We analysed the performance and timeliness of the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) in anticipating deviations from mean seasonal vegetation productivity in the Sahel. Gridded rainfall estimates are used to compute the SPI for 1–6-month timescales, whereas the Z-score of the cumulative value of the Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation over the growing season (zCFAPAR) is used as a proxy of seasonal productivity. Results show that the strength of the link varies in space as a function of both the SPI timescale and the timing of the SPI calculation with respect to the vegetative season’s progress. For productivity forecasting, we propose an operational strategy to select per grid cell the SPI timescale and computation time with the highest correlation with zCFAPAR at different moments of the season. The linear relationship between SPI and zCFAPAR is significant for 32–66% of the study area, depending on the timing at which SPI is considered (at 0% and 75% of the seasonal progress, respectively). For these areas, the selected SPI explains on average about 40% of the variance of zCFAPAR and may thus assist in the earlier identification of agricultural drought.