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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 73 - Thursday, 23 July 2009
Knowledge Sharing for Climate Change Adaptation in Africa: Opportunities and Challenges
By AfricaAdapt KSOs*
Full Article

Knowledge sharing is the exchange of ideas and experiences through networks of relationships. It differs from information sharing, which is typically concerned with channelling messages between knowledge producers and target audiences. Peter Senge suggests that knowledge sharing only occurs “when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action; it is about creating learning processes.” (

Historically, the creation and dissemination of “valid” knowledge was the monopoly of certain persons or institutions. This resulted in the marginalisation of segments of society based on gender, race, language and other discriminating factors. However, the emergence of new participatory tools such as web-based “social media” including Twitter, wikis and blogs, participatory video and mobile phones, has led many to argue that a new “architecture of participation” is emerging and will democratise access to and production of knowledge (Thompson 2008). These developments present both exciting opportunities and important challenges to complex concerns such as climate change, development and global environmental governance as this short article will explore.

Knowledge Sharing and Climate Change in Africa
Climate change has become a major threat to the African continent with many local communities already affected and struggling to adapt or cope with its impacts. In order to increase the resilience of these vulnerable communities, there is a need to ensure they have access to information on appropriate adaptive practices. However knowledge sharing is relatively limited among climate change actors in Africa. 

The diversity of stakeholders involved in adaptation processes (from policymakers to CSOs, researchers and, most importantly, local communities) and the barriers imposed by poverty, limited infrastructure, and illiteracy, among others, make knowledge exchange a challenge. Thus, knowledge sharing requires the use of approaches that are tailored to the needs and constraints faced by particular stakeholders. Local communities, for example, may require non-text-based communications such as video or theatre, face-to-face discussions, or local-language radio broadcasts. Similarly, local and indigenous knowledge must be translated into different languages and forms if it is to be appropriately communicated to research and policy communities. 

A recent report also highlights the tension and mistrust in relations between African scientists, journalists and policy-makers as a critical barrier to open exchange (Ochieng 2009), underscoring the need for better mediation between these stakeholders and cooperation on moving toward increased openness.

The urgency of the adaptation challenge for Africa paired with a growing acknowledgement that successful adaptive practice must take into account local practices and engage with local institutions (Agrawal and Perrin 2009), highlights the importance of addressing the issues mentioned above if current research is to be effective. Further, as we begin to recognise the potential of indigenous knowledge (which is often transmitted orally at very local scales and not formally documented) for adaptation, it becomes important to consider how to appropriately encourage collaboration with and between the bearers of this knowledge. Good examples are already emerging, including collaborations between indigenous rainmakers and meteorologists on climate prediction in Kenya (, and the use of GIS and participatory mapping with nomadic hunters in southern Africa to assess climate change ( These examples offer proof of the feasibility of innovative knowledge sharing and the complementarities between indigenous and scientific knowledge.

AfricaAdapt’s approach to knowledge sharing
An increased acknowledgement of the role knowledge sharing can play has seen the emergence of new initiatives focusing on climate change. One such initiative, AfricaAdapt, is a network hosted by four institutions that is dedicated to sharing African adaptation knowledge within a community of practice. In addressing the need for tailored approaches to sharing, the network uses both online and offline forms of engagement in both French and English to reach adaptation stakeholders.

The AfricaAdapt website serves as an online hub for sharing knowledge among researchers, policy makers, and NGOs in particular. It features user-generated profiles of adaptation projects where members can host documents, discussions and blog-style news. The site also hosts thematic resources on adaptation and a dedicated space for sharing community contributions on the site. The network’s engagement with African communities and community-based organisations, however, occurs primarily offline and on the ground. It collaborates with community radio – a key medium for local debate and awareness-raising – to increase and deepen discussion on climate change; produces print-based summaries of pertinent information; and will be hosting forums for diverse stakeholder groups to exchange perspectives. The network also encourages local innovation on knowledge sharing with small grants to initiatives that engage hard-to-reach communities.

One of the particularly innovative dimensions of this network is its use of decentralised intermediaries (called Knowledge Sharing Officers (KSOs)) to actively reach out to stakeholders and seek their contributions, a recognised challenge in promoting knowledge sharing (Macqueen 2009). KSOs work across stakeholder and linguistic groups, for example, to translate information and to promote new and diverse perspectives on adaptation.

Ongoing challenges
Despite its rise in prominence, knowledge sharing practice faces challenges and uncertainties, both in terms of its implementation and its potential impact on development. The proliferation of knowledge sharing initiatives on climate change, while commendable on many levels, demands improved coordination and collaboration between complementary activities, and greater capitalisation on lessons learned in order to avoid unnecessary duplication and achieve impact.

Within the context of vulnerable African communities, this article has already cited numerous challenges related to barriers to access, including language, infrastructure and technology. Perhaps even more challenging, however, are those barriers related to disempowerment of certain groups, mistrust and lack of openness to ways of knowing, all of which adversely affect people’s propensity to share. The criteria for determining the “validity” of local and indigenous observations on climate change, for instance, have a major bearing on their inclusion within these processes. MEA institutions, although far removed from the actual sites of these observations, may play a role in setting these criteria. Young argues that environmental regimes, which tend to be influential in determining research agendas, privileging certain knowledge claims, and influencing what becomes of resultant knowledge,  “have built-in preferences for knowledge claims that can be justified as products of procedures conforming to mainstream conceptions of science” (Young 2003: 220). This complicates the stated desire within many parts of the institutional adaptation community to see a more community-driven agenda and calls for a more democratic epistemology that takes seriously the truth claims of different knowledge producers.

Another challenge is to better understand what factors help knowledge sharing actually lead to new learning, and subsequently to positive change. Studies of African radio programming on agriculture reveal a high degree of variability in audience learning and behavioural change depending on the types of listening and participation techniques used (AFRRI 2008). Insufficient reflection has gone into the fact that more information sharing on climate change does not necessarily result in more knowledge or better decision making.

A final concern is the all-important link to financial support for adaptation. Better understanding of needs and adaptive strategies alone will not address the grave challenges faced in Africa. It must be backed by appropriate funding to allow communities and countries to take informed action and put new knowledge into practice.

In closing, we share the optimism regarding new, more participatory avenues to knowledge sharing on climate change adaptation. Technology and increased openness now offer the opportunity to hear a greater number of voices, to innovate, and to think more creatively about the challenges we face. However, we must appreciate that these developments are far from complete, and without continued work and support, the challenges presented by climate change in Africa will not be met.
Works cited

AFRRI (2008). Communicating with Radio: What do we know? Ottawa, Farm Radio International.
Agrawal, A. and N. Perrin (2009). Climate adaptation, local institutions and rural livelihoods. Adapting to climate change: Thresholds, values, governance. W. N. Adger, I. Lorenzoni and K. L. O'Brien. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 350-367.
Macqueen, D. (2009). "Web 2.0 tools to promote social networking for the Forest Connect alliance." Participatory learning and action 59: 34-39.
Ochieng, B. O. (2009). Effective communication of science and climate change information to policy makers. Nairobi, IDRC: 22.
Thompson, M. (2008). “ICT and development studies: Towards development 2.0.” Journal of International Development 20: 821-835.
UNFCCC (2007). Nairobi work programme on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. Bonn, UNFCCC: 16.
Young, O. (2004). “Institutions and the growth of knowledge: Evidence from international environmental regimes.” International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 4: 215-228.
This piece was collaboratively written by AfricaAdapt’s Knowledge Sharing Officers: Blane Harvey (Institute of Development Studies – United Kingdom); Binetou Diagne (ENDA-Tiers Monde - Senegal); Jacqueline Nnam (Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa – Ghana); and Abebe Tadege (IGAD Climate Predication and Applications Centre – Kenya)

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