Can Africa feed itself in spite of climate change?

Rising populations, climate impacts and security concerns make the job of Africa’s farmers increasingly challenging

By Sophie Yeo in Marrakech

Can Africa feed itself? It’s a question that experts, politicians and scientists have gathered this week in Morrocco, to try to answer.

Despite possessing 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, Africa still imports around $40-50 billion in agricultural products annually.

But the challenges are potentially greater.

One in four people in Africa face malnutrition, while a warming world is degrading land further, increasing water stress and causing desertification.

Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned warming above 2C could see sub-saharan maize yields fall by up to 19%, and bean yields drop 68%.

In July the UN issued an appeal for the drought-hit Sahel, calling for US$100 million to ensure 7.5 million vulnerable people in the region can be resilient against food insecurity.

Participants at this meeting, coordinated by the African Climate Policy Centre, are optimistic that the continent can feed itself, even if as expected its population doubles to 2.4 billion by 2050.

Senegal’s environment minister told RTCC it could do so as early as 2020. Others are more guarded.  “We have a huge deficit, and that is climate change,” said Hakima El Haite, Morocco’s environment minister.


One of the main challenges is that farming in Africa is currently based on a subsistence model, where individuals grow enough to feed their own household, but do not have a surplus that could be sent on to the market.

Its weakness has been cruelly exposed during the ongoing ebola crisis in Africa, which has caused many farmers to leave their crops.

This week the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation called for US$30 million to help farming communities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the worst hit countries.

Addressing delegates in Marrakech via a video link, Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, highlighted the increased difficulties that small scale farmers will face if Africa’s agriculture remains unreformed.

He said that many will be unable to provide for their own households, let alone supply the market.

“As a result of climate change, there will be a lowering of the among of production that farmers are able to achieve. That in turn will impact unfavourable on nutrition levels and then lead to larger incidents of hunger,” he added.

There is also the paradox of Africa exporting its food abroad, in spite of the acute hunger taking place within its own borders. With the country’s population predicted to soar, there will be more mouths to feed.

European supermarkets are one problem. A quick sweep of the vegetable counters in a Tesco or Sainsburys store reveals tomatoes, avaocados and green beans grown across Africa.

Tea pickers in Kenya's Mount Kenya region, for the Two Degrees Up project, to look at the impact of climate change on agriculture. (Pic: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

Tea pickers in Kenya’s Mount Kenya region, for the Two Degrees Up project, to look at the impact of climate change on agriculture. (Pic: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

Demand for biofuels is another. According to campaign group Action Aid six million hectares of land in sub-Saharan Africa are farmed for biofuels destined for EU markets.

“We need foreign currency,” said Abdoulaye Baldé, Senegal’s environment minister, speaking to RTCC on the sidelines of the conference.

Farming currently accounts for at least 30% of national incomes and employs around 75% of the population, as well as providing the majority of its export revenue.

If the sector crashes, these people lose out. Perhaps more worryingly, if supply falls, European supermarkets can afford the higher prices, leaving hungry mouths in Africa.

There are signs that governments are taking action. In June African leaders agreed to increase investments in farming to 10% of their national budgets.

Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Niger and Senegal have already met that target, which was one of the goals of the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme set up by African countries in 2003.

System change

Fatima Denton, coordinator African Climate Policy Centre, part of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, said that climate change should be seen not simply as a challenge for Africa, but as an opportunity to address the country’s agricultural crisis.

“We have a pool of knowledge and we have to see how we can turn climate change in our favour. The key is to identify existing opportunities in the various sectors,” she said.

Available technologies include the possibility to diversify crops, including the cultivation of more drought tolerant crops such as millet and sorghum, and implementation of weather-based insurance schemes for farmers.

Abdalla Hamdok, deputy head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), said that it was not only a case of increasing productivity, but overhauling the whole model of subsistence farming currently practised in Africa.

“Agriculture must gradually transition from subsistence agriculture to agriculture as a business in order to achieve the objective of ending hunger and eliminating poverty,” he said.

He said that this would mean adopting “innovating agricultural practices” including conservation agriculture, making use of climate information, using and managing water efficiently, improving rural infrastructure, as well as enabled access to both power and markets.

The availability of these technologies shows that “agriculture has a vast potential to drive African economies towards inclusive growth and address predicted impacts of climate change,” he said.

This won’t come without foreign investment, or the help of the private sector, which Benin’s environment minister, Raphael Edou, said was essential to make a more commercial agricultre sector sector sustainable.

And it’s unlikely to make a huge difference if the world fails to get a grip on soaring levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of climate change.

As the IPCC warned in their reports earlier this year, and will do so again in its final “Synthesis Report” due on November 2, Africans will bear the brunt of future climate impacts.

More resilient farming practices, better land management and more equitable access to global markets offer important short-term fixes.

But a UN climate deal next year limiting warming to below 2C may offer the continent the best chance of stability, and the chance to feed its growing population for centuries to come.

Sophie Yeo’s travel to Marrakech was paid for by the African Climate Policy Centre 

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