If Africa’s farmers fail to adapt to a hotter world, we all fail

Farmer Bongani Ndlela tends to his vegetable garden in Bubi, Zimbabwe

Farmer Bongani Ndlela tends to his vegetable garden in Bubi, Zimbabwe, 16 June, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Busani Bafana

Securing a safer planet for all means adopting nature-friendly ways to produce and consume food, and use our land

Wanjira Mathai is managing director for Africa and global partnerships at the World Resources Institute and ambassador to the Food and Land Use Coalition.

The Africa Climate Summit earlier this month was a special African moment. We are on the cusp of a new era of African climate leadership anchored simultaneously in the realities of losses and damages from extreme weather events, and a confluence of opportunities that - if unleashed - could result in shared prosperity and poverty alleviation.

African leaders came together in Nairobi and laid out the basis for a common position to address the climate crisis, one that was repeated last week at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and Climate Week NYC.

This vision is grounded in the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”, where, not of our own making, Africa is warming faster than the rest of the world, wreaking havoc on our communities. Yet the vision also recognizes that African countries hold many of the solutions to the global climate and nature crises — ones that can improve people’s lives and livelihoods.

There’s perhaps no greater area where this recognition plays out than on Africa’s farms and in its forests. Our vast expanses of nature — and the millions of smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs who rely on them — are vital to lifting people out of poverty, solving hunger, and storing carbon to fight climate change.

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Yet today our food and land use systems are facing a crisis: over 280 million African people – one in five people on the continent – face chronic hunger. Nearly 20 percent of our land is degraded. And smallholder farmers, who produce 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s food, are at risk as droughts and floods destroy their crops. If they fail, we all fail.

This must change. Both in Africa and around the world, we need governments to step up to rebuild our relationship with nature, halt the growing destruction of ecosystems, and transform our food and land use systems.

Simply put, there is no pathway to reaching a world in which global warming is limited to 1.5C, feeding a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050, and safeguarding nature without changing how we produce, distribute, and consume food and use our land.

The current crisis has been brewing for decades. Year after year, the value lost from grain alone due to post-harvest losses comes in at $4 billion. For context, that is more than the total value of food aid sub-Saharan Africa received in the past decade. The amount of grain that has been lost can feed up to 48 million people.

The good news is there are more resilient solutions available today that are gaining traction. This was emphasized in the Nairobi Declaration where African countries agreed to redouble efforts to use sustainable agriculture practices to increase their harvests, while minimizing negative environmental impacts. Countries also committed to focus on climate-positive green growth by supporting restorative agricultural practices, and protecting and enhancing nature and biodiversity.

Concrete plans and partnerships needed

Now all eyes turn to COP28 in Dubai. As countries discuss how to respond to the UN’s recent climate report card — the Global Stocktake report — transforming food and land use systems must be at the heart of the response.

We need to see all countries come forward with concrete plans for how they will transform food and land use systems this decade to be more inclusive, nutritious, sustainable and resilient. This includes demonstrating meaningful progress on existing commitments, from halting deforestation by 2030 — as 145 countries agreed to with the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use — to restoring millions of hectares of degraded land and continuing to address food waste. Wealthy countries, investors and philanthropies should step up with the required finance.

As we saw in Nairobi, there are solutions to address the alarmingly high levels of food insecurity, from investing in climate-resilient and productive agriculture to reducing the emissions that come from food production by supporting sustainable farming practices.

The reality is that the climate action that matters the most right now is Iocal action to tackle priority issues. For the highest emitters among us, that means doubling down on deep decarbonization and reducing emissions - and for the most vulnerable it means addressing, averting and minimizing losses and damage from extreme events.

We know countries cannot achieve these commitments on their own.

We need collaborative partnerships to build inclusive and climate-positive economies that are better for people, nature and climate.  Businesses should invest in climate-proofing their supply chains. Traditional knowledge systems from smallholder farmers should be a primary source of adaptation strategies and be scaled to increase food security.

During UNGA, the UN Secretary-General hosted his climate summit with a focus on ambition, credibility and implementation — three key factors to deliver the nature and food and land use system change we need and know is possible. While some positive announcements were made, much more needs to be done as the window closes to course correct ahead of COP28.

We have the solutions and the opportunity to deliver transformational change. African leadership will, and must be, at the heart of addressing this challenge.

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


  • Extreme weather
  • Adaptation
  • Agriculture and farming
  • Climate inequality

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