Smallholder farming in Africa: Climate Casualty or Pioneer?

For 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 Africa.

For 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 Africa.

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. Africa’s smallholder farmers are in the eye of the climate change storm.

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. 

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
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.

At the COP15 meeting taking place now in Copenhagen, 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.

African farmers are embarking on a sustainable, uniquely African green revolution. 

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.

Dr Akin Adesina is Vice President of Policy and Partnerships Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)

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