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How African farmers are taking climate action

20 September 2019

How African farmers are taking climate action

By Sam Viney, Communications and Advocacy Officer, Farm Africa

Millions are expected to take part in today's global climate strike. The pressure on decision-makers to take action against climate change has never been higher. As temperatures and voices rise, the need to action feasible climate solutions has never felt more urgent.

A recent IPCC report has shown that sustainable farming must be a key ingredient in the world’s climate action recipe.

Food production’s contribution to carbon emissions has been much reported. What’s less well recognised is agriculture’s role as a carbon sink. Judicious use of appropriate agricultural techniques can trap carbon, increase yields and build farmers’ resilience to changing weather patterns.

It’s neither fair nor realistic to expect some of the world’s poorest people to factor CO2 emissions into decisions that will determine whether they are able to feed, clothe or educate their loved ones. That’s why it’s critical that rural communities are given appropriate support to identify and implement sustainable farming systems that pay out financially and environmentally for farmers.

From cost-saving soil management techniques to growing world-class coffee underneath the canopy of forests, here are a few climate-savvy techniques that Farm Africa promotes to farming communities across eastern Africa.  

These techniques are not one-size-fits-all approaches but are tailored to the environmental, economic and cultural realities in which farmers operate.

Soil management

A third of the Earth’s soil is acutely degraded. Worst affected is Africa. Globally, soil stores an estimated 9.8 billion tonnes of carbon. While soil degradation releases carbon, soil conservation traps it. What’s more, the brown stuff beneath our feet is the basis for all food production. Boosting the fertility of Africa’s soil presents multiple benefits for people and the planet alike:

  • decreasing the cost of production
  • increasing farms’ productivity
  • boosting microorganisms in the soil
  • sequestering carbon.

With funding from Irish Aid, Farm Africa supported maize farmers in southern Ethiopia to adopt minimum tillage techniques, which don’t require oxen or tractors to plough the land. Leaving soil alone can boost organic matter and, subsequently, carbon levels. The shift saw farmers improve their yields and profit margins. A win-win for farmers and the climate.

Cutting waste

Food waste contributes 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. On its own, food waste would be the third-largest emitter in the world, after the US and China. In developing countries, food waste mainly happens at the start of the supply chain: 40% of developing country farmers’ losses occur at the post-harvest and processing levels.

In Tanzania’s dry Dodoma region, farmers rely on the sorghum they grow to feed their families. An increasingly volatile climate endangers smallholders’ yields, and climate shocks regularly push people into poverty. When Dodoma’s smallholders achieve a bountiful harvest, sub-standard warehouses and a lack of on-farm storage facilities see much of their harvest going to rot.

Farm Africa is connecting these farmers with businesses that sell simple but effective farm equipment, like tarpaulins and sacks, which can significantly reduce post-harvest losses. We’re also training warehouse staff to process farmers’ produce properly, to improve its shelf life, and store their products safely, reducing losses from pests and diseases. These changes will allow farmers to eat and sell more of their hard-earned food.

Agroforestry

Scientists have recently said that halting deforestation is ‘just as urgent’ as reducing emissions. Agriculture is one of the main drivers of deforestation. In forest communities across the African continent, low incomes force people to convert forests into farmland and pastures for cattle.

We help communities set up profitable forest-friendly businesses, like wild coffee production, incense harvesting and beekeeping. Unlike traditional farming, these businesses provide people with a secure income without damaging the forests. In fact, it does the opposite. It flips the script, making forests a vital economic resource that communities must protect.

Avoiding monocultures

Growing two or more crops next to each other or side-by-side – a method often described as intercropping – can transform agricultural systems. This simple technique can be great for the environment and farmers’ wallets. A diverse mix of crops often provides a better habitat for bees and other pollinators. Intercropping nitrogen-fixing crops, like peas or sesame, alongside other crops, means that farmers can spend less on nitrogen-based, usually carbon-intensive, fertilisers.

In Kenya, Farm Africa is training cashew farmers to plant sesame crops between cashew trees. Drought-tolerant sesame can withstand extreme weather, diversifies farmers’ incomes, maximises land use and sits happily with neighbouring cashew trees.

Politicians take note

Climate and agriculture are intertwined; one affects the other in so many ways. Climate change is turning farmers’ lives upside down. Yet with the appropriate technical and financial support, farmers could emerge as climate change heroes.

Agriculture presents a vehicle for climate action. It’s time to take big steps towards supporting farmers all over the world to reduce the carbon footprint of food production. And it’s possible to do so in ways that yield financial as well as environmental benefits.