Climate-smart agriculture holds the key to Africa banishing hunger by 2025

Imagine an Africa in which hunger has been banished. Imagine that hunger can be history in a decade. This is the vision that led our leaders to pledge to end hunger by 2025, and to declare 2014 the Year of Agriculture and Food Security.

Now imagine that Africa could be food self-sufficient because of climate change. As unfamiliar as this counter-narrative might seem, climate change represents an opportunity for Africa to think and act differently, to change the way it views growth and interacts with the environment, to choose a different path toward sustainable development.

When set against the stark reality of African agriculture, the ‘Zero Hunger’ goal may appear ambitious.

Africa is home to close to 30% of the world’s arable land and remains the dominant sector in many African economies, employing 70% of the workforce, accounting for 30% of GDP and generating 50% of the exports of the continent. Yet it remains the least productive and least invested-in sector. As a result, a third of Africans are chronically hungry and malnourished.  

Practices such as deforestation and over-exploitation have helped degrade 65% of Africa’s arable land. Climate change is placing additional stress on an already fragile agricultural system.  Experts warn that a 2° C rise in global temperature could reduce African crop yields by 10% by 2050.

Add to this the fact that more than 90% of Africa’s agriculture is rain-fed, with only 4% of its land under irrigation, compared to 39% in South Asia. Water is the defining challenge for the continent’s agriculture. With the frequency of unpredictable weather patterns, the sector will be increasingly exposed to acute water shortages, further exacerbating the continent’s food insecurity.

Throw in the fact that by 2050, 60% of Africans will live in cities. In a changing climate, how can African agriculture meet the twin objectives of feeding its growing, and increasingly urban population, while curbing hunger and attaining food self-sufficiency?

Given this picture, skeptics may be forgiven for asking how realistic it is to talk up climate change as an opportunity for Africa, rather than an existential threat. At the same time, Africa continues to register some of the strongest economic growth rates in the world – buoyed in large part by agricultural productivity. Of course we know that these figures will mean nothing if the growth is not people-centered, if the dividends of growth are not equitably distributed to the majority of the population.

We firmly believe the ‘Zero Hunger’ target is achievable. Part of the solution lies in African countries investing 10% of their GDP in agriculture as proposed by the AU’s Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) in 2003. The idea is that with this investment African countries should aim towards a 6% GDP growth target for the sector.

So how do we get there? By making substantial investments in a climate-smart and climate-resilient model of agriculture that can usher in a new era of clean and sustainable growth for Africa. For Africa to feed itself and sustain its growth momentum, it needs to break the link between hunger and defective agricultural models. The continent needs to increase its investment in climate science and innovations, which are central to enhance agricultural performance in a changing climate.

The dearth of climate data and information is at the heart of the disconnect between science and policy and the lack of appropriate climate adaptation planning in agriculture. Innovative approaches such as the ‘News You Can Use’ climate information initiative – unveiled at the UN Climate Summit last month – is of particular relevance to Africa.

More importantly, Africa needs to forge partnerships to build its own climate adaptation and resilience capacity. In this context, ClimDev-Africa, the Africa Climate and Development Partnership established by the AU, African Bank and UN Economic Commission for Africa, has the mandate and experience to bridge the knowledge and capacity gaps facing African countries.

In Marrakech, Morocco this week, African policy makers, scientists and other key stakeholders are grappling with the task of establishing a regional hub for Africa’s climate science research, something that is critically needed if climate science is to inform and influence policy.

As we know, the pathway from evidence to policy is anything but linear. There are many differing views on science and its ability to boost agricultural productivity. For Zimbabwean telecommunications entrepreneur and agriculture champion Strive Masiyiwa, the Green Revolution has already begun in Africa, with new food production techniques and practices pointing the way to improved agricultural productivity.

Calestous Juma, a world-leading Kenyan scientist, argues that innovation-driven agricultural growth, including the selective use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has the potential to drastically transform African economies and societies. Malawi’s late President Bingu Wa Mutharika increased agricultural investment to 16% and improved the supply of inputs, including GMOs and seeds. As a result, substantial yields led to Malawi becoming food self-sufficient and exporting surplus maize to neighboring countries.

Other countries such as Nigeria are following suit, introducing dry season farming and drought tolerant seeds, setting up agro-meteorological stations, promoting crop insurance and other climate-smart approaches. Uganda has chosen to pursue organic farming in a bid to tap into a highly lucrative global organic food market, which is estimated to grow from $ 57.5 billion in 2010 to close $105 billion in 2015.

Green revolutions have been an integral part of the development story of the BRICS countries. Modernizing agriculture and transforming rural economy were key to China’s success. China and India have also shown how surpluses from agricultural productivity can stimulate industrial growth. In addition, the development of the agriculture value chain is critical – as testified by Brazil and China’s thriving agri-business and agro-industries. If the BRICS can banish hunger, why not Africa?