Q&A: Facing up to African agriculture's climate change challenge

Jeremy Oppenheim, co-founder of SYSTEMIQ. Photo by: Arbeiderpartiet / CC BY-ND

KIGALI, Rwanda — As the demand for food continues to rise alongside the world’s population, so too do the tremendous opportunities for African agriculture — if countries can find ways to build more resilient agriculture ecosystems.

“There is an opportunity, with the right leadership and the right investments, for a number of African countries to emerge as the leaders in the future agricultural system.”

—  Jeremy Oppenheim, co-founder, SYSTEMIQ

The sector contributes 70 percent to regional gross domestic product, according to African Risk Capacity; and with the continent possessing more than half of the world’s uncultivated arable land, some experts argue it holds the key to global food security.

However, climate impacts are expected to severely impact agriculture, food security, and livelihoods. A World Bank report estimated that by 2030, crop yield losses could result in a 12 percent spike in food prices in sub-Saharan Africa, a challenge in a region where households already spend almost 60 percent of their income on food.

Low human capital, limited access to finance and minimal policy support also remain challenges for Africa’s agricultural sector. Only a handful of countries meet the 10 percent budget allocation for agricultural development outlined in the 2003 Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security. The private sector is put off by the lag time for return on investments.

“No one should underestimate how much risk is crystallizing around these issues,” said Jeremy Oppenheim, co-founder of SYSTEMIQ, an organization dedicated to driving the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change by transforming markets and business models in land use, raw materials, and energy. “The good news is that there are lots of different ways to make a difference … to build more resilient agricultural systems and become a real part of the solution,” he said.

Oppenheim spoke to Devex about those solutions on the sidelines of the African Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, earlier this year.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How can Africa mitigate climate change to build more resilient agriculture ecosystems?

In terms of the challenge in Africa specifically, there are different ways to look at this. Of all continents, Africa has the greatest exposure to climate because more of the economy is based on agriculture, and to that extent it matters even more in Africa than anywhere else. It’s also accurate to say that because people start out by being poorer, particularly in the countryside, in the event of extreme weather [the impact can be greater] …

“Of all continents, Africa has the greatest exposure to climate because more of the economy is based on agriculture.”

You have much greater unpredictability in weather patterns now ... and it is that, combined with an agricultural economy that is less capitalized with less mechanization, less resilient in some ways, that poses the challenge.

Against this backdrop of compounding issues, what can be done to reverse the trend?

The good news is that we know, in principle, what are the most important things to do to build more resilient agricultural systems … Solutions include driving up the share of irrigated agriculture; increasing mechanization; and, in certain places, beginning to re-consolidate some of the holdings. Once farm size gets way below a hectare, unless you're in a very particular high-value horticulture space, it’s a problem.

There are clearly things that can be done in terms of better use of digital. All this stuff that we talk about in terms of precision farming, and the specific application of fertilizer intelligently [for example], is all true and doable. That, and creating better access to markets, are all things that we want to do with or without climate. In the context of climate change, they become even more important.

Study after study says that providing improved access to inputs and to markets, for women particularly and especially in Africa, is a huge deal. We are leaving potential on the table.

Again that's not a climate action, but it nonetheless gives even more reason for us to address it. We can, of course, put in different climate-resistant seeds and invest more there. But there are certain things we could do that would just be better agriculture, that make even more sense in the context of needing to build agricultural systems that are more climate-proof. 

Though we have this general knowledge, what is the feasibility of applying it in the African context?

A lot of what I described requires investment. It requires us to invest in systems, and infrastructure, and equipment, and people, in better soil health.

It's not a new challenge and you can tell me it has nothing to do with climate, but the heart of it is that you have to get ministers of economy and finance to recognize that this agenda has gone from being something we can delay … to an agenda whose time has come.

We have to make sure there is very significant public and private investment in our agricultural systems in the context of better policies, better incentives, and this requires real work from central government. It also requires support from the international community.

There are bigger programs that one could consider. One could take a serious shot at taking degraded land, of which there are hundreds of millions of hectares across African countries, and reinvest in them. But what history tells us so far is that it requires large-scale public investment.

We can either take the climate change [problem] and adopt a victim mindset to it, or we can adopt a growth mindset and ask ourselves, “How do we turn this from being a crisis to an opportunity? How do we use the reality that there is a climate agenda that needs to be addressed to accelerate some of the changes that are needed domestically, to make some of the policy shifts, make certain investments in technology and innovation, help make the case to the international community that this is one where everyone needs to chip in and contribute to the funding of it?”

There is an opportunity, with the right leadership and the right investments, for a number of African countries to emerge as the leaders in the future agricultural system.

Smallholder farmers are responsible for more than half of the continent’s food supplies. What actions do they need to be taking?

The obvious points are managing their farms to protect soil health and keep the soil fertile, and managing water resources … and using what we call “agroforestry practices.” These are some really good things that make farms more resilient, and there’s good evidence that these practices make crops a little more resistant to weather spikes. They don’t solve all the problems, but they make a difference.

“We can modernize traditional practices that got washed away with the arrival of big agriculture and commercialized inputs.”

It goes back to all the old stuff that we’ve known for generations about how to manage a farm well — rotate crops, intercrop, applying forestry in agriculture and livestock. That all matters and is still relevant and can even be enhanced today.

I think we can combine traditional stuff with digital know-how. We can modernize traditional practices that got washed away with the arrival of big agriculture and commercialized inputs ... It works best when combined with really good data and good traditional practices that have been updated for today.

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About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.