The route to food security in Africa: Advancing climate change resilience for smallholder farmers

November 2022

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The 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) was held this month in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Dubbed “Africa’s COP”, it foregrounded many of the issues that countries on the continent are facing as a result of climate change. COP27 also saw discussions on the interrelation between climate change, agriculture, and food security take a more prominent place. There was a dedicated “Agriculture and Adaptation” day and over 200 side events devoted to food systems and climate change.

However, despite this increased focus on agriculture, there was a lack of direct attention given to the group responsible for providing most of Africa’s food: smallholder farmers. In the months preceding COP27, extreme floods and droughts damaged harvests across the continent. African smallholder farmers have been directly impacted, prompting a food crisis. Yet COP27 fell short of delivering transformative agreements to help address the most severe impacts that climate change is having on them. The final draft agreement for furthering joint work on agriculture lacked clear, concrete plans for interventions, while direct financing pledges were slim.

Smallholder farmers critical for food security in Africa and most effected by climate change

Heading into COP27, international policy negotiations on climate change needed to prioritise smallholder farmers in Africa. Smallholder farmers are critical for food security in Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa, small-scale farmers are estimated to produce up to 80 percent of food and manage 80 percent of Africa’s farmland.

Despite Africa’s minimal contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions – the entire continent emits just two to three percent of global greenhouse gases – smallholder farmers across the continent are being debilitated by the effects of climate change. In very recent years, we have seen extreme flooding in Nigeria and South Africa damage agricultural productivity; cyclones and rainfall flood farmlands in Malawi and Mozambique; and droughts severely reduce crop yields in the Horn of Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Of all the sectors of the economy effected by extreme weather events in Africa, smallholder farming is most directly impacted. Destruction of crops, equipment, and transport infrastructure leads to lower yields and difficulty accessing markets. This has huge consequences for many people’s livelihoods. Agriculture employs over 50 percent of the workforce in sub-Saharan Africa. More broadly, the reduction of smallholder farmers’ agricultural productivity leads to lower domestic food sourcing. This means that countries become even more reliant on costly food imports – Africa remains a net importer of food, despite being home to 60 percent of the world’s arable land. With global food prices soaring in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this has led to critical food shortages across the continent.

Exacerbating these issues is the historic lack of financing, which has meant that smallholder farmers lack the means to cope with climate shocks. Africa receives less than four percent of total global climate finance. Of this small amount directed to the continent, only three percent goes towards food systems. Smallholder farmers in Africa face difficulty in accessing the limited climate financing that is available – globally, small-scale farmers from developing countries receive just 1.7 percent of climate finance.

COP27 lacked clear focus on increasing support to African smallholder farmers

Despite the increased emphasis on agriculture and food systems at COP27, the conference was disappointing from the point of view of official negotiations. There was some marginal progress, as agriculture was for the first time integrated into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Governments signed off on the follow-up agreement resulting from the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture – a working group committed to advancing discussions on how to tackle the climate crisis and issues of food insecurity concurrently. African countries were pushing for Koronivia to be formally institutionalised in the UNFCCC, so in this regard, this was a win for the continent. Particularly so for smallholder farmers, who received an explicit mention in the draft agreement.

However, clear objectives and timeframes for delivering specific support, including to advance smallholder farmers’ resilience, were not agreed. There was very little guidance on how discussions on climate change and farming would be continued beyond COP27. Furthermore, the agreement did not push specific methods for advancing more sustainable food production. Koronivia also side-lined agroecology – promoting sustainable interaction between food production and nature – as a solution for helping smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.

In addition to unclear timeframes, very little climate financing pledged by states was specifically for smallholder farmers. Despite some rhetoric surrounding food systems at the conference, the financial commitments did not match up. The much-discussed US and United Arab Emirates ‘Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate’ programme, first launched in 2021, received an additional USD 4 billion in funding this year to support “climate-smart agriculture and food-systems innovation”. However, the initiative is technology- and industry-focused, rather than aimed at supporting sustainable small-scale production. Furthermore, the European Commission announced a programme worth EUR 1 billion to fund climate change resilience in Africa, but its focus is on early warning systems, developing climate risk finance and insurance, and funding data-driven risk assessment projects. There was no mention of funnelling any of these additional funds into advancing resilience amongst smallholder farmers.  

Private sector interventions and partnerships needed

Although international policy interventions and frameworks – such as Koronivia – are important, there has been a lack of concrete progress in advancing the resilience of smallholder farmers to climate change impacts. Moving forward, and on from COP27, a more diverse range of actors must come into the fold to support smallholder farmers adapt to climate shocks. In particular, the private sector can play a prominent role, expanding on previous cooperation with smallholder farmers to not only enhance CSR agendas but also boost commercial resilience.

There have already been several successful private sector initiatives to support smallholder farmers through effective partnerships. Dangote Group subsidiary Dangote Rice has an expansive out grower scheme for rice in Nigeria. Dangote Rice provided inputs, technical assistance, land preparation services and equipment directly to farmers. Domestic demand for rice had soared, so the project aimed to create jobs whilst also reducing Nigeria’s food import bill. Illovo Sugar – the largest sugar-growing company in Africa – also has well developed contract farming schemes across its countries of operation. The company has actively advanced smallholder farming capacity in South Africa through its Small-Scale Grower Cane Development Project, where Illovo planted 3,000 hectares of sugarcane in KwaZulu-Natal to support 1,630 growers. Cargill has worked alongside cocoa farmers in Africa for over 15 years. As well as providing technical training, the company has 128 cooperative offices in Côte d’Ivoire, seven buying stations in Ghana, and 11 buying stations in Cameroon.

Initiatives such as these help to enhance climate change resilience amongst smallholder farmers by providing them with more advanced equipment and diversified, higher-quality seeds for more durable crops. Private sector partnerships help farmers better weather climate shocks by supplying new and improved technologies like water irrigation systems or soil stabilisation techniques. This in turn benefits the private companies who offtake better quality products. More broadly, these offer smallholder farmers expanded access to markets, while helping to develop domestic production which reduces reliance on costly imports.

Momentum must be supported by private and public sector alike

Moving forward, the case for growing private sector partnerships with smallholder farmers is clear. Both sides have much to gain. African governments and regional bodies should support these arrangements by rewarding foreign investment in the agriculture sector, which enables the development of out-grower schemes and co-operatives.

Smallholder farmers play a prominent role in African food production, and agriculture is the largest employer on the continent. In future COPs, smallholder farmers’ issues when adapting to climate change – such as accessing finance and technology – must be addressed. Only by advancing smallholder farmers can problems with food insecurity in Africa be alleviated.