In many parts of the African continent, the climate crisis is a food crisis. Squeezed by rising import costs, a growing population and worsening conditions for food production, the cracks in the current system are beginning to show. Over 50 million people are expected to face acute food insecurity in Eastern Africa in 2022 – up from 42 million last year – as an unprecedented multi-season drought combines with regional conflict and supply chain pressure from the war in Ukraine.
The continent’s colonial past and its position in the global food system as a dependent consumer of cheap foreign commodities heighten its vulnerability to climate change impacts – not only in Africa but also beyond. But the solutions to African communities’ challenges could be right beneath their feet. Farmers, fishers and pastoralists across Africa are well-versed in producing food in environments in flux, and are in many cases at the cutting edge of pioneering agroecological approaches that serve both human communities and the landscapes in which they live.
As parts of the global food system start to crumble, the call to reclaim African food sovereignty is growing louder, and changemakers in diverse disciplines and sectors throughout the continent are finding ways to contribute. We spoke to four of them – each of whom will speak at the upcoming online GLF Africa event on 15 September – about the solutions they see in food policy, supply chains, application of technology and youth empowerment.
Food policy: From security to sovereignty
Youba Sokona, based in Mali, is a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has been at the heart of numerous national and continental initiatives on energy, environment and sustainable development in Africa.
He says that until recently, the challenge of harnessing energy for agriculture has hampered development for many small-scale farmers. “But now, with the improvements in efficiency and scalability of renewable energy – especially solar – it’s much more possible.”
Scaling up irrigation, also with the help of that energy, could be particularly useful in building resilience and productivity. “Only 6 to 7 percent of the continent’s agriculture is irrigated. It’s largely rain-fed, with huge sensitivity to climatic conditions,” he says. When water can be stored and applied strategically, heavy rains like those that are currently hitting parts of the Sahel can be optimized to help farmers get through subsequent droughts.
Sokona also advocates for a reorientation from European-inspired diets to more traditional local food. “In many parts of the continent, you don’t see much emphasis on local diets,” he says. “The tendency is to abandon our [traditional] food systems and rely much more on bread [from imported wheat].” Local grains – in his area, sorghum, millet and fonio – are well-adapted to their environment and could be improved further with appropriate investment and research, which he says is currently lacking. Developing a small-scale agribusiness scene focused on local grains “is the way, I think, to bring fundamental change, and then the move from food security to food sovereignty.”
Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli
Supply chains: Building capacity from the ground up
Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is an international development expert and serial entrepreneur based in Nigeria. She is the co-founder and executive chair of Sahel Consulting Agriculture and Nutrition, which partners with a range of public and private sector organizations to implement ecosystem solutions in African agriculture and food landscapes. “We work across multiple food value chains and implement a number of programs in the sector aimed at increasing productivity, livelihoods and technical knowledge of actors toward improved and sustainable food production,” she says.
One key project is Advancing Local Dairy Development in Nigeria (ALDDN). The project “aims to catalyze the emergence of a vibrant local dairy sector in a manner that improves the livelihoods, productivity, nutrition and empowerment of smallholder dairy farmers and the communities in which they live,” Nwuneli says.
Sahel Consulting also works on seed systems in Nigeria, supporting market awareness of high-quality seed and improving the capacity of seed producers through technical and business advisory support, which in turn improves seed availability and accessibility for farmers. “We’ve also directly supported the launch of early-generation seed companies in the cassava and maize value chains,” says Nwuneli, “to ensure the production of new and improved varieties that are high-yielding and resilient to pests and diseases for use by farmers.” Through these ventures, the company seeks to support resilient local and regional food production.
Application of technology: Petabytes of data for better decisions
Catherine Nakalembe, a research professor at the University of Maryland, is Program Director of NASA Harvest Africa, which focuses on using satellite technology to help people make more informed agricultural decisions. “We have petabytes of satellite data becoming available every day,” says Nakalembe. “We can pretty much see anywhere in the world right now. And we have historical data from almost everywhere, too.”
Using machine learning and validation through field data (such as from local weather stations), the program converts that information into higher-order data sets that are displayed in dashboards. Farmers, decision-makers and private sector actors can then use this information for monitoring things like crop condition, forecasting, yield, soils and disease status. In so doing, they can estimate outcomes for seasonal production and make informed predictions about what will be available at the market, what can be exported, what needs to be imported, and what alternative measures and practices might be important.
To use the data successfully, capacity building and consideration of what’s important in the local context is usually required, says Nakalembe. “You don’t snap your fingers and get a good product – it’s a very long process. So when I work with institutions in different locations, I tell them as openly as possible what’s feasible and what they need to do.” She’s also exploring how to collect ground data efficiently, such as putting cameras on extension workers’ motorbike helmets so that the crops they pass on their travels can be recognized by machine learning and added into the data sets. And, she’s looking at effective ways to distill the information for decision-makers in different institutions who use different systems and “might never look at [our] map.”
Youth empowerment: Developing people, one job at a time
Violet Amoabeng is a Ghana-based entrepreneur and the founder and chief executive of Skin Gourmet, a company that makes raw handmade skincare from ingredients sourced from Ghanaian forests – like moringa oil, shea and baobab body butter, and hibiscus and tea tree sugar scrub – with the tagline ‘so pure you can eat it!’
Alongside its environmental and health credentials, the company focuses on investing in local livelihoods and capacities – particularly for young people. “I realized that Skin Gourmet was an avenue to reduce poverty, because we could create several value chains that would incorporate local people at their competency levels and create a product that was world-class enough to export worldwide,” she says. Unemployment is so high in Ghana – with over 13 percent of the economically-active population out of work in 2021 – that people without university-level degrees often struggle to find jobs. That’s why Skin Gourmet makes an effort to hire younger and less-educated people – most of its employees are under 35 and are not university-educated. “Our mission is to develop people, one job at a time,” she says.
The venture has not been without its challenges. “Our systems are not built to support small- to medium-sized enterprises. There’s a lot of corruption you have to deal with and a lot of systems that don’t work – including our high school education being quite lacking, which makes hiring people difficult,” says Amoabeng. “So the challenge is really about sticking with it, trying to stay in the country and create something without the system collapsing at some point.”
However, she notes, “things are constantly changing, and I think it’s about your mindset and your perception – we have chosen to see our problems as a challenge to which there is a solution. So it’s difficult, but not impossible.”