Sub-Saharan Africa’s small-scale farmers, who account for more than half of the continent’s workforce, must be a focus of climate conference COP 28, according to experts at a press briefing organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Agricultural innovation and supporting farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is a top focus area for the foundation. Experts at last week’s briefing pushed for more investment in solutions such as seed breeding, weather intelligence, and agricultural emissions reductions in order to help farmers adapt to climate change.
Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, which the Food and Agriculture Organization defines as those working on up to 10 hectares, are disproportionately affected by climate change. Temperatures in the region have risen faster than the global average, and losses on African farms are almost twice the global average — according to United Nations climate experts, climate change already has reduced per-capita GDP across Africa by 13.6%, mostly because of its impact on agriculture. Yet sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and only 1.7% of climate finance is targeting the needs of the region’s smallholder farmers.
“We want the world to understand why we will not solve the global climate emergency if we continue to neglect African farmers,” Enock Chikava, interim director of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told journalists. “But we are not just admiring the problem — we believe there are solutions already available that need to be funded.”
The briefing took place in the weeks before COP 28 starts on Nov. 30 in Dubai and follows a U.N. Environment Program report which found that the world faces an enormous gap in tackling climate adaptation.
Here are some of the key solutions that experts showcased:
1. AI for seeds
One of the most promising solutions for farmers to adapt to a drier, hotter climate is to identify the most resilient varieties of their staple crops and reproduce them. Farmers usually rely on their senses to do this, for example, by selecting plants bearing more fruits or the ones with greener leaves.
But the process, known as phenotyping, is time-consuming and often inaccurate — for example, it’s impossible to count all the open flowers in a given field.
The Artemis project, developed by the Alphabet company Mineral and the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT, is seeking to equip small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with a smartphone app that uses digital imaging technology to perform many of the tasks.
“Computers can do things that human eyes can’t do, such as counting every bean pod or every flower in the field every day,” said Steve Mutuvi, a data scientist at the Alliance of Biodiversity International and CIAT. “If we can collect good data on flowers and pods, it will allow breeders to better predict performance of new varieties,” he said, making the process more accurate, but also faster and cheaper.
2. Better weather data
If African farmers often use more pesticides and chemicals than counterparts in other regions, it’s partly because of the lack of access to timely weather data, according to Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director of the nonprofit TomorrowNow.
“If it rains and you’ve applied your pesticide already, the pesticide will wash off into the rivers and the farmers will reapply,” she told journalists.
Similarly, Campbell Flatter said untimely rains often waste the seeds sown by farmers or the fertilizer they apply.
TomorrowNow, another project showcased in the briefing, is trying to connect agricultural communities in Africa with the latest weather technology to advance early warning systems.
For example, partnering with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, or KALRO, TomorrowNow sends about 1 million smallholder farmers in Kenya weekly text messages containing timely crop advice based on weather technology.
3. Cutting livestock emissions
Agriculture is also the source of up to one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, said Aditi Mukherji, director of climate change adaptation and mitigation impact action platform at the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR, which works on a variety of agricultural adaptation innovations, from climate resilient seeds, to water management, to landscape management.
Some of those emissions come from livestock farming, such as the enteric methane emissions produced by cows. But Mukherji said that while livestock production in the global north is industrial, it can be a vital component of smallholder farmers’ livelihoods in low-income countries. This makes cutting the sector’s emissions more challenging because it risks compromising the food security of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Mukherji said that CGIAR is turning to improving livestock feed and pasture and manure management to find ways to cut emissions without threatening the livelihoods of African small-scale farmers.
4. Lots more climate cash
At the institutional level, Seyni Nafo, the coordinator of the Africa Adaptation Initiative, called for political commitments to be reaffirmed at COP 28. He mentioned the pledge that high-income countries made at COP 26 in Glasgow to double adaptation finance by 2025, together with the UNEP Adaptation Gap Report showing that public adaptation finance flows to lower-income countries had actually declined 21% between 2020 and 2021.
“I think it’s extremely important that those who committed reassert their interest to meet and honor that commitment first,” he told journalists. “Then, that needs to be translated into language that ensures that those commitments are going to be delivered.”
He called for a minimum floor “in the billions” of dollars for the forthcoming loss and damage fund and for more clarity around the goal that will replace the 2009 pledge for high-income countries to deliver $100 billion in annual climate finance to their lower-income counterparts by 2025.
Nafo also said the Initiative was launching an investment fund for African small and medium enterprises in the food security and climate value chain, as well as a project preparation facility.
“Because after commitments are delivered, it’s key to build capacity so that African stakeholders are able to access that finance,” he said.