The numbers corroborate the story we often hear that Africa is hungry, famished, undernourished. According to recent reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, an estimated 346 million Africans are severely food insecure, and 452 million moderately so. But what’s often missing from this narrative are all the reasons that have forced this situation to arise, spanning from the onset of colonialism to the present acceleration of climate change primarily caused by wealthy nations beyond the continent, riddled with abuses of power, false solutions and countless forms of injustice along the way.
But as innumerable as such past challenges might be, so too are the present avenues for Africa to overcome its food crisis – sustainable pathways carved in and from African soil rather than imported highways that crumble over time. It was these continental solutions that were the focus of GLF Africa 2022, the fourth Africa-focused event held by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) – the world’s largest knowledge-driven organization sustainable land use – on 15 September 2022.
Over the course of the day, supported by a months-long campaign of awareness-raising and knowledge-sharing events and publications, more than 8,500 people registered to gather in a complex digital event space, hearing from scientists, politicians, organizational leaders, farmers, traditional rulers, activists, chefs, artists and more about the different pieces of Africa’s food picture.
“It’s not because external actors ask for this,” said Carlos Lopes, an honorary professor at the University of Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, of the continent’s growing collective action to regain control over its food production and consumption. “It’s because we believe in it. If we are reactive, we may continue to experience more of the same, but if we become proactive, we may well become leaders of new food systems.”
The backdrop: A delicate fabric
The reality is that climate change is largely a man-made game controlled by the winners, and Africa has been kept playing one of the worst-dealt hands. “It’s totally unfair, it’s totally unrealistic to ask a continent like Africa, which is responsible for a mere percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, to forego any development because we in the developed countries are responsible for 75 percent of emissions,” said Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and managing director of its partnership with World Agroforestry, CIFOR-ICRAF.
In conjunction with events like the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, the rise of greenhouse gases puts many of Africa’s fragile ecosystems – drylands, tropical rainforests, desert and peatlands – at the behest of worsening heatwaves, heavy rains, drought, unpredictable seasons and conditions conducive for wildfire. The result is that producing food in Africa is a struggle unlike it has ever been before.
“In Africa, the biggest climate change impact can be seen in the food, agriculture and health sectors with knock-on effects on poverty, the economy, migration and conflicts,” said Youba Sokona, vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), noting that Africa’s food productivity has reduced by a staggering 34 percent since 1961 due to climate change, more than any other region. “Food security will [continue to] be affected by climate change through yield declines, especially in the tropics, [as well as] increased prices, declined nutrient quality and supply chain disruptions.”
Indeed, an unfortunate irony is the feedback loop between food and climatic systems. “The climate and food crises reinforce each other,” said Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary for Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Globally, food systems are responsible for about 30 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, 82 percent of deforestation, 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals and the majority of all biodiversity loss.
The foreground: A stage of solutions
There is proven value in using scare tactics to mobilize people against a cause, but GLF Africa 2022 was not about dwelling on the reasons behind Africa’s food realities. Rather, its 11 scientific sessions, 4 plenaries and various other inspirational talks, launches and events served up a cornucopia of the strategies, tactics and technologies being tested and implemented to increase Africa’s food production as quickly as possible while having resiliency and sustainability long-term.
At the core of the event was the concept of “food sovereignty” – Africa having full authority over how it feeds itself – which speakers stressed is inextricably linked to who designs the so-called “solutions” to food crises. While policymakers have a role to play, embedded throughout discussions was the importance of the rights and voices of those at the landscape level, from leaders of local communities down to land-using individuals.
“Making solutions and foraging a sustainable future for Karamojong pastoralist tribes without the pastoralists will be making solutions that won’t work,” said climate activist Joshua Omonuk, speaking in a video from Uganda’s Karamoja region, where recent famine caused the deaths of 900 people, mainly women and children. “Solutions for the Karamojongs must be made by the Karamojongs.”
“It’s counterintuitive to think that [without community control] we’re going to get a forest protected,” echoed Susan Chomba. director of Vital Landscapes for Africa at the World Resources Institute (WRI), noting that power over some 90 percent of the world’s forests rests with governments. “The more you decentralize management of forests, the more you’re going to have sustainable management,” she said.
Forests were a core focus of the event for their role as key sources of local food, wild meat, fuel and climate change mitigation. They also, in many African cultures, serve as important sites of ritual. Historically, when droughts would come or crop yields would dwindle, communities would use forests to connect with deities and ask for divine intervention, said Mbeh Gwan Mbanyamsiq III Charles Mbah, the president of Cameroon Traditional Rulers against Climate Change (CAMTRACC). But, he said, this intimacy is also imbedded with crucial knowledge on how to sustain the land (“We know eucalyptus is not very good for water catchment.”).
Linking traditional knowledge and modern science, as Mbah and Omunuk among many others discussed, is a topic at the forefront of just about all climate fora nowadays, and headway on this front is being made. The IPCC and its biodiversity-focused cousin IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) continue to increase the contributions from local and Indigenous groups in their seminal reports, including IPBES’s recent Assessment Report on Diverse Values and Valuation of Nature, which was presented at the event.
But for the transformation of food systems in Africa, it’s on the small scale where this joining of science and local knowledge can have the most power for overcoming immediate challenges and threats – and achieving equity.
“Small-scale producers grow a third of the world’s food, but can still go to bed hungry themselves,” said Alvario Lario, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), noting that only 1.7 percent of all climate finance goes to those who need it most.
The use of pesticides has long been an imported source of devastation for African food systems, leading not only to more resilient breeds of pests but also to the spread of unsustainable monoculture and the deteriorated health of farmers. By working with communities to enhance natural biodiversity and crop diversity at the “field to landscape scale,” said CIFOR-ICRAF tropical forest ecologist and conservation biologist Rhett Harrison, pests can be removed from farmland through the creation of new habitats, the health of the soil and of the farmers is protected, and crop yields increase.
Livestock, meanwhile, is one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gases; but reframing this sector as therefore having the highest potential for climate change mitigation in food systems casts a new lens on what local communities can achieve by coupling data with their traditional livestock rearing practices. Because sick animals produce emissions but aren’t productive, a reduction in livestock diseases and deaths combats climate change while also increasing food security – an effort now being spread in local African communities by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
The application of technology also has a major role to play in changing local food production in Africa, the foremost of which might be satellites, as was expounded by Catherine Nakalembe, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland and the director of NASA Harvest’s Africa Program. Satellite data not only maps key data such as forest changes, heat and freshwater availability, but it can also limit and prevent disaster. Early warnings for drought and natural disaster in Uganda resulted in the release of funding to over 90,000 households – and ended up saving the government more than USD 11.1 million dollars – Nakalembe said. Phone apps, solar panels and energy-efficient cook stoves were among the many other technologies presented in the event, the success of which lies in their adaptation for local community needs.
While these were among the more granular solutions shared, on a larger scale, four main forces were repeated throughout the event as having the bulk of the power to radically transform African food systems.
First, Africa’s youth population – which is estimated to account for 42 percent of the world’s total youth population (aged 35 and under) by 2030 – holds enormous potential to blossom the agricultural sector through landscape restoration, farming, agribusiness, policymaking and tangential industry, such as sustainable energy. Some 50 young leaders spoke throughout the event, bringing attention to the restoration, research business ventures they’re leading, as well made calls for the support they need in order to be able to initiate more change.
“We need national policies that will encourage farmers to cultivate Indigenous and nutrient-rich crops that support human and planetary health,” said Rebecca Bakare, a young entrepreneur and co-founder of biotech company Nueden Bio, making calls on behalf of her generation at the closing of the event. “We need regional policies that will stimulate the establishment of research and de velopment infrastructures across the continent. We also need the public and private sectors to start investing in young people’s ideas, capacity, and skills. We need the active solidarity of the international community and the necessary funding for African nations to adapt to the climate crisis.
Second is the transformation of value chains, particularly of African commodity crops with a major market share of the global supply, such as coffee and cocoa. The latter of which was brought into focus in a plenary hosted by the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program (FOLUR) – one of the largest programs ever funded by the Global Environment Facility, investing USD 345 million across 27 countries to make value chains more equitable and sustainable at all levels – that showed how the infinitely complex chocolate industry all comes down to the wellbeing of cocoa farmers and smallholders.
Ywe Franken, who leads on cocoa productivity for Dutch confectionary company Tony’s Chocolonely, explained how the success of the brand that had a revenue of some EUR 110 million last year stems from enhancing farmer incomes as well as sustainably intensified land-use through agroforestry and the planting of trees; Betty Annan, the Ghanaian country director for the World Cocoa Foundation, stressed the long-term benefits of private companies who invest in communities – and particularly youth education. “The new type of profitability is sustainability… which affects the full value chain,” echoed Violet Amoabeng, founder and CEO of Ghanaian skincare brand Skin Gourmet Limited.
Third is equity and equality for women, who are proven time and time again to experience the greatest impacts of climate change, exacerbating their already disadvantaged access to natural resources and basic needs; despite producing up to 80 percent of many African nation’s food supplies, they receive far fewer financial benefits and often go more hungry than men. However, as many projects and programs have proven, there is a direct link between improving women’s rights and increases in crop yields, livelihoods and landscape sustainability.
“The women will take action,” said rural Ugandan farmer and women’s rights champion Constance Okollet in a pre-event discussion on the role of women in value chains. “They’ll do the work. They’ll take action. They just need that startup piece of knowledge to do so.” Securing women’s customary or legal rights to the land they tend, ensuring their meaningful participation in decision-making processes, training them in skills such as project proposal-writing or applying for micro-loans, and connecting them with up-to-date data on their landscapes were some of the most direct pathways highlighted by experts – and local women – to swift change in African food systems.
Lastly, innovation was a concept continually raised as Africa’s most direct route back to its own sovereignty and reawakening the dormant places where it might lie. Rose Mwebaza, who directs the UN Climate Technology Centre and Network, described how formal government-instituted innovation “hubs” could more quickly activate the continent’s youth and marginalized populations by giving them access to the education, financial and creative inputs to help accomplish their visions – needs requested by many speakers throughout the day.
But the seeds of African innovation that are already sprouting and flowering were more apparent than any of the statements made about the word itself. The unique ways ancient wisdom is coupling with cutting-edge technology, the entrepreneurial advancements of marginalized groups, the shifting value systems of the private sector, and barren places that have been made to grow are all telltale signs of a future where Africa will be looked to when other regions of the world are forging their own food fight.