Protecting Africa’s Backbone: transforming agriculture in the face of climate change

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

Smallholder farmers in Africa are already aware that the climate is changing. For many, the growing seasons are becoming shorter and more difficult to plan, because of erratic and unpredictable weather including droughts and floods. Often this means that crops fail or yields are lower and livelihoods are impacted with less produce to feed the household, let alone surplus to sell at markets to gain an income. Unfortunately, the climatic conditions are likely to only get worse, with mean temperatures across Africa expected to rise faster than the global average, reaching as high as 3°C to 6°C greater than pre-industrial levels. The pressure on African countries to boost productivity and accelerate growth is now higher than ever and is being further complicated by the potential adverse impacts of climate change and extreme weather events.

In this context the Montpellier Panel  has launched a new briefing paper today – Set for Success: Climate-proofing the Malabo Declaration . The Panel urges African governments to fully recognise the scale of the threat posed by climate change to smallholder farming and to build climate-smart agriculture strategies into their National Agricultural Investments Plans that will help farmers mitigate the risks and adapt to the changing weather conditions. The paper also highlights more than 15 examples of success stories and programmes that have been shown to be impactful and can be scaled-up. Building resilience will be key to achieving the shared agendas of the Malabo Declaration, the 2015 Paris Agreement, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To this end, the Montpellier Panel make the following recommendations:

  1. diagramSupporting the Malabo Declaration by building comprehensive information on climate-related stresses and shocks, both nationally and regionally, as well as their impacts on food and nutrition security.
  2. Mainstreaming climate-smart agriculture programmes into the next generation of National Agriculture Investment Plans to ensure a stronger focus on climate change and extreme weather events.
  3. African countries need support, through the African Union, NEPAD, CAADP and regional associations of National Agricultural Research Systems, to develop country investment plans that reflect a stronger, collective voice for Africa in international climate policy processes
  4. Facilitating African governments’ access to climate funds through the Green Climate Fund and other innovative finance mechanisms that will help countries implement climate-smart agriculture programmes.
  5. Improving Africa’s scientific capacity which will guide climate change adaptation and mitigation interventions in agriculture.
  6. Improving training for farmers on sustainable farming techniques, through improved extension services, farmer field schools and utilisation of digital technologies.

Building Africa’s climate science capacity

In particular, the report advocates for investing in African science in order to build a knowledge economy with the right human capital to drive innovation and research. For example, the paper draws on the case of the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL), a research programme that is designed to identify and develop strategies that conserve and even restore the ecosystems and natural resources that are essential for a thriving agricultural sector. This is done by strengthening linkages between experts and scientists from countries across West Africa and Germany, to provide evidence-based advice to policymakers and stakeholders about climate change impacts and strategies to build resilience. In this way, WASCAL is helping to build the technical capacity for West Africa to adapt to climate change, while also encouraging constructive partnerships and policies based on success stories and scientific facts.

Building resilience through sustainable farming techniques


credit: HarvestPlus

The briefing paper also advocates strongly for the use of climate-smart agriculture that will help to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and protect the natural resources upon which agriculture and people depend, while increasing productivity and improving resilience to weather extremes. For example, in the Sahel droughts are common because of sparse rainfall that tends to arrive in sudden downpours, meaning that water runs off quickly over the baked ground, taking the valuable topsoil with it. In order to counter this, farmers can build stone bunds that slow the runoff allowing water to soak into the soil and protecting valuable organic matter from washing away. However, although yields are significantly better for farmers who harvest water in this way, it can cost up to US$200 per hectare to construct, which can be a significant barrier to farmer uptake. Because of this, the Montpellier Panel also highlights the vital importance of facilitating access to finance for smallholder farmers and their families. Without this, farmers will struggle to find the resources to invest in building their own resilience.

As the paper highlights, agriculture employs 60-90% of Africa’s labour force and provides 40% of export earnings, so agricultural transformation in Africa has the potential to improve the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers and accelerate economic growth and prosperity across the continent. However, climate change is a real, tangible threat to this. Practices that sustainably intensify agricultural production and help mitigate the risk that smallholders face from the changing climate will not be enough by themselves.

European Commission DG ECHO Ethiopia 2016

Credit: European Commission DG ECHO

For smallholder farmers to become prosperous, finance needs to reach those who need it most. In particular, the paper recommends that African governments’ need to be able to access climate funds through the Green Climate Fund and other innovative finance mechanisms much more easily, in order to help countries implement climate-smart agriculture programmes. The money must be well-used to build both the human and infrastructural capacity that will help farmers to build resilience for farmers. And for that to happen, there needs to be the political will to mainstream and prioritise climate change adaptation at every level, building it into policies, frameworks and programmes, in order to ensure that agriculture, “the backbone of African economies”, continues to thrive, even in the face of climate change.

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