This is how we can make African agriculture more resilient to climate change

Women pick unwanted coffee beans from the final product just before packaging in Holiso cooperative of Shebedino district in Sidama, Ethiopia November 30, 2018. Picture taken November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Maheder Haileselassie - RC1A79217960

Climate change is already making food insecurity worse. Image: REUTERS/Maheder Haileselassie

Patrick Verkooijen
CEO, Global Center on Adaptation
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

Africa is changing - rapidly.

For more than two decades now, the continent has experienced sustained economic growth, expanding by 35% between 2000 and 2014, and this year, according to the IMF, many of the world’s fastest-growing economies in 2019 will again be in sub-Saharan Africa.

Poverty rates, meanwhile, have fallen, with the percentage of people living on less than $1.90 a day declining from 54% in 1990 to 41% in 2013.

Its population growth is no less monumental. The United Nations estimates that between 2015 and 2050, the population of Africa will increase by 1.3 billion people, more than double what it is today. And with 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, Africa has the youngest population in the world.

Technology is having a profound impact, too, with life-changing technologies and disruptive innovations fast-becoming a part of everyday life. More than 80% of sub-Saharan Africans now have access to a mobile phone, and by 2020 more than 660 million Africans will own a smartphone. The onset of technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics and big data will lead to even greater and more exciting opportunities for the continent.

Growing threats

Everywhere you look, there are signs of progress. But Africa faces considerable headwinds, not least the risks posed by climate change to agriculture and food security. Agriculture has played a central role in the rapid growth of Africa’s economies, and - combined with digital innovations - will play a central role in their future success, too. But this future prosperity is under threat, and these threats are growing.

Climate change is already making food insecurity worse. It has reduced the global yield growth of wheat, maize and many other crops. The number of undernourished or food-insecure people grew by between 37 million and 122 million between 2014 and 2017 to more than 800 million, partly because of climate shocks.

Developing countries, meanwhile, are experiencing 20% more extreme heat than in the late 1990s. These higher temperatures reduce the amount of water available for crops by drying out air and soils, lead to an increase in pest and disease, stress livestock and reduce labor productivity. With 4°C of warming, crop seasons in most of sub-Saharan Africa could shrink by 20% or more.

Agriculture also contributes to the climate challenge. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, now about 25% of global emissions, are likely to grow to 70% of emissions from all human sources by 2050 and must be greatly reduced to meet climate targets.

Meanwhile, climate change is expected to increase food prices, reduce food availability, and reduce the incomes and food production of smallholder farmers.

The list goes on. Africa, like the rest of the world, must adapt to the new climate reality. At the moment, however, there is a serious shortfall between what is required and current progress.

Just this week, I spoke at the African Green Revolution Forum in Accra, Ghana, about this urgent challenge, and offered five areas where I think action is needed.

The session on strengthening adaptation and resilience in African agriculture at the African Green Revolution Forum in Accra, Ghana, featuring moderator David Nabarro (left), Strategic Director of Skills, Systems and Synergies for Sustainable Development (4SD), Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Co-Chair Commission on New Climate Economy, and Former Finance Minister of Nigeria Image: GCA

Research and development

The world needs crops that are able to deal with higher temperatures, flooding, and other risks. This research takes time, so it’s essential that we start now. But it is not just technology - we also need to conduct studies on new business models for smallholders, methods of aggregating farmers into larger units to reduce transaction costs, and how to improve seasonal forecasts so farmers can react accordingly. While high-end research is needed, let us also build on local and traditional knowledge and work alongside farmers to truly understand - and react to - their needs.

Policy change

Let’s put in place policies and incentives that get local, national, regional and international markets working, expand connectivity for farmers and make rural areas attractive places to build livelihoods.

These policies should support all the various goals of the food system. Interventions should be climate-smart, meaning not a specific set of measures but increased focus on yield and income stability rather than on yield alone. It also means greater focus on efficiency in the use of inputs, such as water and fertilizer, and more focus on long-term sustainability by properly caring for soil and water resources. Such a climate-smart approach requires packages of measures tailored to local conditions, rather than single steps, extending from the farm to the overall value chain.

Climate-informed digital advisories for farmers

Digital advances are going to be crucial. For example, digital communications and farmer-to-farmer education can provide critical weather information to help landowners make planting and harvesting decisions. Data and analytics, meanwhile, can also be used to improve disease surveillance and the development of early warning systems. Digital soil maps are also critical for farmers to understand the local soil health and respond accordingly.

Finance for transformation

We need to finance this transformation, and private sector engagement will be crucial. Limited access to finance poses major barriers for small-scale producers, so we must set lending targets and develop specific models for private finance, including microfinance. Governments must also develop transition funds to help those farmers most affected by climate change.

Giving farmers the resources they need

Lastly, but most importantly, we have to get the appropriate resources into the hands of farmers; the stress-tolerant crops and livestock, new forms of irrigation, and better ways of managing the soil. Let’s look at irrigation, for example. Globally, 20% of cropland is irrigated. In Africa, this figure is 5%. We can improve adaptation by increasing irrigation, and we can leapfrog traditional development pathways by, for example, going solar. And if this can be linked to the energy ambitions of countries, farmers can sell electricity to the grid as an additional source of income.

These are my top five areas for investment and action. But time is of the essence, and we must act now.

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Related topics:
AfricaClimate CrisisFuture of the EnvironmentAgriculture, Food and Beverage
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