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Working with nature to fight climate change and food insecurity in Africa

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Restoring Landscapes

Can Ecosystem Based Approaches help get Africa out of the food insecure pack under the changing climate?

If most of the nearly 70 million smallholder families in sub-Saharan Africa fail within the next decade to adopt sustainable land and water management practices on their farms, long-term food security, productivity and income will be jeopardized.

Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT

Within the next fifty years, we will be seeing food prices rise dramatically. Coming at a time when the global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, huge demand will be placed on states and the environment to provide sufficient food. Today, the world is already searching for solutions to a series of global challenges unprecedented in their scale and complexity. Food insecurity, malnutrition, climate change, rural poverty and environmental degradation are all among them.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to these threats because both supply-side and demand-side challenges are putting additional pressure on an already fragile food production system. Current systems of production will only be able to meet 13 percent of the continent’s food needs by 2050, while three out of every four people added to the planet between now and 2100 will be born in the region.

The Old Approaches: Industrialization and Africa Food Security

Many countries in Africa have pursued industrialization vigorously as part of their developmental plan over the decades. This has given rise to a lot of commercial agriculture where agro-industries are concerned. As a result, larger arable lands have been dedicated to industries. The question that behooves us all is:

Will Africa export food whereas over 200 million people of its people are chronically undernourished?

Africa spends over $18 billion on food importation; this means, a greater percentage of the monies derived from Africa’s food exports are used to buy food into Africa again, sometimes with costs higher than what it earns during export.  It is imperative to change course and look at solutions that work with nature not against nature.

The negative externalities of industrialization are many. Current practices emit enormous amounts of greenhouse gases because it utilizes huge quantities of oil powering machinery and manufacturing fertilizer. The chemicals it uses disrupt and discourage natural soil processes and even add to global climate change.

With industrialization approaches promoting large scale farming and geared towards more cash crops, there is also a risk that cash crops like tea, coffee, tobacco and flowers will become more attractive to smallholder producers than staples, which could damage efforts to make Africa more food secure and might become vulnerable to revolt as experienced in Tunisia in 2011.

New Approach: Working with Nature

The planet needs an approach that improves the local environment. In this context, building resilient and highly productive food systems in agriculture-dominated landscapes is imperative. Achieving food security in the context of Africa is unimaginable without climate change adaptation and practices that not only support food production to meet people’s nutritional needs, but that also prevent soil erosion, conserve and provide clean water, recycle nutrients, and support the pollinators and biodiversity that underpin agricultural productivity.

This calls for solutions based on ecological foundations and approaches. This Ecosystem based Adaptation (EbA) approach, which makes use of ecosystem services to help people adapt to climate change can also help tackle issues such as resource scarcity and ecological degradation. EbA approaches eschews applying chemical fertilizers to soil; rather, it favors compost and manure, which increase the soil’s fertility and ability to retain water—key advantages against hot, dry weather.

In fact, many of the ecosystem based practices and technologies we need are already in use in the African continent and elsewhere. What’s needed is to bring these isolated success stories to scale, to make them the rule rather than the exception.

In Uganda, a project promoting agro-forestry and conservation agriculture resulted in more fertile soils and increased yields. This in turn reduced time and cost in preparing land for farming, leaving more time available for diversification, for instance, into livestock rearing. The project also resulted in less use of agrochemicals and improved biodiversity. 75,000 people benefited from the project. 31,000 tree seedlings have been planted to harness the ecosystem and boost household investment in the short and medium term. While the encouragement of chili (capsicum annum) production, earns poor households about $60 per week during the off-peak season and about $240 per week in the peak season. The ability to generate surplus incomes from their agricultural practices has dramatically contributed to the food security of these households, all while improving efficiency and encouraging better agroforestry practices

Despite promising results, many examples of ecosystem based adaptation approaches in Africa are small in scale and scope, and geographically isolated. What we need now is to link, combine and take to scale proven technologies, processes and systems, while investing in new solutions for the future. EbA is justifiably the optimal approach that Africa has to climate change thus far. 

A recent conference called the First Africa Food Security and Adaptation hosted by UNEP in collaboration with FAO convened experts, practitioners, private sector, CSOs, NGOs and policy makers from around Africa and the globe to discuss how the next iteration of development goals following the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) can respond to this set of challenges especially climate change and food insecurity, as part of the so-called “post-2015” Sustainable Development Goals agenda.