Rainfed agriculture forms the basis of West African economies and is the main source of livelihood for many inhabitants of the region. While the commercialization of smallholder farming is widely promoted by national governments to drive regional economic growth, farming incomes remain low, constrained by a complex mix of factors including poverty, poor market infrastructure, unequal global trade relations, low external input use, low soil fertility and climate change and variability. Highly variable seasonal and interannual rainfall patterns, together with acute vulnerability to food price shocks, lead to a situation in which farmers’ investments to increase productivity are very risky. Climate change projections suggest droughts and floods will become more frequent and severe. As such, climate extremes not only pose an immediate threat to livelihoods through crop yield failures, but also limit farmers’ ability to invest in long-term soil improvement and sustainability. Improving the scientific capacity to assess risks and likely damages of climatic extremes on cropping systems can support building resilience and longer-term development goals.