Recurrent drought conditions that prevailed in the Sahel region of West Africa during the 1970s and 1980s have seriously challenged the resiliency of ecosystems and the adaptive capacity of human societies (IPCC 2001). This has triggered increased attention from the scientific community, resulting in a significant augmentation in climate-related publications and allowing for a better understanding of the complex regional and local climates.

Of prime importance is an improved appraisal of the variable nature of rainfall. When Hulme (2001) states that there is no such thing as 'normal' (mean) rainfall in the Sahel, he alludes to one of the most fundamental characteristics of the West African climate: its 'normality' is to be variable over a range of timescales. We first review the causes of this unique variability, then discuss its implications in terms of the prerequisites for beneficial use of forecasts (Hansen 2002), and the way forward in Sudano-Sahelian smallholder agriculture. Emphasis is put on the legacy of varietal adaptation as a powerful strategy for managing the stochasticity in climate - and further exploiting it in improved breeding programs, in parallel with rejuvenated early agrometeorological crop yield assessments.

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