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African Farmers Need to be at the Forefront of Climate Change Initiatives

In March, the Kenyan government launched a 5-year climate change project funded by the Green Climate Fund. The project, Twende, is expected to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change-induced droughts in 11 counties across Kenya and is set to benefit 620,000 farmers. Before that, the government spearheaded another climate change project titled the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project, with the goal of aiding 522,000 households spread across 24 counties by the end of 2022.

While these efforts are commendable, they are at a national level and spearheaded by the government. There is another gap in climate change intervention that is separate from the government and certainly worth considering. Individual farmer-led climate change actions can play a huge part in addressing climate change and other environmental issues, more so in Africa, but it has to be done right with firm regard to the climate change context of individual African countries.

The climate situation in Africa is somewhat different from the rest of the world in three main areas. First, Africa is not a significant emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, certain African countries do emit greenhouse gasses, but nothing on par with the West. Africa as a whole, produces the least greenhouse gas emissions of any continent.

Scott Fields observes: “Africa can easily be said to contribute the least of any continent to global warming. Each year Africa produces an average of just over 1 metric ton of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per person, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s International Energy Annual 2002. The most industrialized African countries, such as South Africa, generate 8.44 metric tons per person, and the least developed countries, such as Mali, generate less than a tenth of a metric ton per person. By comparison, each American generates almost 16 metric tons per year. That adds up to the United States alone generating 5.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year (about 23% of the world total, making it the leading producer), while Africa as a whole contributes only 918.49 million metric tons (less than 4%).”

Secondly, despite being a low emitter, Africa bears the brunt of climate change. Extreme weather events have a higher net impact in Africa, primarily due to a lack of proper mitigation measures. Lastly, unlike other regions of the world, climate change in Africa mainly impacts agriculture and, by extension, small-scale farmers, who form over 80 percent of all African farmers.

It is clear that the approach to climate change in Africa needs to concentrate on both emission reduction and resilience, with a particular focus on agriculture. However, in an environment of scarce resources, as is the case in Africa, where one has to choose between alternatives, the continent must prioritize resilience from climate change and how to mitigate the effects on smallholder farmers. Many African governments seem to have gotten this point right. Most of their climate change interventions seek to promote resilience and aim at protecting African farmers. However, for them to succeed, individual farmer-led efforts must complement these government-based interventions.

A farmer prepares his field for the planting season near Nathenje on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi. (Stephen Morrison/AusAID)

From my experience, I think African farmers can make individual farm-level climate change interventions in three main areas: water harvesting, sustainable land management, and solar drying. On water harvesting, it is worth noting that a considerable proportion of African agriculture is rain-fed. That is why unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change have affected the continent’s agriculture to such an extreme. Thanks to climate change, it is now impossible to plant conventional crops while relying exclusively on historical weather patterns.

Climate change has distrusted these historical weather patterns so much that the only meaningful way to conduct agriculture is by stopping overreliance on rain-fed farming for other technologies, such as water harvesting. Water harvesting technologies such as water pans, dams, and boreholes can go a long way in storing rainwater to be used during dry seasons. Farmers can practice roof water harvesting or even construct farm ponds to harvest and store water to use on their small farms when needed. When farmers pair such technologies with appropriate irrigation systems, farmers can be sure of a year-round food supply. Beyond agriculture, the harvested water, when treated, can supplement domestic water demand, which is another benefit from water harvesting.

On sustainable land management (SLM), we need to appreciate that there has not been a consistent approach to SLM for most African countries for some time now. Colonial powers in the 1960s proposed most such interventions. Upon gaining independence, many African states stopped deliberate soil and water conservation actions, as their populations viewed such jobs as symbols of colonial oppression. Some governments have recently revived SLM practices, but these are primarily national and not farmer-led initiatives.

Farmers can adopt simple SLM practices in their farms to supplement these efforts. Some of the simple yet effective SLM technologies include cutoff drains, retention ditches, and farm terraces. Additional interventions include zaï pits, gullies, and flood control structures. The good thing with these technologies is that they can also double up as water harvesting interventions. In fact, to the extent possible, farmers should strive to integrate SLM with water harvesting for best results. For example, farmers can redirect water trapped in cutoff drains to ponds for storage for use during dry periods. Similarly, farmers can ensure farm ponds have silt traps as complementary SLM interventions.

With sound water harvesting practices and SLM interventions, African farmers can be sure they have created climate change-proof conditions. A bumper harvest is almost inevitable, and this brings us to the last point, solar drying. Most harvested crops are highly perishable, and as such, an appropriate post-harvesting handling method is almost always necessary. Solar drying is one of these post-harvesting technologies that is both simple and effective for African farms. The technology reduces the moisture content in crops to reasonable levels for storage. Appropriate solar drying innovations such as hybrid and tunnel dryers are very effective, even for the most time-sensitive crops such as cassava. By utilizing solar drying, farmers can store their produce for longer periods, addressing post-harvest losses and, in the process, build resilience against climate change. So, are you an African farmer? Demonstrate your commitment to addressing climate change by practicing water harvesting, sustainable land management, and solar drying.