Working from the ground up

Case study: Talensi, Ghana

A low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique has helped smallholders in northern Ghana resist the ravages of climate change

Farmers select pineapple plants to be cultivated on a farm in Ekumfi, Ghana, 2018 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

Although climate change has not received as much discussion as it should have in Ghana, it has taken its toll on the Talensi district in the upper east region of the country. Fortunately for the farmers in the area, a Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) project, sponsored by World Vision Ghana, has helped to alleviate its effects on the people. The project, which has been well received and is showing signs of success thus far, could be replicated across the African continent to increase food and timber production as well as resilience to climate extremes.

The Talensi district forms part of the 15  municipalities and districts in  the upper east region and is one of 260 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). About 90% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Production of the main staple food crops, namely cereals and legumes, is done by smallholder farmers using traditional methods, which have made little room for modern scientific advancement. The main crops produced are millet, sorghum, groundnut and beans. These are dependent on annual rain, which has become erratic over the years, leading to poor harvests.

Inusah Baba, a senior research scientist at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says the Ghanaian authorities have woken up to the fact that climate change is a phenomenon that is not remote to the country. Changing weather conditions have also led to flooding, which has become an annual ritual in all major farming communities on the banks of the White Volta [the headstream of the Volta River, Ghana’s main waterway], Inusah said. As a result, many people’s crops have been washed away by flood waters.

In addition, the erratic rains have reduced yields for most crops grown in northern Ghana. Moreover, in recent years intermittent droughts – which are understood to consist of three or more weeks with no significant rains – have also combined with unusually high temperatures in March through to April, affecting the period between August and September, when most crops are grown under rain- fed conditions. Farmers in the Talensi district, however, say that World Vision’s FMNR has helped to maintain their livelihoods.

Standing in his fields, wearing his fugu – a cotton outfit worn by men – John Anaba, a farmer at Namoalug in the Talensi district, said he was proud of what he had been able to achieve using only hoes and cutlasses. However, changes in the weather had given him good and bad times, he said. He did not understand what climate change was, but the weather had changed in recent years, negatively affecting his crops and those of others in the district. It was “better now”, he added.

“The Talensi FMNR, is a rapid, low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique to combat poverty and hunger that works with communities and partners to restore degraded lands in the district so as to improve on soil health for healthy agricultural production,” World Vision Ghana’s food security and resilience technical programmes manager, Maxwell Amedi, told Africa in Fact. In practice, FMNR involves the systematic regrowth and management of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, which helps to sprout root systems or seeds.

The regrown trees and shrubs, which help restore soil structure and fertility, inhibit erosion and soil moisture evaporation, rehabilitate the water table and increase biodiversity. Some tree species also provide the soil with nutrients. The FMNR approach encourages the use of living tree stumps, which can resprout or produce seeds. When trees are cut down, their root systems often remain alive underground. “In many formerly forested areas this underground forest [may be] vast, with millions of trees waiting to be regenerated. FMNR systematically regenerates this underground forest,” he said.

The project is a tree management practice, involving selection, pruning, protection and maintenance, and also empowers communities, regreening both community mindsets and peoples’ relationship with nature and the landscape. Preparation for the FMNR project started in October 2006, with the support of World Vision Australia (WVA). “WVA’s aim was to improve the socio- economic living conditions of the people in the Talensi area,” Amendi says. “The WVA contributed to this goal through a programme focus approach that tackled deep-rooted issues of poverty, economic empowerment and capacity building in health and nutrition, education, water sanitation and hygiene, environmental sustainability and livelihood empowerment.”

Farmers tapping rubber trees to collect latex at Agona, Ghana, 2019 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

The FMNR did not just take off, Amendi says. “A baseline study was conducted before the implementation of each of the three phases. With each phase, we worked with the communities to reverse land degradation and hunger resulting from poor soils in the district.” In addition to the drought, floods, and erratic rainfall patterns mentioned, the Talensi district is vulnerable to infertile and degraded soils, food insecurity, land scarcity, with occasional disease outbreaks of cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM). To further test the viability of the project before it was fully implemented, a pilot was started in 2009, which aimed to incorporate sound environmental management into the farming practices in the project area.

This led to the first phase, which started in 2009 and ended in 2011, involving nine communities using the FMNR concept. So far, more than 3,000 people have benefited, and the project has helped restore over 400 hectares of degraded lands. “After successfully implementing the first phase, the second phase began in 2012 and ended in 2017,” Amendi says, adding that, “The second phase was implemented in 33 communities with funding support from Computer Share Australia through WVA. It benefited more than 8,000 people and restored over 700 hectares of degraded lands in the district.”

The third phase of the project started in July 2017 and ended  in  June this year, with funding support from the Australian government through WVA. It aimed to benefit 8,000 people and restore another 500 hectares of degraded land. WVA has similar FMNR projects in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burundi, and Senegal, the organisation’s media manager, Mike Bruce, told Africa in Fact. The outcomes differ slightly from community to community, depending on circumstances.

“I have seen the difference that the project has brought to my people,” farmer John Anaba says. “Before, it was like the soil had quarrelled with us. Our crops refused to show any sign of life. We were just the forgotten people in the country, and food to feed our families became a problem.” So far, the project has seen an improvement in household food security and the resilience of people in the Talensi district, especially the most vulnerable and their families. This has happened through farmer-managed natural regeneration approaches and improved farming systems.

In addition, there has been better environmental management and stewardship, as well as an improvement in household income and savings among the people. Two project evaluations have taken place, both of which have shown that the approach has resulted in an increase in soil fertility and crop yield, as well as improvements in bulk compost and field mulching with crop residue, which has produced more food, Amendi says. Moreover, bush fires, once an annual occurrence, have been reduced by 80%, protecting the soil and allowing grasses and trees to recover, leading to massive reforestation of farms and communal fields.

The district now produces more fodder and nesting for livestock, which means the animals do not need to wander to feed. More fruit is available for home consumption and for sale, and more firewood is available. In total, the project has restored over 2,000 hectares of degraded land, with more than 10,000 farmers using conservation practices such as zero/minimum tillage, the use of stone bund walls, protecting the soil with layers of the residue from harvest crops, and making and using compost to improve soil fertility.

Other people in the district, among them several women, commented that FMNR has had a huge impact on the Talensi district by improving smallholder farmers’ levels of the production and reducing environmental degradation. Overall, the approach has seen an increase in opportunities for livelihoods and incomes for the people in the area.

 

Francis Kokutse is a journalist based in Accra, Ghana. A former member of the governing board of the state-owned Ghana News Agency (GNA), he is currently a writer for the Associated Press (AP) and a contributor to Science and Development.Net (SciDev.Net) as well as the University World News.

All-out war

Climate change

The African Union is actively mobilising resources to help members implement the Paris Agreement, but funding challenges abound

Left: Flash floods on the eastern banks of the Nile river, 50 km north of Khartoum, Sudan, 2019 Photo: Ebrahim Hamid / AFP

Land erosion, drought and desertification, flooding, the Sahara Desert expanding southward at a rate of 48 km a year, change in the distribution of rainfall, rivers and freshwater resources’ drying-up, among others. This is what Africa’s environment looks like right now. Experts say climate change has already had a devastating impact on food and agriculture, livelihoods, human health and ecosystems. Climate change has generated deadly inter-ethnic conflicts over land and water resources, especially in the Sahel region, and is also said to be triggering mass migration as disgruntled people leave their homelands in search of greener pastures.

A 2018 World Bank report, Groundswell – Preparing for Internal Climate Migration – estimated that climate change will push more than 140 million people to migrate within countries by 2050, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America. Environmental degradation on this scale has exposed the limited ability of many African countries to manage climate change. In response, the African Union (AU) has launched a series of measures aimed at redressing the suffering caused by climate disasters.

The Addis-Ababa-based continental body is mobilising resources to support member countries in their implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), said Leah Naess Wanambwa, Senior Policy Officer at the Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture at the AU. To date, 51 of the 54 UN-recognised African countries, which are members of the AU, have ratified the Paris Agreement. Currently, four countries are receiving technical and financial support through a joint initiative between the AU Commission and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Wanambwa added, without naming these countries.

“The African Commission is in the process of mobilising additional support to cover more countries,” she told Africa in Fact. The continent’s leadership had shown consistent and coordinated resolve to support actions at the country, continental and global levels, said Kwame Ababio, Senior Programme Officer at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)’s Technical Cooperation and Advisory Services, an AU economic development agency.

“For the continent, climate change presents an existential danger, both now and in the immediate future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its fifth assessment report, described Africa as being among the most vulnerable continents to climate change and its impacts,” Ababio told Africa in Fact. He added that the limits of Africa’s adaptive capacity to climate change were exacerbated by widespread poverty and an “overwhelming” dependence on the continent’s environmental resources for livelihoods.

The AU’s high-level approach to supporting affected countries is led by the Conference of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC), the standing committee of the African Union Heads of State and Government Architecture. Implementation, particularly with regard to policymaking and finding coordinated African positions on issues on climate change, is led by the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN). In recent decades, African countries have sometimes been at odds with one another due to the divergent political agendas of their leaders. This has sometimes affected the continent’s ability to solve its own problems.

Recently, in January 2020, the AU expressed serious doubts about the credibility of the 2019 presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and called for the announcement of the results to be suspended. The DRC government, led at the time by Joseph Kabila, rejected the AU’s call on national sovereignty grounds. In the event, in early February the country’s independent electoral commission accepted the results, and the international community, African countries included, accepted the outcome of the DRC’s January elections in the name of stability. “In doing so, they have failed the Congolese people,” wrote Mo Ibrahim and Alan Doss on 9 February in The Guardian.

Analysts believe that Kabila manipulated the results to place his ally Felix Tshisekedi on top, instead of Martin Fayulu, who is thought to have won the election outright. The issue divided African leaders, with politicians holding economic interests in the DRC swiftly siding with Kabila. The gathering economic and social crisis in Zimbabwe that resulted from Robert Mugabe’s long occupation of the top spot is another recent example. While South African leaders opted for quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe, Botswana’s former president Ian Khama openly called on the late Mugabe to step down.

However, African leaders have moved to tackle climate change by uniting and speaking with one voice, said Wanambwa. As an important part of this, in 1995 the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change (AGN) was established at COP1, the first UN climate change conference, in Berlin, Germany, to represent the interests of the region with a common and unified voice. Currently, the African Commission also provides some support to the AGN with regard to its participation in the climate change negotiations which have been ongoing since then, she told Africa in Fact.

The AGN negotiates the continent’s position at the climate conventions at the experts’ level. The African Commission’s support has been aimed at ensuring that experts provide technical backing to the AGN on the different thematic areas under the convention. The African voice at climate negotiations has grown from strength to strength and been united, according to Wanambwa. Ababio agreed, saying the AGN had engaged with a wide range of groupings to arrive at a common African stance in relation to many issues raised within the UN Framework Convention on Climate.

It is critical for Africa’s very survival that climate change be mainstreamed into major economic sectors, he added. African governments were spending an estimated 2-9% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) [estimated between $51.6 billion and $232.2 billion] on tackling climate change, while the annual costs of building resilience could range from $140 billion to $300 billion by 2030,” Ababio explained (The estimation above is calculated on the basis of Africa’s total nominal GDP, which was about $2.58 trillion in 2017).

“Bold climate action” could deliver at least $26 trillion in global economic benefits between now and 2030, according to a September 2018 report, Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century, released by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. In 2007, the AU launched the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative, in partnership with the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The proposed 8,000 km-long line of trees and plants will stretch across the entire Sahel and traverse some 20 countries from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to Djibouti.

It’s an ambitious undertaking that many observers describe as the AU’s biggest climate change project to date. According to the AU, the aim is to reverse land degradation and desertification in the Sahel and Sahara region, boost food security and support local communities to adapt to climate change (See also Joe Walsh’s article on page 136).

Such efforts and initiatives appear to have gained support from  some independent voices, such as Uganda-born environmental activist William Leslie Amanzuru, winner of the 2019 European Union Human Rights Defender Award. Amanzuru’s organisation, Friends of Zoka, advocates for the protection of the 6,145-hectare Zoka Central Forest Reserve located in northern Uganda. While he praised the AU for what it was doing to fight climate change on the continent, he told Africa in Fact that he deplored the lack of political will shown by most member states. Widespread lack of political will was the biggest problem for the continent’s efforts to combat climate change, he said.

Financial   assistance   to member states  granted  by  institutions   such the African Development Bank (AfDB) for climate change redress was being diverted to political purposes, Amanzuru claimed. The AU needed to design appropriate accountability mechanisms for these funds, he urged. The AU certainly does face serious funding challenges with regard to its capacity to respond to climate change. In 2016, the AfDB estimated that Africa was accessing only about 3% of international climate finance.

“At the national level, there is inadequacy in governments’ capacity at the human and institutional level to meet international standards and fund eligibility requirements,” NEPAD’s Ababio told Africa in Fact. Without external support, African countries would only be able to implement about 30% of their commitments in terms of the Paris Agreement, he warned.

Kinshasa-born Issi Sikita da Silva is an award-winning freelance journalist. Winner of the SADC Media 2010 Awards in the print category, he has travelled extensively across Africa and lived in South Africa for 18 years, where he worked in the media industry for 10 years. He is currently based in West Africa.

The long path to a green future

Greendustrialisation: now or never

African economies looking for a sustainable industrialisation model find themselves at a crossroads with little time to decide the way forward

Ruth Amoah (right) and her workers at small chocolate producer Moments Chocolate’s workplace remove husks from roasted cocoa beans in Accra, Ghana, 2019
Photo: Cristina Aldehuela / AFP

Lack of industrialisation is often pointed out as the key factor behind Africa’s underdevelopment. Among those supporting the idea are  Mike Morris and Judith Fessehaie, who wrote in their 2014 paper, The Industrialisation Challenge for Africa: “Only a massive industrialisation effort will enable Africa to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development”. According to United Nations (UN) statistics from 2019, Africa is home to more than 1.2 billion people or 16% of the world’s population, 85% of whom “are still poor if judged by the standards of upper-middle income countries”.

Yet, the continent accounts for less than 2% of international trade and global manufacturing. Based on the current demographic trend, the UN forecasts that Africa’s population will reach 2.5 billion people by 2050 – a dramatic increment that will put further strain on already scarce jobs and insufficient public services and natural resources. Due to low levels of industrialisation, Africa is by far the continent that produces the least CO2 emissions. UN statistics for 2016 show that Africa emits just 4% of the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere. According to an early 2020 Oxfam study, “The average Brit will emit more carbon in the first two weeks than the citizens of seven African nations (Rwanda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Madagascar, Guinea and Burkina Faso) emit in an entire year”.

Nonetheless, Africa pays the toll for pollution as much as any other part of the world, and available data suggest that the continent is affected by climate change more immediately than other regions. “For sub-Saharan Africa, which has experienced more frequent and more intense climate extremes over the past decades, the ramifications of the world’s warming by more than 1.5°C would be profound,” said the UN’s spokesperson for sustainability issues, Dan Shepard, when summing up the conclusions of the 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Temperature increases in the region are projected to be higher than the global mean temperature increase,” wrote Shepard on the panel’s conclusions, which predicted a decrease in precipitation in Africa of up to 20% if the projected warming is not corrected. As the developed world pushes forward to move away from a model of industrial production based on burning fossil fuels that is proving unsustainable, African economies find themselves at a crossroads with little time to decide the way forward. Stepping up efforts to boost production through energy sources that are being dropped elsewhere does not seem like a viable option for Africa.

On the one hand, it would be met with reticence from donors and partners much aware of the urgency of greening the economy. Besides, its success would come at a price for a continent whose rich natural environments remain largely unscathed compared to other parts of the world. In these circumstances, both governments and international institutions are, at least from a declarative point of view, decisively opting for what has been called “a green path to industrialisation”, what we will call greendustrialisation.

“The big opportunity for Africa in 2016, as a latecomer to industrialisation, is in adopting alternative economic pathways to industrialisation,” a report by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (2016) noted. Titled Greening Africa’ s Industrialization, the document argues that African countries have the potential to “benefit from their current low-carbon position and leapfrog” a future, without a “high dependence on volatile fossil fuels” and avoiding the complex and costly transition processes required in more industrialised economies.

An example of greendustrialisation given by the report is the Hawassa Eco-Industrial Park in Ethiopia, some 275 km south of the capital. This textile manufacturing plant started operating in 2016 and is the flagship project of the government’s industrial parks programme aimed at creating jobs and boosting exports. The Hawassa park runs on renewable hydroelectric power and employs a Zero Liquid Discharge system (ZLD) that enables it to recycle 90% of the sewerage disposal waters. Its success supports the notion that building green infrastructure from scratch might be easier than greening an existing one.

The Hawassa Park has been built with abundant and diversified foreign investment, especially from Asia. Some 25,000, mostly female, Ethiopians currently work at the plant, which is expected to employ 60,000 people when running at its full capacity. Cheap labour and the good conditions offered to investors by the Addis Ababa government have drawn clothing giants such as Guess, H&M and Levi’s to commission some of the garments they sell to manufacturers working from this park. According to 2016 World Bank data, agriculture employs between 65 and 70% of Africa’s workforce and supports the livelihoods of 90% of the continent’s population.

Thus, the success of industrialising African economies lies to a great extent in the transformation of the sector. Ivory Coast is the world’s top cocoa producer, but most of the volume extracted is processed (in the form of liquor, butter, cake or powder) abroad. The government has repeatedly vowed to spur its cocoa processing capacities in the coming years. At the same time, Ivory Coast aspires to boost the manufacturing in the country of cashews, cotton, rubber and coffee, whose production is mostly exported in raw form. Singapore-based agribusiness giant Olam International is one of the companies already processing cocoa and other commodities in Ivory Coast.

Its factories employ 5,000 people and are mentioned as an example of good environmental practices by the UN Economic Commission for Africa. A major challenge for both cocoa supply and manufacturing in Africa and overseas is the deforestation provoked by logging aimed at making space for planting more cocoa trees to farm. In 2017, the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana launched, together with 35 global cocoa and chocolate companies, the Cocoa & Forests Initiative. Its main provision is “a commitment to no further conversion of any forest land for cocoa production”. One of the intended measures is investing “in sustainable agricultural intensification in order to grow more cocoa on less land”.

Between 1988 and 2007, the website of the initiative says, 2.3 million hectares of rainforest was cleared for cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana. In a 2015 speech before the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the then Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, mentioned the development of manufacturing and the transformation of the agricultural sectors as two pivotal points to drive Africa’s industrialisation. Desalegn, who has been commended for championing the greendustrialisation agenda pioneered by his predecessor, Meles Zenawi, also alluded to the procurement of energy as “one of the binding constraints for industrialisation”.

He unequivocally propounded the development of “renewable energy”, which he considered to be “our comparative advantage in Africa”, as the only desirable way forward. In an example of integrated greendustrialisation, Ivory Coast is planning to build a 60 to 70 MW capacity biomass power- generation plant running on waste from cocoa pods. The project is supported by the US and will be up and running in 2023 if the process goes as planned. Ivory Coast aims to develop 424 MW of biomass power generation capacity by 2030, in an effort to increase and diversify its electricity generation sources as power demand has grown due to economic growth.

In December 2019, the Ivorian government and a French consortium led by Electricite de France (EDF) signed a concession contract for the construction of a biomass power plant of an installed capacity of 46 MW. It should be ready by 2023, when it will start generating electricity from oil palm waste. While countries like Malawi, South Africa and Rwanda have made remarkable progress in developing biofuels, wind and solar energy, Kenya is the leading actor in Africa when it comes to energy transition. Between 2010 and 2018 Kenya’s economy expanded at an annual average rate of 5.8%, according to World Bank data.

Between 2010 and 2019, Kenya’s peak demand for electricity almost doubled (from just over 1,000 MW in 2010 to exceed 1,900 last year), official data from the Nairobi government shows. Back in 2008, the Kenyan government launched its Kenya Vision 2030, a plan aimed at industrialising the economy to bring prosperity to citizens within a “clean and secure environment”. To sustain the projected economic expansion, the plan provided for an increase in the country’s power capacity based on the development of renewable energies, particularly hydroelectricity and geothermal energy. In December 2019, Kenya put a new 50 MW solar plant online.

It increased the share of renewable energy in its power mix to a remarkable 93% and took the country closer to the government’s target of being entirely green energy powered by 2020. In a 2019 policy research working paper for the World Bank, Catrina Godinho and Anton Eberhard cite the following facts to explain Kenya’s success. Since 1996, “policy and regulatory functions were separated from commercial activities; generation was unbundled from transmission and distribution; cost-reflective tariffs were introduced; and generation was liberalised.”

In a second phase of the reform that started in 2002 “independent regulation” was strengthened and the national generation company partially privatised to attract foreign investment. As a result of these policies, which continue, Kenya “has … become an investment destination for IPPs” (Independent Power Producers). This has allowed it to triple its generation power capacity since 1990, “with generation capacity expanding more rapidly than peak demand” and having achieved a power surplus (Godinho and Eberhard) – while almost entirely greening the company’s power sourcing.

Kenya ranked fifth in the BloombergNEF’s 2019 Climatescope report, which evaluates the investment conditions in clean energy in 104 emerging countries. “The country is gradually increasing its share of non-large hydro renewables by adding solar, wind and geothermal,” the report read. “In 2018, Kenya recorded its highest ever clean energy investment with $1.4 billion,” it added. However, the eastern   African nation’s vigour in exploiting Africa’s privileged natural resources to propel industrialisation remains unparalleled in a region with huge discrepancies from country to country,  where  economic   growth is still propelled by extraction commodities.

Despite its desperate need to intensify generation and the commitment of its politicians to take the green way to industrialisation, Africa lags far behind all the other continents in renewable energy actual generation and capacity growth (IEA 2019). Half of Africa’s booming population still has no access to electricity, and power cuts affect 80% of the companies operating on the continent. “Despite progress in several countries (e.g. Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda), current and planned efforts to provide access to modern energy services barely outpace population growth,” the IEA notes in its 2019 World Energy Outlook. Data for 2019 of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) show that Africa’s renewable generation capacity of 46 GW accounted for 2% of global share.

Some 60% of the total share of electricity generated in sub- Saharan Africa comes from hydropower. Oil comes second with a share of 18%, followed by gas (16%). According to the IEA, Africa’s hopes to face the growing demand, brought about by demographic growth and projected economic development, rely on the development of solar energy, which has the potential to overtake hydropower as the main renewable generation source – coupled with the use of the abundant reserves of natural gas discovered in recent years in the continent.

“The big open question for Africa remains the speed at which solar PV will grow. To date, the continent with the richest solar resources in the world has installed only five gigawatts (GW) of solar PV, less than 1% of the global total,” the IEA concludes.

Marcel Gascón Barberá is a freelance journalist and writes for several Spanish and international publications. He has previously worked as a correspondent for EFE Spanish news agency in Romania, South Africa and Venezuela.

Never waste a crisis

Africa: agriculture and environment

Climate change will hit Africa hard, but it also offers the continent an opportunity to build resilience and diversify livelihoods

A young man stands among stationary boats at the dried inland Lake Chilwa in Zomba District, eastern Malawi, October, 2018. Lake Chilwa is the second-largest lake in Malawi after Lake Malawi. The dying lake is having an adverse effect on the livelihoods of communities.
Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP

The changes ahead for Africa’s environment, which form the foundation of the continent’s societies and economies, will be challenging, but bright spots abound. Africa is a continent of contrasting environments absent a singular definition. A mosaic of terrains, the continent weaves together tropical forests, grasslands, savannahs, deserts and mangroves, ice-capped mountains, rivers, lakes and coasts across 55 countries, 1.2 billion people and 30 million square kilometres of land. This enormous landmass contains a quarter of global biodiversity, supports the world’s most prodigious gatherings of large mammals, and its diverse animal, plant and marine ecosystems drive economies and shape societies, cultures and development.

Human actions have played a central role in changing the African environment and its landscape over a long and complex history. African indigenous knowledge and practices include shared cropping systems and zai rain-fed irrigation methods that have mitigated droughts and famine for centuries. Yet, much of the more recent environmental history of Africa is dominated not by stories of Africans managing a challenging environment in harmony with ecosystems, but rather of foreign-driven exploitation of its people and resources, including minerals, fossil fuels, farm and forest produce for export.

Africa today is no less dependent on its environment than in the past. This is especially true in rural areas. Approximately 57% of Africa’s population, or 740 million people, live in rural areas. Agriculture is the continent’s biggest employer, supporting the livelihoods of 51% of the population. The majority of the population working in agriculture is engaged in smallholder agriculture that is undertaken in harsh environmental conditions with limited and highly variable natural rainfall. The high dependence on agriculture and the environment has significant and far-reaching consequences, not just for the 740 million rural people of Africa, but for the continent as a whole.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that nearly a quarter of the population, or 224 million people, in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, with 31% experiencing food insecurity. Food shortages and malnutrition result in stunted growth and permanent damage that has long-term impacts. On a continental level, Africa is not feeding itself. According to the African Development Bank, net food imports to Africa are costing on average $35-$42 billion per year and are predicted to reach $110 billion by 2025. As stated by Akinwumi Adesina, the bank’s president, in 2017, “Africa’s annual food import bill weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.” This food bill does not represent investment – these are sunk costs.

The consequence of this heavy reliance on challenging and unpredictable environmental conditions by such a large proportion of the population is a significant downward pressure on human and economic development. With two thirds of every country’s human capital beholden to the environment, and more specifically unpredictable rainfall to provide livelihoods, the opportunities for entry into skilled employment such as teaching, business, the health profession and trading are curtailed.
Climate change is making these challenges worse. The facts and figures on global climate change are startling. Prior to 1800, the global level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm).

Data drawn from ice cores show that CO2 varied within a relatively narrow range, roughly between 180 and 280 ppm, over the past 800,000 years – never moving above 300 ppm. Currently, CO2 is above 416 ppm. Over this same 800,000 years, methane has never been higher than 750 parts per billion (ppb), but now this gas, which is 22 times more powerful than CO2, is 1,873 ppb. The unprecedented speed and scale of these greenhouse gas emissions brings us into a new era of uncertainty with regards to their impact on the environment and our planet. According to the UN, Africa is the continent that will be hardest hit by climate change.

The key word, however, when attempting to understand climate change in Africa, is uncertainty. One of the challenges in predicting the impact of climate change on the continent is the extremely complex, yet poorly understood, large-scale weather systems that interact across the landscape. While rainfall patterns have been exceptionally difficult to predict, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that temperatures have risen by about 0.5°C over most of the African continent during the past 50-100 years. While this increase in temperature may seem insignificant, it is accelerating and will have a widespread impact on agriculture.

Many staple crops such as wheat, maize, millet and sorghum are especially susceptible to changes in temperature. Scientists predict that by 2050 the agricultural production of millet and sorghum in West Africa will potentially decrease by 13% in Burkina Faso, 25.9% in Mali and 44.7% in Senegal. Even if a quarter of these decreases in production are actualised, they will amplify shocks and stresses in those countries that today face food insecurity that will have an impact on up to five million people, according to the World Food Programme. Higher temperatures will also likely cause desert areas to encroach further south, also limiting agricultural options.

This may have unexpected consequences on migration and food insecurity, forcing people into conflict and causing an increase in bush meat consumption that may encourage new zoonotic diseases to emerge. Climate change will further impact biodiversity. An assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa, published by the independent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), estimates that by 2100 climate change could have caused the loss of over half of Africa’s bird and mammal species and a significant loss of plant species.

That will have a substantial impact on livelihoods, water and food supply and reduce people’s resilience to shocks and stresses because these ecosystems are the foundation of healthy societies and economies. Another area of clear impact occurring along coasts due to rising sea levels and warming. Sea levels have risen between 13-20 cm over the past 100   years and this is accelerating. Rising sea levels are caused by warming seas that expand as they increase in temperature and melting land-based ice flows into the ocean. Africa has just over 30,000 km of coastline that is undergoing increasing population growth and urbanisation.

These urban areas will be susceptible to more flooding due to storm surges. But warming sea levels are also impacting the environment in other, unpredictable ways. The devastating locust swarms currently destroying crops and livelihoods across East Africa may be linked to climate change. The warming Indian Ocean has contributed to 2019 being one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades. This drove eight cyclones across the region in 2019 – the most since records began – and enabled desert locusts to leapfrog into East Africa where they have now laid eggs and are hatching in their trillions.

David Hughes of the UN’s FAO, told the BBC in May that they “threaten the food of 23 million people. It is the number one food security issue in East Africa at the moment.” Climate change is not the only factor leading to this uncertain future, however. Many scientists posit that we have now entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. The African environment, for example, has suffered significantly from human-led degradation that has accelerated over the past century. This includes the over-exploitation of wildlife and fisheries and natural habitat loss, especially from agricultural expansion.

The Anthropocene is characterised by an increasingly interconnected and accelerating world. These characteristics have significant implications for how we understand risks. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how a zoonotic disease that emerged from wildlife to humans in a city in China is having an enormous and rapid negative impact on people and economies in Africa and around the globe. When we combine the interconnected and rapidly changing nature of the Anthropocene with the uncertain impacts of climate change in the context of Africa, the future looks challenging.

African leaders are not to blame for the impacts of climate change against which they must build resilience. Africa has 17% of the world’s population, but has only contributed 4% to global carbon emissions, and much of this has been to supply export products for higher-income countries. But regardless of where the blame for climate change lies, the reality is that the global public and private sectors have a shared responsibility to address the interconnected and uncertain risks it poses.

Domestically, African governments and the private sector need to recognise the impact of climate change and champion green growth that works with nature to build resilience and supports people, especially rural populations, to adapt through improved early warning systems, agricultural investment and diversified livelihood options. The current Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications provide an opportunity to employ the old adage of “never waste a crisis”. As Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda stated: “We are not making a choice between environment and prosperity; but we are rather looking at how we combine both.”

This is the opportunity to invest in recovery solutions, such as job programmes that directly invest in natural capital like nature-based tourism, that will help the continent to come back stronger. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates, for example, that 3.6 million people in Africa are employed in the nature-based tourism industry, which was worth $29 billion in 2018. These programmes can also build the capacity of local communities and drive forward opportunities for women and youth.
Navigating this uncertain future will also require an improved understanding of environmental and human interactions through investing in science and education.

For Africa to thrive amidst the shocks and stresses that lie ahead, it will need leadership and cooperation from governments, the private sector and people that builds resilience to upcoming challenges by supporting growth and development that protects and works with the environment. As South African climate activist Ndivile Mokoena said: “Climate change is largely viewed as an environmental issue. However, it encompasses everything: it is a developmental issue, it is a human rights issue, it is a social issue.”

Nathanial (Nate) Matthews is a political and environmental scientist and Director of Programmes at the Global Resilience Partnership. He holds a PhD in geography, has published two books and authored over 55 scientific publications and reports. He has 16 years’ experience in international development across 30 countries. Twitter: @Nate_Matthews_