Sowing the seeds of resilience in southern Africa’s epic drought

by Agnes Kalibata | @agnes_kalibata | Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
Monday, 1 August 2016 08:09 GMT

Malawian subsistence farmer Rozaria Hamiton plants sweet potatoes near the capital Lilongwe, Malawi February 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With the seeds planted for climate resilience, small-scale farmers can lift themselves out of poverty

In the village of Chikandwe, in Southern Malawi, Fanny Maliko has planted one third of her farm—half an acre—with drought-resistant sweet potatoes. As a result, she expects her yields to double this year, which is nothing short of remarkable considering the drought that has devastated agriculture in all of Southern Africa.

2015 was South Africa’s driest year since 1904, when scientists started weather measurements. In Malawi, the rainy season was delayed in the south by almost a month. Lake Kariba, which sits at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe and is the world’s largest man-made lake, held only 11 percent of its water capacity in January.

The recent El Niño weather system has been blamed for this year’s extreme dry spell, but the region has been short on rain for several years now. According to the United Nations’ latest assessments, about 40 million people in East and Southern Africa are facing a future of not knowing when their next meals will come. This includes half of Malawi, where Fanny’s prosperity stands out.

Failed rainy seasons in Africa typically fall hardest on the continent’s millions of smallholder farmers, who remain dependent on rains to produce their food. Yet it is now possible for farmers to thrive, even in a drought year, provided they have access to new technologies.

Long-term forecasts show that rising temperatures threaten the viability of maize, Southern Africa’s traditional food staple. After four failed attempts to plant maize, however, Fanny will soon sell the surplus from her sweet potato harvest—ten 50kg bags—and the profits will keep her family of four healthy even as millions in her region may require food aid.

That’s no accident. The sweet potato vines she planted were developed by plant breeders to survive on less water, and they also provide higher amounts of vitamin A to address nutritional deficiencies faced by more than one third of children under the age of five in Malawi.

In Malawi the sweet potato has become a key food security crop. More and more, farmers now grow improved varieties of this tuber, as well as cassava and pigeon peas, that can tolerate the region’s diseases, heat and drought while increasing yields. While Fanny continues to grow maize and soybeans, it is her sweet potatoes—embraced for their short growing cycle—that will carry the harvest.

Fanny’s story shows what is possible for agriculture in Southern Africa. There is already an immense amount of knowledge and technologies that can be put into farmers hands.

Fanny obtained her sweet potato vines from an informal farmers network that helps its members sell their produce and obtain seeds and plantings. She will sell her produce at the local market in Chinakanaka, 20 km away. More than 300 tons of sweet potatoes were sold last year through similar local arrangements in Southern Malawi.

Roughly 70 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa works in agriculture, nearly all of it on a small scale. Improving their income potential not only helps countries develop economically, but also ensures a steadier supply of food. Both results are critical needs as climate change intensifies and magnifies the worst of what weather throws at farmers. The forecast for Southern Africa calls for more droughts interrupted by extreme storms; if small-scale farms aren’t strengthened, the regional economy will wither on the vine.

The good news is that Fanny’s success story is not unique. We are replicating it in other villages in Malawi and across the region, using drought-tolerant maize, higher-yielding beans, and disease-resistant cassava varieties. In the face of climate change, local farmers locked into precarious, subsistence-level lives can break free and finally prosper.

Resilience programming—how to anticipate crises like Southern Africa’s current drought and prepare the people on the ground for the worst impacts—has been embraced by most development initiatives now. The stakes are too high for us to carry on business as usual.

You can see this in the US with the Global Food Security Act, which President Obama just signed into law. This bill would amplify available resources from the US Agency for International Development (USAID)—one of our key partners—as the worst impacts from El Nino continue to reverberate in Southern Africa.

Natural disasters will always bring tragedy. But with the seeds planted for rural transformation, small-scale farmers can lift themselves out of poverty. You cannot find a more bountiful harvest than this, anywhere in the world.

Agnes Kalibata is the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and Rwanda’s former Minister for Agriculture and Animal Resources