Bleak outlook for farming in Africa on shifty weather


Elburgon resident John Mwaniki assesses the damage wrought by heavy rains on a section of his maize farm in Nakuru County on Saturday last week.

Photo credit: John Njoroge | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

In East Africa, scientists have been sounding the alarm about rising temperatures for years, warning of more frequent droughts
These changes are expected to affect agriculture in the region, weakening already fragile food systems.

Despite accounting for less than four per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Africa bears the brunt of the effects of climate change.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), temperatures in Africa are projected to rise faster than the global average, ranging from an increase of 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade at the low end to more than 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade at the high end.

The Kenya Meteorological Department's State of the Climate-Kenya 2020 Report found that temperatures recorded in 2020 were higher than the 1981-2012 average, with the cold season (June to August) showing the greatest deviation from normal compared to other months of the year.

In East Africa, scientists have been sounding the alarm about rising temperatures for years, warning of more frequent droughts. Between 2020 and 2023, the Horn of Africa experienced its worst drought in four decades, affecting Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. The 2022 rainy season was recorded as the driest in over 40 years, with an estimated 43,000 people dying in Somalia in 2022.

These changes are expected to affect agriculture in the region, weakening already fragile food systems.

Impacts include reduced crop and livestock productivity. There are many reasons why climate change poses such an immense challenge to African agriculture. 

Up to 95 per cent of the continent's farmers do not have irrigation systems, making them entirely dependent on rainfall.

In Kenya, for example, agriculture is largely rain-fed, with 98 per cent dependent on rainfall.

Scientists predict that rainfall in many parts of the continent will decrease and droughts will become more frequent. Against this bleak backdrop, farmers in the continent's arid regions will struggle to find enough water for their crops. Experts say that many crops that make up the African diet, such as maize and wheat, will struggle to survive rising temperatures. With a warming of two degrees Celsius, crop yields across sub-Saharan Africa will fall by 10 per cent.

Warming beyond two degrees Celsius will reduce crop yields by up to 20 per cent, and in the worst-case scenario, where warming reaches three degrees, all current maize, millet and sorghum growing areas in Africa will become unsuitable. 

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) 2020 report indicated that the food security situation in arid and semi-arid counties in Kenya was reportedly at one of the lowest levels in the last 15 years.

A 2020 agro-meteorological report indicated that maize, beans and tea grown in western Kenya were affected by the rainy season. In central Kenya, where maize, potatoes, peas and beans are grown, the March to May rains started late and the season was depressed. April saw excessive rainfall, resulting in yields ranging from below normal to near normal. In south-eastern and coastal Kenya, where maize and beans are the main crops, yields were poor due to poor rainfall during the short rains season.

These challenges are compounded by rapid population growth. In Kenya, the population increased from 8.12 million in 1960 to 54.03 million in 2022, and feeding this growing population, experts say, will be an uphill task.

"The reason why climate change poses such an immense challenge to African agriculture and livelihoods is that it is highly climate-dependent. This destabilises food security because crop production depends on relatively predictable climatic conditions from year to year," explains Dr Sheila Ochugboju, Executive Director of the Alliance for Science, a global communications initiative that provides science-based materials on emerging scientific issues, including climate change.

One way to adapt, says Dr Mukani Moyo of the International Potato Centre, a CGIAR centre in Kenya, is to cultivate naturally climate-resilient food crops, which have been grown in Africa for centuries but are often neglected globally by large seed companies.

"As a continent, we are still suffering from colonisation in that we have adapted to eating foreign foods that we don't even produce, while neglecting our traditional crops that are adapted to African climates," explains Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Interim Director, Agricultural Development Enock Chikava.

That's why today, experts from the Accelerating Impact of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA) are working with colleagues in Kenya to help farmers in Taita-Taveta County with new high-yielding, drought-tolerant varieties of pearl millet, sorghum and pigeon pea.

But climate change is also having a negative impact on livestock production. Pastoralism is one of the main economic activities for Kenya's arid and semi-arid communities, accounting for over 90 per cent of rural family income in the arid lands of northern Kenya.

But rising temperatures and low annual rainfall are threatening this activity, reducing livestock productivity and inhibiting the growth of fodder crops. In the pastoral areas, particularly in the northern part of the country, millions of livestock have been lost during the prolonged drought with the State Department of Livestock confirming that over 2.5 million animals have been lost.

Livestock plays an important role in Kenya's food security, as millions of people across the country depend on the sector for food, making it as important as crop production.

Given the climate-related challenges facing the entire agricultural sector, experts say that significant advances in agriculture are needed in Africa's food systems to prepare for these future challenges.

According to Mr Bernard Kimoro, Head of Climate Change and Livestock Sustainability at the State Department of Livestock Development, investments are needed to support climate-smart agriculture.

"One of the ways is to use technology in food systems to produce improved crops that are resistant to drought and disease, to those that are tolerant to increased salinity," explains Dr Sheila Ochugboju.