Postcard from Addis Ababa- When bull elephants fight

Postcard from Addis Ababa- When bull elephants fight

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Date: 12th March 2011
Author: Geoff Barnard
Type: Feature
Organisation: AfricaAdapt
Countries: Africa, Ethiopia
Tags: adaptation, climate impacts, media, planning

“When bull elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”

The AfricaAdapt Climate Change Symposium this week, held at the impressive UNECA Conference Centre in Addis Ababa, was full of rich metaphors. This one came from Lindiwe Sibanda, head of the FANRPAN network in her closing presentation. The picture showed two bull elephants facing each other, one labelled ‘scientific knowledge’ the other ‘indigenous knowledge’.  It didn’t look good.

The point she was making was one of the key themes of the Symposium.  Africa needs to find a way of blending these two sources of knowledge if it is to adapt successfully to a changing climate.  This requires more openness from scientists and policy makers to the rich, context-specific, knowledge held by farmers and pastoralists.  Equally there’s a need to translate the science of climate change into language that makes sense to local people.

If it bleeds, it leads

This newsroom truism was cited by Admire Mare, a researcher from Rhodes University. He was presenting a study on press coverage of climate issues in South Africa and Zimbabwe.  His findings were not encouraging.  Coverage tends to be sporadic, and dominated by bad news stories. Journalists rely too much on recycling quotes from government sources and don’t get out to rural areas to see the realities for themselves.  Efforts to strengthen mainstream media coverage of climate issues are clearly important, but Mare’s conclusion was that reviving Africa’s tradition of oral communication is also part of the solution.

Several presentations on the potential for community radio reinforced this point.  In Malawi, for example, newspapers, TV and in the internet are the preserve of the urban few, whereas radio reaches at least half the rural population. A paper by Charles Chikapa, from the Malawi Broadcast Corporation, showed how well community radio can work in raising the issues that matter to rural listeners, bringing them to life through interviews with farmers and village leaders, while getting across key messages about improved farming techniques.


One of the most memorable images for me was a photo of lorry loaded high with goods, groaning under the weight of its cargo, with 20 or more passengers perched on top and clinging to the sides.  Youba Sokona, Director of the new African Climate Policy Centre (ACPC), used it to illustrate the multiple challenges facing African policy makers.  With so many agendas to address, the inherent complexity of climate and development issues, stretched capacity and weak governance structures, it would we easy to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “where do we begin?”

The AfricaAdapt Symposium helped answer that question.  A good place to start is to:

  • Build on the expertise that’s undoubtedly there in Africa
  • Bring diverse perspectives together, and get people out of their silos
  • Make communication central to the agenda, so people can share ideas and learn from each other’s experience.

Taking over the baton

The closing session marked an important point in the 3-year history of the AfricaAdapt Network.  Managed initially by the Institute of Development Studies, in the UK, with support from the IDRC/DFID CCAA Programme, the leadership baton was formally handed over to ENDA in Senegal, who will work alongside network partners FARA (Ghana) and ICPAC (Kenya) to deliver the next phase.  Building on the success of the Symposium, AfricaAdapt is set to play an important role in connecting African efforts around climate adaptation.

To find out more about the Symposium, which was cosponsored by ACPC, CCAA, CDKN, CTA and IDS, visit the Symposium website, where papers and presentations will be available shortly.

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