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A temperature increase of 1°C may not sound like much, but even a small change in average conditions can have a profound impact on crops. That impact is particularly serious in Africa, where smallholders are responsible for the majority of production and are relatively ill-equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change on their crops.

Research by the CGIAR, for example, has shown that a one degree increase in average air temperature could decrease sorghum yields by 4-8%. It has also estimated that higher temperatures and reduced rainfall could see African maize harvests drop 10-20% by 2050. Coffee cultivation areas are also forecast to shrink dramatically - by about 50 % by 2050 across Africa due to temperature increases and variability in intra-seasonal temperature.

A positive step was made in 2014 with the launch of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture (GACSA) at the UN Climate Summit. But how exactly do we protect African producers, and the value chains which depend on them, from the impacts of climate change? How should the private sector be responding?

A panel of experts addressed the issue at the Grow Africa Investment Forum in June, with Alain Vidal, director of strategic partnerships at CGIAR, stressing how agriculture is both a driver of climate change, and affected by it.

“If we continue with business as usual, by 2050 our food system will be responsible for half of global greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “Climate-smart agriculture is a challenge for many businesses, but the private sector needs to look at and understand the co-benefits of addressing it, and identify opportunities.”

According to the FAO, climate-smart agriculture means sustainably increasing agricultural productivity, building resilience to climate change, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. What that means in practice can be wide-ranging, including moving from slash-and-burn to agroforestry systems, or switching to seeds producing more drought-tolerant crop varieties, and making better use of fertilisers, such as micro-dosing.

Scaling the adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices

The diffuse nature of climate-smart agriculture is part of the challenge, said Dyborn Charlie Chibonga, Chief Executive Officer of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM).

“One problem is that extension and advisory services are not the sole remit of government anymore, so you have the private sector, NGOs and farmer organisations in the extension business, and the messages they send out about climate-smart agriculture are not in sync,” he said.

Bernhard Fonseka, Africa business unit manager at Yara International, agreed and added that successful large-scale interventions can counter this, legitimising new practices to thousands of smallholders in a given region. He gave the example of the Environment and Climate Compatible Agriculture, a project headed by Yara and Syngenta in partnership with Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, reaching 30,000 Tanzanian maize and rice farmers.

“In my experience, the best thing is to demonstrate that ideas you’ve developed really work,” he said.

“The farmer only believes what he sees. So we have to explain there is a specific dosage for fertiliser, and you give them the spoon and show how it’s one dose like that per plant. With 30,000 farmers, if they see it works, you get credibility, and then you can really scale up.”

Working with large groups of smallholders at once also makes it less likely that they will counter-act each other. For example, it’s good practice to leave biomass on the land to enrich soil, but in places where farmers don’t grow fodder and livestock are left to roam, one farmer’s soil-enriching biomass becomes feed for someone else’s livestock.

“You need to be in collectives, because agriculture is itself a business, and climate change affects that business,” said Chibonga. Farmers also need to know to be patient, he added, because switching to a more resilient form of production can take time to show results. “Sometimes farmers are just too poor to wait to see the benefits. You normally have to consistently practice climate-smart agriculture for three years to see the benefits to the point where you can start to use less artificial fertiliser, because you’re keeping biomass in the ground.”

And what if the efforts succeed, and yields stabilise or go up? The problem then might be that farmers have more than they can eat, and unless there’s a market for their surplus, they may have little incentive to continue. In another of Yara’s smallholder transformation projects, Masara N’Arziki, in Ghana,  over 100,000 maize farmers were grouped together and trained on good agronomic practices and given quality inputs. Yara, together with their partner Wienco, ensured that buyers were also in place to sustain the production success.

“These 109,000 farmers on average tripled their yield and increased their profitability, but it does take more than one organisation or government acting alone to make this happen,” said Fonseka. “We need collaboration.”

Private sector actors don’t need to be agronomists to play a part in mitigating the effects of climate change in agriculture. Another promising intervention is micro-insurance, which has been successfully demonstrated by Syngenta through its Kilimo Salama service in Kenya and Rwanda. Farmers can insure as little as a bag of seeds, and in the event of crop losses through weather events, pay-outs are made through the mobile M-Pesa system.

“In India, around 12 million farmers are already beneficiaries of insurance systems for around 40 crops, and that is now spreading in Africa,” said Vidal.

“There are examples from Nigeria and Senegal too, where farmers have access to weather information through their phone, and can be connected to a system where they pay a very minimal premium for weather insurance.”

Innovation in Risk-Mitigation Finance

Innovative financing models can help mitigate climate change at the macro level too. The Extreme Climate Facility, announced by African Risk Capacity in 2014, is a system of financial bonds which draws on historic climate data to assess where present day climate events sit on a scale of “shocks”.  When climate events occur above a baseline, the bonds – financed by capital provided through private investors – pay out to member countries.

“The Extreme Climate Facility measures the frequency of droughts and floods over the past 30 years, and attaches financing to it,” explained Richard Wilcox, interim Director-General of Africa Risk Capacity, a member agency of the African Union.

“If the index shows there is a statistically significant deviation over the previous climate, you would get a payout. It’s a transparent data set that captures the frequency of extreme events and provides a tool for African governments to adapt to keep their risk management systems sound.”

At the farm level, probably the biggest challenge for the private sector is to come up with innovations that are affordable to farmers, improve their resilience to weather shocks, and provide immediate, tangible returns on investment.

“Farmers are exposed to more climate variability than ever before, but they won’t move to innovative new practices if the additional income is less than 15%,” said Vidal. “We don’t have that many innovations that bring in that much  more income. Businesses have an opportunity to contribute, and move farmers in Africa towards a more food secure system.”

Banner and feature image courtesy of World Bank