Africa Analysis: Climate change is smallholders’ pain

Youth in Agriculture
Copyright: Flickr/AGRA

Speed read

  • Climate change is hurting African smallholders
  • There is a need to reduce climate change and to help farmers adapt to it
  • But doing so requires efforts from not just global leaders

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Experts use many numbers when talking about climate change. However, rising temperatures, the resulting crop failure and consequent loss of livelihoods and destitution of millions of households are this year’s most important and urgent developments for millions of smallholder farmers across African agro-ecological landscapes.
To illustrate the unfolding crisis, let us consider the case of Malawi, one of the few countries to have achieved a fair deal of agricultural success but is now facing the worst drought in over three decades.  As is the case with many countries in southern Africa, Malawi has experienced widespread crop failures due to a devastatingly strong El Niño. The country has witnessed late onset of rains, erratic rainfall, floods and prolonged dry spells this year.
Thus, the production of maize — the country’s main staple crop — is estimated at just over 2.5 million tonnes in 2016. [1]This is 16 per cent lower than the reduced harvest in 2015 and 34 per cent below the previous five‑year average. Consequently, 39 per cent of the population are dependant on national and international food aid to survive — a 129 per cent increase over last year’s vulnerable population. In the hardest hit areas, harvest reduced by 70 per cent while farmers in some areas simply couldn’t plant as the rains never came. [2]
Unfolding Crop Crisis in Malawi-infographic(1)


Tackling climate change

Dealing with this challenge in the future will require both efforts to reduce climate change and, most importantly, strategies to enable farmers to adapt to its effects.
All eyes were on the meeting of the world’s climate change experts and policymakers that ended in Marrakesh, Morocco, last month (7-18 November). The meeting sought to set the world on track to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
Last year, the same experts met in Paris, France, and reached a welcome agreement that seeks to limit the rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by two degrees Celsius. However, the emissions of greenhouse gases are not yet falling and the effects of climate change are worsening. Much more still needs to be done to address this challenge proactively.
Nowhere else is the imperative to act more urgent than in Africa, where about 70 per cent of the population is dependent on rain-fed, smallholder agriculture. As the case of Malawi shows, rising temperatures in Africa often signal drought and other extreme weather events that put the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers at greater risk, increasing their vulnerability to famine and diseases. This reality is here with us today, and far beyond Malawi and southern Africa, with large swathes of the continent currently under the grip of a historical drought.

“I hope world leaders seized the moment to take action and continue to put us on a path toward a better future.”

Agnes Kalibata, AGRA

For this reason, those of us from the African continent hope that such a backdrop gave the first post-Paris meeting a greater sense of urgency. Inaction would be catastrophic. Although Africa emits less than three per cent of the climate change inducing greenhouse gases, it will suffer its effects disproportionately. Mean temperatures will rise faster than the global average, exceed two degrees Celsius and may reach as high as three to six degrees Celsius by 2100. [3] For every year that our global leaders fail to make progress against their commitments, it is Africa’s families that will pay the greatest price.

More than global leaders’ efforts

This is not to leave everything in the hands of global leaders, as the prosperity of Africa and its farmers will also depend on how well farmers, especially smallholders, are able to adapt to the changing climate. This is much more within our control.
Indeed, the work of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Agriculture) and our partners has shown that African farmers are not powerless in the face of climate change. There are many ways in which they can survive and even thrive despite the dramatic shifts in growing conditions they are likely to endure.
For instance, farmers in some parts of Malawi, who are planting more drought-tolerant crops—cassava, sweet potato and pigeon pea — and using better agricultural practices are not only surviving the drought, they are expecting to generate a good income on this year's harvest.

The insurance and finance sectors have also stepped up to the plate by designing innovative products that are minimising the effects of climate shocks to farmers.
Still in Malawi, tens of thousands of farmers in the worst hit areas south of the country will now have access to credit from a microfinance institution that has protected these loans with a yield insurance that covers the crops against the impact of floods and drought.

Proactive adaptation plans needed

Overall, to achieve food security under climate change, the resilience of communities and individual farmers needs to be strengthened through proactive and long-term adaptation actions. Although a lot more is yet to be accomplished, the continent has invested in the development and adoption of many new agriculture innovations and technologies which should be scaled up.
We cannot put off further action on mitigating and adapting to climate change without expecting even greater pain for smallholder farmers and others around the world. From Marrakesh to all countries’ capitals and decision making tables around the world, I hope world leaders seized the moment to take action and continue to put us on a path toward a better future.
Let us hope for a future when African smallholder farmers can fully exploit their potential to deliver food security, contribute to poverty reduction and achieve inclusive economic growth and development.
Agnes Kalibata is the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Follow her on Twitter: @Agnes_Kalibata

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.