Smallholder Farming in Africa: Climate Casualty or Pioneer?

Published on 15th December 2009

Farmers tend their farm                              Photo courtesy
For hundreds of millions of people in Africa, climate change is not about lowering smoke stack emissions or turning off electric lights.  It is about whether or not they will have enough to eat.


Agriculture is Africa's main connection to climate change.  This fact must inform the global climate change pact now being hammered out in Copenhagen, if that pact is to address the needs and realize the potential of the world's second-most populous continent.


More than 70% of Africans gain their livelihood through farming, and almost all are smallholder farmers who rely on erratic rains and risky agricultural systems.  It is predicted that climate change will put up to 250 million people in the semi-arid Sahel at increased risk of droughts.  Flooding in southern Africa is expected to increase floods, bringing to mind those of 2000 which wiped out one-third of Mozambique's crops, killed many and displaced entire populations.  Africa's smallholder farmers are in the eye of the climate change storm.


So, while Africa contributes less than 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 40% from the G-8 countries, it stands to bear the brunt of the economic, human and social consequences of climate change.


In some countries, crop yield may be cut in half.  This would be devastating, given that even now yield is just one-quarter the global average.  Such low yield is the result of low-input, low-output agriculture which mines the soil of nutrients, and fuels both hunger and deforestation.


International and African policymakers and scientists must therefore move urgently to help Africa's smallholder farmers increase their productivity while also adapting to and helping to mitigate climate change. Adaptation should occur in scores of ways, across the agricultural system: through farmer production practices, market approaches, technological and policy innovations.  New crop varieties are needed that can better withstand drought, water-logging, increased crop diseases and pests.  Yet, we cannot breed our way out of the climate change calamity.  We must look across the agricultural value chain to put in place an integrated set of changes, from improved access to finance and weather-indexed crop insurance, to better crop storage and access to local and regional markets.


Mitigation is also a complex challenge, but solutions are at hand in the fields of farmers.  Today, most smallholders farm the land continuously, without the benefit of fertilizers, organic or manufactured.  Thus, three-quarters of Africa's farmlands are depleted. But given appropriate tools and support, smallholder farmers could farm carbon along with their crops.  By employing agricultural practices that boost productivity while rebuilding the soil and incorporating agro-forestry, Africa's farmers will turn their fields into giant carbon reservoirs, so-called carbon sinks.  This will help mitigate climate change.


Global and African policymakers should provide incentives for farmers to avoid deforestation through intensified production on existing land, implemented through environmentally sound land use practices that also sequester carbon and protect crop diversity.


Intensification and conservation is a challenge-it need not be a contradiction.


It is a challenge we must meet if African carbon is to count the global carbon market.We must insist on a global carbon market which fully accounts for the environmental benefits of sound agricultural practices of smallholder farmers.  REDD, a critical financial mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, is under debate and appears on track to being passed.  It should include payments for ecosystem services provided by smallholder farmers.


We cannot let the global inequality which distorts the world's agricultural markets replicate itself in the global carbon market.  To do so would be counter-productive and inexcusable.


African farmers are embarking on a sustainable, uniquely African green revolution. Theirs is perhaps the greatest race against time in human history. They need access to the technologies that will enable them to grow more food and do so sustainably. Global and national policies should offer incentives and compensation for environmentally friendly intensification of farming and avoided deforestation.  It is in Africa's own interests to develop its agriculture as a diverse, high-productivity, low-carbon system that benefits our farmers, our economies and our environment. The result will be a food secure and prosperous Africa, leading in the creation of a more stable global climate and food secure world.


By Dr Akin Adesina,

Vice President of Policy and Partnerships

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)

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