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Climate-proofing Africa’s agriculture offers opportunities

If Africa succeeded in building climate resilience into its agricultural sector, poverty could be dealt a major blow, argues Richard Munang and Robert Mgendi.

‘The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.’ These words, uttered by President Franklin Roosevelt decades ago, still resonate in today’s world. More so in Africa, where over 50% of the population live in extreme poverty and 60% of the youth are unemployed. The continent stands at a crossroad. While the number of destitute citizens is increasing, opportunities to pull more people out of poverty abound. Given the changing climate, however, the issue of how well Africa builds climate resilience into its most catalytic, economically productive sectors, in order to guarantee long-term sustainability, remains a key issue.

The untapped potential of Africa’s agricultural sector

The agricultural sector is the most catalytic on the continent. It is not only a source of food, but of livelihoods. Agriculture employs an average of 64% of the population, with women producing up to 80% of the food. It is by far the sector with the most potential for high growth and value addition and is an important source of export earnings. The World Bank reports that in Africa a 10% increase in crop yields translates approximately to a 7% reduction in poverty.

During the 10th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Nairobi, Kenya, in December 2015, member states moved a step further in unleashing the untapped potential of the continent’s agricultural sector. Captured in the historic Nairobi Package, was a series of six Ministerial Decisions on agriculture, among others, set to primarily benefit poorer member countries. Among the most significant is the commitment to abolish agriculture export subsidies, a significant step in leveling global agriculture markets and enhancing Africa’s access to larger and more affluent foreign markets.

While the number of destitute citizens is increasing, opportunities to pull more people out of poverty abound.

Bienvenu successful in poultry farming - Zakpota, Benin. Photo: Johannes Odé

Bienvenu successful in poultry farming – Zakpota, Benin. Photo: Johannes Odé

The impact of subsidies

The £30 billion-a-year agricultural subsidy regime has been one of the biggest iniquities facing farmers on the continent and in other developing counties. The costs in terms of income and development opportunities have been a heavy burden for the continent. For instance, in Mozambique, the sugar sector is the single largest source of employment, employing up to 23 000 people, with the potential for up to 40 000 jobs. Production costs are currently at less than €286 per tonne, making the country one of the world’s most efficient producers. However, the dumping of European surpluses, driven by subsidies that guarantee prices as low as 34% of production costs, undermines Mozambique’s competitiveness. Every year the country loses over £70 million in potential revenue. In nearby Swaziland, 12 000 workers have lost their jobs because the local industry cannot compete.

The situation is similar for wheat, where Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal have been hit by cheap, subsidised imports, constricting development of the local sub-sector. Similarly, the market share of chicken farmers in Senegal and Ghana, who would otherwise supply most of their country’s demand, has shrunk to 11% because subsidised imports are 50% cheaper. Hence the move to abolish these subsidies creates fairer market conditions that provide a significant incentive to enhance Africa’s agro-output of both fresh commodities and processed goods. This will increase the continent’s share of the global export market.

Build climate resilience to reap full benefit of WTO Nairobi Package

While the abolition of subsidies is welcome, climate change threatens to reduce agro-output by up to 40%. Without sufficient climate-change adaptation, African economic sectors, including agriculture, could face damages equal to around 7% of the continent’s total GDP, according to a 2013 Africa Adaptation Gap report. This means that for Africa to take full advantage of the leveling effect of the Nairobi Package, there is an urgent imperative to build climate-resilient food systems that can support enhanced agro-productivity.


Ecosystem-Based Adaptation-Driven Agriculture presents a viable option. It builds climate resilience to ensure sustainable yield increases of up to 128% of more nutritious foods and accompanying farmer income increases at lower environmental and financial cost through minimal use of chemicals and related inputs. EBA-driven agriculture also offers high compatibility with the small-holder approach that makes up 80% of Africa’s farmers and metered fertiliser use.

In Mozambique, ecosystem-based adaptation was used to reduce environmental damage along the coastline, largely due to the felling of mangroves. The EBA approach helped to diversify livelihoods away from practices that resulted in environmental degradation. Communities were able to develop crab and fish farming businesses while also rehabilitating mangroves. In addition to stabilising the coastline, the restored mangrove habitat had the added benefit of reviving fish populations, providing another source of income from wild fish catches.

Furthermore, an EBA strategy for food security will increase agricultural volumes through higher crop yields, generating the potential for more sustainable trade while strengthening ecosystems. In vast areas of West Africa, integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) across more than 200 000 hectares has resulted in yield increases of 33% to 58% over four years, and accompanying revenue increases of 179% for maize and 50% for cassava and cowpea.

Given the changing climate, the issue of how well Africa builds climate resilience into its most catalytic, economically productive sectors remains a key issue.

Professor Abukutsa-Onyango with giant Amaranthus at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology

Professor Abukutsa-Onyango with giant Amaranthus at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology

Ecosystem-based adaptation – an opportunity for growth

EBA-driven agriculture provides an opportunity for African countries to enhance their agro-productivity and fully leverage the opportunities presented by the WTO Nairobi Package. The continent’s agricultural sector will benefit greatly from access to bigger and more affluent foreign markets, which would lead to more sustainable and inclusive growth. However, to fully leverage these opportunities, some crucial fundamental policies will need to be instituted and implemented.

These include (but are not limited to):

* prioritising policy frameworks aimed at integrating climate resilience policies and practices into food systems.

* regional integration and immigration policies to facilitate the free movement of people and goods across the continent to ensure increased intra-Africa trade.

* trade and fiscal policies that favour low-cost exports, such as the elimination of export tariffs for agro-produce.

* production policies that enhance the standards of quality of African agro-exports to globally competitive levels.

* policies domesticating in full the Yamoussoukro Decision to open up Africa’s airspace for low-cost intra-Africa air freight.

* prioritised infrastructure development policies – especially those aimed at building quality rural feeder-road networks that adequately link to trunk roads, in order to enhance the efficient linkage of rural producers to urban areas and to reduce transport costs.

* energy policies aimed at expanding electricity access in rural areas, where 70% of Africa’s producers reside. Doing so using clean energy will ensure that Africa scores on both the economic and environmental fronts.

Climate-proofing Africa’s agriculture presents a golden opportunity

Climate-proofing the continent’s agriculture amidst the opportunities presented by the WTO Nairobi Package provides a real chance of actualising an economically inclusive, environmentally resilient Africa. Now, more than ever before, is Africa’s time. It is up to all stakeholders on the continent, from governments, private sector, academia, non-governmental organisations and individual citizens, to pull together and take advantage of these opportunities. Let’s seize the moment and start creating the Africa we so desperately want.

 Dr Richard Munang is Africa Climate Change & Development Policy Expert. He tweets as @RichardMunang

Mr Robert Mgendi is the Adaptation Policy Expert


Written by How Africa

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