Ethiopia is one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change on agriculture. The present study aims to understand and characterize agro-climatic variability and changes and associated risks with respect to implications for rainfed crop production in the Central Rift Valley (CRV). Temporal variability and extreme values of selected rainfall and temperature indices were analysed and trends were evaluated using Sen's slope estimator and Mann–Kendall trend test methods. Projected future changes in rainfall and temperature for the 2080s relative to the 1971–90 baseline period were determined based on four General Circulation Models (GCMs) and two emission scenarios (SRES, A2 and B1). The analysis for current climate showed that in the short rainy season (March–May), total mean rainfall varies spatially from 178 to 358 mm with a coefficient of variation (CV) of 32–50%. In the main (long) rainy season (June–September), total mean rainfall ranges between 420 and 680 mm with a CV of 15–40%. During the period 1977–2007, total rainfall decreased but not significantly. Also, there was a decrease in the number of rainy days associated with an increase (statistically not significant) in the intensity per rainfall event for the main rainy season, which can have implications for soil and nutrient losses through erosion and run-off. The reduced number of rainy days increased the length of intermediate dry spells by 0·8 days per decade, leading to crop moisture stress during the growing season. There was also a large inter-annual variability in the length of growing season, ranging from 76 to 239 days. The mean annual temperature exhibited a significant warming trend of 0·12–0·54 °C per decade. Projections from GCMs suggest that future annual rainfall will change by +10 to -40% by 2080. Rainfall will increase during November–December (outside the growing season), but will decline during the growing seasons. Also, the length of the growing season is expected to be reduced by 12–35%. The annual mean temperature is expected to increase in the range of 1·4–4·1 °C by 2080. The past and future climate trends, especially in terms of rainfall and its variability, pose major risks to rainfed agriculture. Specific adaptation strategies are needed for the CRV to cope with the risks, sustain farming and improve food security.