Building Climate Resilient Agriculture for East Africa

Tabitha Njuguna, the Managing Director of AFEX Fairtrade Limited Kenya,

Climate change poses a looming threat for Africa today, and one does not have to look too far to witness the ways climate change has begun to alter our relationship with the environment, threatening human health, food and water security, and socio-economic development in Africa.

In 2023, many parts of Africa experienced floods and rainfall due to the El Nino weather phenomenon. These floods have claimed the lives of people, caused large scale displacement across parts of East Africa as well as Somalia and Ethiopia. The agriculture sector is not left out of this conversation and has also taken a great hit from climate change, as rising temperatures, irregular rainfall, and droughts are wreaking havoc on agriculture productivity, jeopardizing food security and threatening the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable households and people. In East Africa, prolonged droughts and below average seasons have resulted in fewer harvests and higher food costs.

These challenges are further exacerbated by a rapidly growing population, which is estimated to double by 2050. Currently, Africa’s food basket is insufficient to feed Africans, and the growing population will require significant advancements in our food systems, which would be difficult to achieve if farmers exist at the mercy of growing climate effects.

As the largest sector in East Africa, employing over 65% of the population and contributing as high as 30% to the GDP, long term strategies to transform East Africa’s agriculture sector, must also include preparing nations to be climate resilient through a combination of technology innovation, capacity building and infrastructure. This comprehensive approach to securing the agriculture sector will ultimately increase agricultural productivity, enhance adaptation to climate change and its impacts, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all while ensuring the long-term sustainability of agricultural systems.

Innovating around Infrastructure

A core part of securing climate sustainability in agriculture is investing in closing the infrastructure gap that currently puts farmers at risk. Focusing on infrastructure development as a framework for Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA), increases productivity and empowers farmers to navigate the uncertainty of climate change. Today, East African farmers are constrained by storage considerations, planning their farming around already inadequate and poor storage facilities.

In addition, Maize, a staple crop grown by a bulk of East African farmers suffers from Aflatoxins that destroys maize outputs when stored improperly. Solving for infrastructure requires that investment flows towards building smart storage and drying facilities that minimize post-harvest losses, which in turn shores up volumes to hedge against dry spells and other climate effects.

AFEX’s approach builds on this and focuses on building necessary infrastructure in proximity to crop producing communities, eliminating hidden transportation constraints and increasing access to storage for farmers. In the past two years since the East African operations began, AFEX has established 40 strategically placed warehouses across counties in Kenya and in Uganda, the prospective launch of a cleaning and drying processing plant by June this year, is an attempt at solving poor quality of commodities.

These warehouses are built and acquired in close proximity to farmers and farmer cooperations and farmers are required to pay storage fees to keep their commodities. The warehouses vary in capacity; however, AFEX targets between volumes of 1,000-3,000mt which currently serves 40,000 farmers across East Africa.

In addition, AFEX will be launching 2 major drying facilities in Uganda to help with quality drying. Currently, the government also provides drying facilities that our farmers can take advantage of.

Reinforcing Technology for Climate Resilience

While infrastructure lays the foundation for resilience, technology innovation is vital for securing a sustainable, climate resilient sector. Technological advancements are transforming how farmers approach their work and are proving instrumental in adapting to a changing climate. For example, precision agriculture helps farmers efficiently use resources to maximize production and make better decisions on when and where to plant.

In addition to this, investments in early warning technology is an essential proactive measure against climate change, especially in East Africa with its unique two-planting season. In 2023 climate change and effects of El-nino disrupted post-harvest management, caused low yields in cereals and these challenges will only escalate, as Brookings projects that loss and damage costs in Africa due to climate change are projected to reach at least USD 290 billion.

Focusing on leveraging technology innovation and supporting adoption is essential to building resilient food systems for Africa and AFEX’s approach to this involves the use of technology like WorkBench to disperse climate resilient inputs such as seedlings and fertilizers and attaching field extension officers to advice on best fertilizer applications. This combination of accessible technology and capacity building meets farmers at their level, while providing essential climate resilient services.

Understanding the future of climate impacts

Finally, to prepare for these future challenges, there is a pressing need to understand how climate change will manifest itself in Africa and what impact it is likely to have on the continent’s agricultural systems. Building climate-resilient agriculture in East Africa is not a solitary endeavor, it requires a concerted effort from various stakeholders. For one, significant public and private investment is needed to develop the necessary infrastructure, conduct research into climate-smart technologies, and make these advancements accessible to smallholder farmers.

This investment can come from various sources, including governments, international organizations, the private sector, and philanthropic institutions. In addition, equipping farmers with the knowledge and skills required to utilize new technologies and practices effectively is crucial. This necessitates training and education programs tailored to the specific needs and contexts of different farming communities. These programs can cover topics like climate-smart agricultural practices, the use of digital tools, and effective resource management.

This piece has been written by Tabitha Njuguna, AFEX Kenyan Managing Director.