Africa talks climate

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Awo Ablo
Director of Business Development – BBC World Service Trust

Least to blame but most affected: how do Africans understand climate change? Awo Ablo of the BBC World Service Trust outlines a new, empowering communications initiative.

Climate change, like recession and terrorism, does not respect geographic borders and requires a global response.  Africa is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change and its effects are already being felt by citizens across the continent. Yet too often their views are absent from international climate debate.

The BBC World Service Trust has launched a groundbreaking African-led research and communication initiative, Africa Talks Climate. This research explores the public’s understanding of climate change across ten countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

A critical continental effect

Africa, together with the Arctic and some parts of Asia, will be among the regions in the world most severely impacted by the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 75-250 million people across Africa will be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. Hundreds of millions of people also face a greater risk of malaria, and reduced crop yields. Rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% in some African countries with direct and very serious consequences. In Uganda, for example, more than 80% of the population currently depends on rain-fed subsistence farming.

Africa Talks

But what do people in Africa currently know and understand about climate change? The Africa Talks Climate initiative was founded on the belief that those worst affected must be better informed in order to understand and respond effectively to their changing climate. To establish the current level of knowledge and debate, discussions were convened with over 1,000 citizens from DR Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, and interviews carried out with nearly 200 policy-makers, religious leaders, business people, journalists and civil society representatives. Summary findings and recommendations from the first five countries, plus personal testimonies and stories from the field are available on

Here are some highlights.

The will of God
In ETHIOPIA: Most Ethiopians, regardless of their religion, feel that God alone has the power to change the weather. Very few believe that human activity has a role to play.

The importance of trees
In KENYA: Kenyans attribute changes in their weather principally to deforestation. They link this to their understanding of the impacts of tree-felling on the local environment and weather. Most do not recognise the important role trees play in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Personal accountability
There is a strong tendency for Africans to hold themselves individually or collectively responsible for changes in the environment and the weather which they blame on environmental degradation caused locally. Deforestation, localised pollution, and overpopulation are all factors perceived as causing changes to the weather.

Communication gap
In UGANDA: Ugandan opinion leaders are concerned that the public is ill-informed about climate change. They stress that communication around climate change needs to be relevant to people’s lives and their understanding of the environment.

Failure of language
Drawing on results from five countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Uganda) it is clear that current international climate change language and discourse fails most Africans. There is a need for information and debate that harness Africans’ understanding of their changing weather and environment to create a relevant discourse that promotes citizen engagement.

Business can play its part

As more organisations begin to look to Africa’s emerging economies, it is important that they understand regional voices and perspectives. In a general sense, engaging with the views, needs and concerns of local populations builds trust and fosters understanding between companies and their communities.

But there is an imperative beyond simply good employee relations. Just as multinationals operating in emerging markets responded to the HIV and AIDS pandemic by creating workplace programmes and other communication campaigns to protect their staff, stakeholders and markets, there is now a similar need for companies operating in Africa to respond to the climate change threat. By fostering understanding of the climate change issue and its consequences, responsible companies can play a crucial role by supplementing local media and Govt communications efforts.

Awo Ablo is Director of Business Development at the BBC World Service Trust.

The BBC World Service Trust is a not-for-profit organization registered in the UK with 15 global offices. Its role is the research and communications specialist for hard to reach and bottom-billion populations in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Using local language media in creative ways is central to its work – some highlights:
  • TV drama and health campaigns - created a soap opera tackling AIDS issues, Jasoos Vijay, India’s first TV detective drama which had a weekly audience of 125 million people. Recently created a TV and ringtone campaign to promote condom use which reached 160 million people and increased sales of condoms by 85 million.
  • TV political debate – weekly broadcasts of a Bengali Question Time TV debate programme from rural and remote communities down Bangladesh’s water ways, giving people their first opportunity to question theirown leaders
  • Humanitarian radio – deployed local teams to broadcast humanitarian radio after conflict and natural disaster in Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo and Burma
  • Press freedom – supporting free speech, plural and fair media in Iran by the creation of a web-based virtual newsroom to train and support Iranian citizen journalists
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