Social vulnerability of smallholder farmers to climate change in Zambia: the applicability of social vulnerability index


William Dumenu



Forestry Research Institute of Ghana

William is a research scientist at the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, and his research focuses on Ecological and environmental economics, Biodiversity and ecosystem services’ sustainability under risk and uncertain, Forest policy, governance and livelihoods.

Key Findings

    How to apply research

    • Should adopt the use of the social vulnerability index in trying to understand the multiple factors that underline the community’s or people’s vulnerability to climate change
    • Pay attention to the underlying factors that influence people’s vulnerability to climate change, rather than always focusing on the biophysical aspects.  
    • Across many African countries, there is a need for adoption of conservation or climate-smart agricultural practices. Moving away from traditional farming to climate-smart agricultural practices is very important because they also provide resilience of the system to climate change. These practices should be well publicised, disseminated and adopted within Sub-Saharan Africa.
    • The government should look at and improve the socioeconomic profiles of smallholder farmers. Much of the agricultural production rests of the shoulders of smallholder farmers, as they are the greatest share. The socioeconomic profiles of smallholder farmers can be improved by introducing them to non-farm income and economic activities.

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    About this research

      This Journal Article was part of a collaborative effort

      This research was funded by an external organisation, but detail has not been provided.

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      About this research

        This research was funded by an external organisation, but detail has not been provided.

        This paper was co-authored

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        What findings means

        The study assessed the social vulnerability levels of smallholder famers in Zambia. The reason for targeting social vulnerability was that much of the work done around climate change vulnerability focuses on the biophysical aspects but not the underlying factors. The underlying factors are mostly things that relate to the social, economic and demographic factors of the people who are exposed to climate change effects. We looked at how these factors influence the level of vulnerability of such people.

        In Zambia, the government was interested in appraising the climate change situation in the country and looking at its impact on various groups. However, unfortunately they did not pay attention to the social vulnerability aspect. We felt this was a big gap in trying to address the needs of the people.

        The research also provides practitioners with a tool to help them to do a multi-dimensional assessment of the vulnerability levels of people who are faced with climate change.

        A comparative analysis was carried out between two districts in Zambia: Chirundu and Masaiti. We were able to determine the vulnerability levels of these districts and show that the Chirundu district was most vulnerable.

        We were also able to show some of the coping measures that the local people had already engaged with. There were two broad categories of coping measures: on-farm strategy and off-farm strategy. Their on-farm strategies consisted of planting different varieties of crops, particularly varieties that were drought tolerant, trying to plant crops at different times than they traditionally would, and varying their cropping or planting schedule. These strategies were due to the delay in the onsets of rains. Their off-farm strategies consisted of engaging in off-farm jobs to supplement income, engaging the sales of non-farm assets and also receiving government assistance.

        We identified that the two broad factors that influenced the vulnerability of the most vulnerable district were economic and social factors. For economic factors, we looked at the income level and diversified sources of income. The district that was most vulnerable had a very low average household income, and they were mostly dependent on one kind of economic activity. This was the case because the region was not economically well-developed, the social infrastructure was very poor, the region was semi-arid and they were mostly dependent on rain-fed agriculture. As a result of the region already being very dry, this negatively affected their yield.

        The indicators used to assess the social factors were access to climate change information and ownership of devices used for communication and information received. It was prominent from our results that there was no level of ownership of these devices, due to not being able to afford them. As a result, they did not have access to information on climate change issues, adaptation and impending events. There was also a lack of environmental NGO activities going on in the area in terms of organising seminars and workshops to educate the farmers on how to adapt to climate change impacts. Agricultural extension services were also very low in that region, as well as generally in Zambia.


        The study was conducted in two districts: Chirundu and Masaiti. These areas were selected for the study because of their contrasting climatic features (semi-arid/humid-wet) and livelihood characteristics. Data was collected from 194 respondents in 9 agricultural camps located in 9 wards. 100 respondents were selected in the Masaiti district, and 94 in Chirundu. In selecting the respondents, a two-stage sampling method was used. The first stage involved random sampling, whereas the second stage involved purposive sampling. The purposive sampling was to ensure that respondents aged 35 years and above who have experienced long-term changes in the climate including its impacts were captured for interview. Questionnaires, interviews and focus group discussions were used in collecting data for the assessment of social vulnerability and coping strategies. Qualitative and quantitative analytical methods were applied in the analysis of the data.

        The selection of vulnerability indicators used should, where possible, be done in a participatory manner. However, in this study no participatory approach was used. Instead, we reviewed the literature and other studies within Zambia to look at what they had done and then used it do this study. If you are really interested in addressing the issues of the people, you should go down to the local level, talk to people, understand them, and come together to generate the indicators.


        Social Vulnerability IndexA methodological framework that assesses climate change vulnerability based on social, economic, institutional, political and demographic factors. 
        Coping MeasuresThe actions that people take to reduce the impact of climate change. 
        Resilience  How well a system or a group or community is able to withstand climate change impact without adverse effects.

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        Want to read the full paper? It is available open access

        Dumenu, W.K., Takam Tiamgne, X. Social vulnerability of smallholder farmers to climate change in Zambia: the applicability of social vulnerability index. SN Applied Sciences. 2, 436 (2020).