combination of participatory diagnostic tools should be used to define the action and learning plans within the FFS group. This combination of tools could include for example, a historical analysis, community mapping, manifestations of changes in weather and climate, the task men and women carry out during each season and during the day, livelihood rankings, problem prioritization, and the identification and ranking of potential solutions at community level. These can be combined in turn with monitoring and evaluation tools to build a comprehensive participatory monitoring, evaluation and learning framework.
  • Social mobilization beyond the FFS and its complementary activities are needed to strengthen community resilience and implement adaptation actions. At the project level and local level, this involves efforts to create a convergence among all the technical teams or service providers that are involved. Facilitators with networking skills are needed to connect different stakeholders and build bridges linking multiple thematic and geographical areas.
  • Policy-level actions are necessary to support investments in capacity development of farming communities. FFS programmes are good entry points for discussing people-centered climate change adaptation measures with governments and other stakeholders. A well-defined communication strategy can also facilitate policy engagement.


  • Climate-smart agriculture is a complex subject. Interventions need to rely on technically and functionally skilled facilitators. There is a need for continuous in-service capacity development for individuals, organizations and the people working within the broader enabling environment to support farmers.
  • The results of some restoration measures or crop rotations might not be immediately visible to farmers. Maintaining the motivation of farmers and ensuring that benefits can be seen over different time spans is crucial.
  • Addressing intertwined challenges of sustainable livelihoods, climate change adaptation and mitigation requires working across different geographic scales, from individual plots and farms to entire farming systems, landscapes or territories. This adds to the complexity of climate-smart interventions.
  • Implementing interventions in the field that address climate change at the community level often require multidisciplinary teams with stakeholders that have diverse working methodologies, education and rationale. This can be a significant challenge in terms of human resources, institutions and policies that must be to overcome to ensure lasting contributions are made to community resiliency to climate change and sustainable livelihoods.

Potential for scaling up FFS that focus on climate-smart agriculture

After decades of FFS operations, there now exists a strong foundation of documented information and trained individuals that can be harnessed to scale up FFS to focus on climate-smart agriculture. The many FFS master trainers, resource people and facilitators that have been trained in many countries could be instrumental in this regard. However, a key component is to integrate climate-smart agriculture knowledge and tools into the process. Currently, most FFS trainers do not have sufficient knowledge about climate-smart agriculture.

Several platforms exist that can help RAS providers and others harness the FFS approach for adopting climate-smart agriculture. In 2017, FAO in partnership with IFAD, Bioversity, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), CARE, Agronomes et Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (AVSF) and many others, established the Global FFS Platform. The Platform brings together the documentation, expertise and partners involved in the FFS approach and its application to support climate change adaptation by smallholders. National country consultation platforms in Burundi and Mali have also been set up by government request to support intersectoral coordination and ensure that lessons learnt from FFS interventions are integrated in National Adaptation Plans and climate finance. 

Regional and national networks of FFS practitioners have matured and are expanding worldwide. These communities of practices, which are currently active in Africa, Asia and the Near East, support the sharing of lessons and tools, and exchanges of experts among countries. One of the topics most requested by practitioners is how to adapt and use FFS to support climate change adaptation among smallholder producers.