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Smallholder farmers in Africa - yields, climate change and ecosystem services

Last changed: 31 August 2020
Agricultural fields, some farms and a small mountain in the background.

Small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are highly vulnerable to climate change, but also have good potential to improve their sustainability and their production. These farmers struggle to make ends meet and in most cases live on less than one hectare of land. In her thesis, Ylva Nyberg has looked at how Kenyan smallholders manage their farms in order to adapt to rainfall variability, improve productivity and maintain ecosystem services for a sustainable livelihood.

Ylva Nyberg carried out her field work across a landscape gradient from Kisumu County by Lake Victoria to Trans Nzoia County in the highlands of western Kenya. 

Read the popular scientific summary from her thesis Smallholder farm management and priorities Balancing productivity, livelihood, climate adaptation and ecosystem services

Rainfall-related challenges

The first part of the work consisted of group interviews to assess whether the farmers had experienced rainfall-related challenges and the type of planned measures (adaptation measures) they could use to be prepared for the challenges. I also talked to them about their use of coping measures in direct response to challenges and how that affected them. In individual interviews, I asked smallholder farmers about the measures they had chosen or been forced to use during the last 3-years. The group and individual interviews were carried out in Kisumu and Trans Nzoia Counties, with differing conditions for agriculture. Women and men were interviewed separately, to find out if they had different experiences of the practices used to overcome current challenges.

Importance of trees and livstock

I interviewed farmers with access to regular agricultural advisory services and farmers with no such access. In another part of the study, I investigated the effects of high or low tree and livestock density on priorities, productivity and provision of ecosystem services. Finally, I compared farms that took part in an agricultural development project (Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project) with control farms, to examine differences in the use of sustainable land management practices, maize yield, food self-sufficiency and savings.

Well aware of local climate changes

Smallholder farmers proved to be well aware of local climate changes. They were also aware of many different measures that can assist in adaptation and acute responses to rainfall variability. Awareness was not a guarantee for using adaptation measures, however, due to lack of money, knowledge and labour.

Important with advisory services

Through higher education, better access to agricultural advisory services and more time for social networks, men were able to use more planned measures than, especially, low-educated women. Farmers with access to regular agricultural advisory services used a higher number of planned measures and measures that were more effective. Maize yields were positively related to terracing of fields and growing more trees on the farm, so-called agroforestry. Higher tree density increased the workload, but also the proportion of income that came from the farm. In addition, trees were important to farmers by providing shade for recreation.

Labour, land, money, knowledge...

As long as smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa do not have sufficient labour, land, money or knowledge, it will be difficult to convince them that more sustainable agricultural management practices will bring more benefits than costs. Based on the results in this thesis, I suggest that agricultural advisory approaches should better cover the whole farming system and be more inclusive, particularly as regards low-educated women. Agricultural advisors should promote packages of measures with positive interplays, encourage diversified farming systems to farms where this is feasible and focus on managing to overcome limiting factors such as access to credit, knowledge and labour, in order to increase the use of sustainable agricultural practices. This would help smallholders balance adaptation to rainfall variability and productivity with maintaining supply of ecosystem services for a sustainable livelihood.


Small farm with a field and som cows.
One of the farms Ylva Nyberg visited during her PhD project. Photo: Ylva Nyberg
Three women dressed in colorful clothes.
Women participating in group interview. Photo: Ylva Nyberg
Trees and crops together.
Example of agroforestry - Ylva has studied the importance of trees in the farming system. Photo: Ylva Nyberg
Ylva Nyberg. Photo.
Ylva Nyberg.

The dissertation will take place Friday 18 September at 9.00 in sal L, undervisningshuset Ultuna, and via zoom.


Ylva Nyberg has summarized her results in this picture. To the left: Less uptake of adaptation measures: More vulnerable. To the right: More uptake of adaptation measures. Less vulnerable.


Ylva Nyberg, Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Crop Production Ecology/ Department of Soil and Environment, +4618672053, +46702580488