Kigali – “All my kids can go to school now, whereas before I might only have been able to send one” reports Balaynesh Kasa, a farmer in Debre Yakob Watershed, close to Bahir Dar town, in Amhara Regional State, Ethiopia, and mother to four children.
Balaynesh’s ability to grow and sell produce has increased over the last eight years as a result of a project implemented by Water and Land Resource Centre at Addis Ababa University, Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) partner, which has restored degraded lands to increase its productivity.
Through practices including soil and water conservation, fertility management, increased tree planting on farmland and irrigation techniques, she now boasts production of banana, avocado trees and hops, home gardens, livestock and beehives on her small farm. This means she can now afford schooling, medicine as well as nutritious food for her family.
Putting nature at the heart of agriculture and land management can unlock huge benefits for people, health and the environment, like those which Balaynesh is enjoying. Productive and regenerative agricultural systems that combine local, indigenous and traditional knowledge and techniques such as crop rotation and tree planting with advanced farming technologies like drip irrigation and seed selection can increase yields, reduce input requirements, boost transparency, and improve the incomes and livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Beyond the farm, functioning ecosystems are at the heart of local economic and resilience to mounting climate impacts, including rising global temperatures. Natural capital (which includes soil, water and plant life) accounts for over a third of total wealth in sub-Saharan Africa alone, where over 70 per cent of people depend on forests and woodlands for their livelihoods.
Flourishing forests, grasslands and wetlands can help to reduce risks of and vulnerability to flooding, drought and soil erosion, which are forecast to increase with climate change. Similarly, sustainable fishing and aquaculture management can optimise the long-term availability of fish, reducing demand for land-based proteins and supporting healthier, more diverse diets.
The Food and Land Use Coalition reveals that these ‘nature-based solutions’ could generate a $2.4 trillion economic prize by reducing costs linked to malnutrition, rural poverty and environmental damage.
What’s more, they could unlock a US$102 billion business opportunity globally by providing forest ecosystem services, tapping into low income food markets with new and sustainable products, boosting yields by applying technology on smallholder farms, and more.
Importantly, people stand to benefit hugely from a transition to sustainable agriculture, forestry and land management.
For example, agroforestry or planting trees among agricultural crops can generate new revenue streams and fresh produce for the household, boost yields of existing crops by improving soil health, and strengthen the resilience of the farm to extreme weather events such as storms.
Back to Ethiopia, the opportunities linked to nature-based solutions are remarkable. The recently launched Action Agenda for a New Food and Land Use Economy in Ethiopia outlines how the country can transition to sustainable food systems and scale up the benefits that Balaynesh and her family are enjoying.
Going forward, the Food and Land Use Coalition is prioritizing advancing commercialization of crop and livestock production that leads to innovations in food production and land use practices.
These innovations provide more inclusive economic opportunities, improve health, and reduce food loss while restoring degraded landscapes, expanding tree cover, and protecting ecosystems within agricultural landscapes.
Public and private actors are increasing lending to the agriculture and forest sectors and rural areas overall—all aligned with sustainable value chain improvements are envisioned results and potential benefits of successful actions.
Action in these areas can improve the incomes for over 700,000 smallholder farming households and increase agricultural GDP by over US$360 million. Overcoming rural financing gaps could increase the value of credit-constrained smallholder producers by up to 60 per cent per hectare.
In addition, the Action Agenda provides a roadmap to boost the efficiency of Ethiopia’s food systems to reduce post-harvest loss and save the country millions of dollars.
Already, Ethiopia is an international leader in sustainable land use management and practices that boost resilience, generate new revenue streams and drive economic growth.
In July 2019, the country set the world record for the most trees planted in one day, with the population planting 353 million trees as part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s broader plan to plant four billion trees in the 2019 rainy season between May and October.
The government also aims to restore up to 33 million hectares of degraded land and to ensure that agricultural productivity does not occur at the cost of Ethiopia’s forests, wetlands and other ecosystems that serve as the home for millions of people and wildlife.
Furthermore, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) supports the Ethiopian government to implement its second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II) through its focus on commercialising agriculture.
AGRA, an alliance working to increase the income and food security of 30 million smallholders in 11 countries including Ethiopia by 2021, supports farmers to adopt yield increasing and climate smart technologies and gives them access finance and markets.
Other countries can learn from and build on Ethiopia’s successes. Action is urgently needed to prevent further losses and to tap into emerging opportunities from nature-based solutions.
The scale and breadth of transformation requires innovative partnerships across public and private sectors, drawing on the experience and expertise of each. Governments can create the enabling environment for the private sector, financing players and civil society to engage in nature-based solutions at scale.
Private sector players can transition existing operations while investing in the innovations of tomorrow. Critically, this work must be led by front-liners themselves – smallholder farmers, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs and communities.
A sustainable food and land use economy can deliver a brighter future for people and planet. By seizing this moment, Ethiopia can continue to serve as a world leader and support its population at home – and so we can hear the inspiring stories from more farmers like Balaynesh.
The writer was appointed Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.