OPINION: For farmers, climate change brings a winter of discontent, especially in Africa

by Agnes Kalibata | @agnes_kalibata | Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
Friday, 13 December 2019 14:35 GMT

People stand in flood water near the Nairobi river in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. December 3, 2019. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Our farmers in East Africa are currently reeling from wild swings in extremes, from yet another drought followed by intense rains

Agnes Kalibata is President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and a commissioner for the Global Commission on Adaptation.

For farmers here in East Africa, December is normally a time to harvest their crops after what we call the short rain season and start preparing their fields for the “long rains” that normally begin in March. But these are not normal times.

Our farmers are currently reeling from wild swings in extremes. After enduring yet another drought earlier this year that disrupted the once-reliable long rains, they now are seeing the short rains intensify into a deluge that has destroyed crops and caused floods that so far have killed 250 people.  For many farmers, our harvest seasons have instead become a time to assess the damages inflicted by climate change and search for ways to adapt to a future filled with uncertainty.

I grew up in a farming household in East Africa and while we faced our share of tough seasons, the weather extremes that farmers now experience is of a different magnitude. When I speak with farmers today, many of them wonder whether climate change means farming is no longer capable of providing a better life for their families.

In September I was at the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit in New York, where a coalition of donors promised to invest more than US $790 million to help millions of family farmers in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world adapt to climate change. That’s a generous down payment. But unfortunately, given the climate extremes our farmers already are facing, much more assistance will be needed, and many more countries will need to step up.

Already, the climate crisis is a key reason at least 33 million people across East and Southern Africa are facing critical levels of food insecurity and that globally, hunger is rising after years of declining. And it could get much worse. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned that Africa could see areas of land supporting bean production shrink by 30 to 60 percent. Maize, our most important crop, could also see big losses to heat and drought. 

That’s not to say African farmers are standing still. I have met farmers that are adapting by diversifying their crops to include drought-tolerant varieties of cassava, sweet potato, pigeon pea, beans and maize. There is also an explosion of new digital information platforms enabling farmers to gain new insights.

But our farmers need much more, I don’t mean charity. I mean investment and innovation. Though they often work very small plots of land, African farmers are entrepreneurs looking for tools to manage climate risks so they can grow their business and create a better life for their children. Giving them these tools is our top priority.

Africa can’t and shouldn’t do this alone.  As Bill Gates recently said, “the people of the world who have done the least to cause this climate crisis should not be the ones who suffer the most.”

It must be clearly understood that while we are a continent of one billion people, we have contributed very little to the problem of climate change. A recent expert analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found climate changes caused by emissions largely generated in wealthier parts of the world, have already cost many African countries anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of their GDP growth. This is not a challenge any African country is positioned to deal with right now; they need support. 

I worry about what I saw at the UN Climate Summit in September and also what I saw this month at the Madrid climate talks. In these forums, even the most dedicated climate activists—and the finance programs they champion—are almost entirely focused on reducing emissions. That’s a critical need, but it’s not admitting defeat to also channel more of that passion toward supporting adaptation for those already feeling the pain.

I hope in the future, the end of the growing season in East Africa can once again be one of hope that comes from a good harvest, and not one dominated by dread and disaster planning. But that requires leaders of the global climate movement to engage in a more honest reckoning of the challenges already set in motion by climate change—and that will continue no matter how much we reduce emissions. And they must embrace their responsibility to deliver solutions that ensure vulnerable communities can adapt.