Building more resilient African food systems, from farm to table

by Jamleck Osiemo | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Friday, 23 March 2018 10:10 GMT

A farmer works with rice sprouts on a farm in Dabua, Bauchi, Nigeria, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

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

Communities need long-term solutions to climate pressures, not just emergency responses to imminent threats

The way we produce food has never been more complicated. Intricate systems govern not just how much and what type of food we’re able to grow globally, but how much of it ends up on our table, and how much we will pay for it.

Climate change poses a real threat to food systems, particularly in Africa, where agriculture is inextricably linked to the whims of the weather. On the occasion of World Meteorological Day, let us take the opportunity to ask whether current solutions for a more resilient “weather-ready, climate-smart” food system are able to address the problem in its entirety.

In my conversations with farmers, communities say they need long-term solutions to climate pressures, not just emergency responses to imminent threats.

But we can’t do this if we focus on single value chains or one commodity. Climate change affects every aspect of the food system.

Food systems encompass everything from drought-tolerant seeds and food waste, to policies that provide a favourable environment to make crop exports possible. These are all parts of the same puzzle, and they all face the very holistic threat climate change poses to our food supply.

Yet too often, interventions address single value chains. Let’s look at an example from Kenya. Agriculture is central to the country’s food security and economic development, contributing 28 percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product, accounting for 65 percent of export earnings, and employing over 70 percent of the rural population. 

In Kenya’s Tana River County, farmers have been encouraged to grow mangoes, because they generate a higher income. Yet flooding along the Tana River basin - Kenya’s main water source, supplying 90 percent of Nairobi’s water- has been exacerbated by climate change.

Floods have hit mango harvests badly. Do they have effective storage to save what harvests are left? Have farmers diverted valuable financial resources away from goats to produce more mangoes, and will their families have less nutritious milk or meat as a result of failed harvests?

In Kajiado County, keeping livestock is a way of life, and sustains farmers in the area. Frequent and prolonged droughts, and the urban sprawl of town settlements, have urged farmers to abandon their pastoralist way of life and move into high-value crop production.

Yet they don’t have much knowledge about producing high-value crops, nor the resources to set up irrigation. How can we help them become more resilient, to earn a sustainable way of life and provide for their families as well?


The food system is a web of interactive consequences. Solutions lie in uniting all players in the food system, including those involved in production, storage, markets and supermarkets - and the physical, cultural and political environment within which all these processes take place.

If ministries of agriculture focus on increasing staple crop yield, while ministries of health focus on nutritious diets, how will we boost yields of highly nutritious foods? We can’t eat nutritious food if farmers don’t grow it. Farmers won’t grow it if they can’t buy seed, or make money.

Using new digital tools like foresight mapping, we can now use historic and current data to map different scenarios, prioritising threats and investing in a more resilient Plan B. Researching knock-on impacts and mapping the outcomes of different scenarios, combining local knowledge with scientific data, will be really vital to build more resilient plan Bs in the future. 

In Tanzania, for example, maize is the most important staple crop. Let’s say drought projections show Tanzania’s maize harvest will halve by 2050: we could recommend policies that help farmers shift to more drought-resilient crops, or boost supply of drought-tolerant maize seed.

Let’s say higher temperatures increase maize yields by 2050 instead: we could recommend regional trade integration and improved export incentives so that Tanzania could benefit from a maize surplus; or investment in better storage to protect higher harvests.

We need to invest more in digital tools like foresight mapping, combined with local knowledge, which can help us understand the bigger picture, and track changes over time.

This work will help us put in place a more resilient plan B, C and D as well, because Plan A - business as usual - is already out of time.