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Climate change hurting small farmers

By Agnes Kalibata | Dec 5th 2016 | 4 min read

Rising temparatures, crop failure, loss of livelihoods and destitution in millions of households impact smallholder farmers across Africa’s agro-ecological landscapes.

To illustrate the unfolding crisis, let us consider the case of Malawi, one of the few countries to have achieved a fair deal of agricultural success but is now facing the worst drought in over three decades. As is the case with many countries in southern Africa, Malawi has experienced widespread crop failures due to a devastatingly strong El Niño.

The country witnessed late on-set of rains, erratic rainfall, floods and prolonged dry spells.
As a result, the production of maize is estimated at just over 2.5 million tonnes in 2016.

This is 16 per cent lower than the reduced harvest in 2015 and 34 percent below the previous five year average, leaving 39 percent of the population dependent on national and international food aid to survive.

In the hardest hit areas, harvest declined by 70 per cent while farmers in some areas simply couldn’t plant as the rains didn't come.

Dealing with this challenge in the future will require both efforts to reduce climate change and, most importantly, strategies to enable farmers to adapt to its effects. All eyes are now on the meeting taking place in Marrakesh of the world’s climate change experts and policy makers, which is seeking to set the world on track to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year, the experts met in Paris and reached a welcome agreement that seeks to limit the rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by 2?. However, the emissions of greenhouse gases are not yet falling and the effects of climate change are worsening

Nowhere else is the imperative to act more urgent than in Africa, where 70 per cent of the population is dependent on rain-fed, smallholder agriculture. As the case of Malawi demonstrates, rising temperatures often signal drought. This reality is here with us today, and far beyond Malawi and southern Africa.

For this reason, those of us from the African continent hope that this will give the first post-Paris meeting a greater sense of urgency. Inaction will be catastrophic.

Although Africa emits less than 3 per cent of the climate change inducing greenhouse gases, it will suffer its effects disproportionately.

Mean temperatures will rise faster than the global average, exceed 2°C and may reach as high as 3°C to 6°C by 2100. For every year our global leaders fail to make progress against their commitments, it is Africa’s families that will pay the greatest price.

This is not to leave everything in the hands of global leaders, as the prosperity of Africa and its farmers will also depend on how well farmers, especially smallholders, are able to adapt to the changing climate.

This is much more within our control. Indeed, the work of AGRA and our partners has shown that African farmers are not powerless in the face of climate change. There are many ways in which they can survive and even thrive despite the dramatic shifts in growing conditions.

For instance, farmers in some parts of Malawi, who are planting more drought-tolerant crops — cassava, sweet potato and pigeon pea — and using better agricultural practices are not only surviving the drought, they are expecting to generate a good income on this year’s harvest.

The insurance and finance sectors have also stepped up to the plate by designing innovative products that are minimising the effects of climate shocks to farmers.

Still in Malawi, tens of thousands of farmers in the worst hit areas south of the country will now have access to credit from a microfinance institution that has protected these loans with a yield insurance that covers the crops against the impact of floods and drought.

Overall, to achieve food security under climate change, the resilience of communities and individual farmers needs to be strengthened through pro-active and longer-term adaptation actions.

Although a lot more is yet to be accomplished, the continent has invested in the development and adoption of many new agriculture innovations and technologies which should be scaled up.

We cannot put off further action on mitigating and adapting to climate change without expecting even greater pain for smallholder farmers and others around the world.

From Marrakesh to all countries’ capitals and decision-making tables around the world, I hope world leaders will seize the moment to take action and continue to put us on a path toward a better future.

A future where African smallholder farmers can fully exploit their potential to deliver food security, contribute to poverty reduction and achieve inclusive economic growth and development.

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