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Prepare for the worst, African farmers told

Kenyan farmer

A Kenyan farmer tends her crops. Harvests are failing due to erratic rainfall and higher temperatures. © Henry Owino

Climate change threatens food security but, Henry Owino discovers, adaptation is already underway. 

Small-scale farmers across Africa are struggling to adapt to rapidly rising temperatures and erratic rains patterns.

The pace and severity of climate change is expected to increase, according to the 2014 African Agriculture Status Report (AASR), and farmers are being urged to prepare for worse conditions.

The report also calls for local scientists to work closely with farmers to come up with solutions.

The report was launched at this year’s fourth annual Africa Green Revolution Forum, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It brought together African heads of state, ministers, farmers, agribusinesses, financial institutions, NGOs, civil society representatives, scientists and others to discuss improved food productivity and ending hunger; agricultural adaptation to climate change; and sustainable agricultural growth.

Magdalene Nyawire, a smallholder farmer at Kitale in western Kenya, says that she has experienced poor harvests for the past few years. She attributes this to unpredictable rainfall, long dry spells, disease and pests.

Nyawire mainly grows maize and beans on her five-acre plot. She used to produce at least 200 bags of maize and 50 bags of beans from the land. Nowadays, she struggles to harvest 40 bags of maize and 10 bags of beans.

‘The yield doesn’t reflect the amount of money I spend,’ she explains. ‘Farmers are discouraged. The main problem, I am told, is climate change, which comes [in the form of] long dry spells followed by heavy rain that cause floods and washes crops away.’

Nyawire is not alone. Farmers in Uganda, Tanzania and other sub-Saharan African countries are worse off and having to contend with increasing temperatures. But, Nyawire says, farmers are making use of innovations that could help them cope with climate change: planting drought-resistant seed varieties; participating in innovative crop and livestock insurance programmes that pay out when weather conditions deteriorate; and adopting soil management techniques that help their fields retain water and mitigate runoff and erosion.

‘Adaptation strategies also encompass strengthening land rights, particularly for us women; conserving biodiversity; improving information delivery systems; mechanizing farm labour; and strengthening market and weather information systems,’ Nyawire explains.

She believes that African governments must priotize investing in agricultural research and education, integrating formal and informal knowledge systems and building agricultural infrastructure such as rural roads and irrigation.

Jane Karuku, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), says that in East and Central Africa, the areas suitable for growing common beans – valued as a source of protein and now cultivated on seven million hectares – could decline by 25 to 80 per cent. Land suitable for cultivating the banana could fall by 25 per cent in the Sahel and 8 per cent in West Africa.

‘Smallholder farmers are the mainstay of food production across sub-Saharan Africa. As climate change turns up the heat, the continent’s food security and its ability to generate economic growth that benefits poor Africans depends on our ability to adapt to more stressful conditions,’ she explains.

Scientists predict severe drying across southern Africa, while other parts of sub-Saharan Africa are likely to become wetter, with farmers facing more violent storms and frequent flooding. According to the AASR, climate change-induced food insecurity could see the number of malnourished sub-Saharan Africans increase by nearly 40 per cent over the next 35 years. Shifting climate conditions may also lower the concentration of mineral nutrients, such as iron and zinc, in plants, intensifying the already acute problem of micronutrient deficiency.

‘Helping smallholders adapt to climate challenges today will prepare them for even more serious challenges in the future,’ says David Darfo Ameyaw, managing editor of the report and AGRA’s director for strategy. ‘When farmers are able to employ climate-smart techniques, it makes a huge difference. Despite climate change, there is enormous potential for smallholder-led agricultural growth. But there is an urgent need to increase investment.’

Identifying and breeding seeds that are suitable for planting in a particular region or environment can lessen farmers’ reliance on manufactured fertilizer by making more efficient use of limited soil nutrients. There are also crop varieties with a higher tolerance for drought or salty soils, and varieties that can resist a rising tide of plant diseases and pests. Plant breeders are also working to boost the productivity and nutritional value of crops. Over the past 10 years, almost 500 new crop varieties that are adapted to particular conditions have been released to smallholder farmers.

Only four per cent of African agricultural land is irrigated; the rest depends on increasingly erratic rainfall. Rain-harvesting techniques such as collecting rain in ponds or barrels offer a simple but underused low-technology approach to climate change. The AASR notes that harvesting just 15 per cent of the region’s rain would more than meet the water needs of the continent.

Motorized equipment contributes only 10 per cent of farm energy, compared to 50 per cent in other regions. Mechanization could improve productivity, reduce waste and add value to food products. But progress in this area, scientists note, should be based on energy-efficient innovations, including the use of alternative energy such as solar-powered irrigation pumps, and supported by better training, a better repair service, and strong farmers’ organizations.

In addition to climate change, the AASR calls attention to other major trends influencing food security and agriculture production, including rapid population growth, urbanization, unsustainable land use and gender disparity. These forces affect household income, the cost of food, poverty levels, health, conflict over natural resources and growing social inequality.

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