OPINION: How to green Africa from the grassroots

by Camilla Toulmin | International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Friday, 20 November 2020 16:06 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Cotton farmer Karim Traore surveys his cotton field outside Koutiala, Mali August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Penney

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

As COVID-19 prompts rethinks, investing in renewable energy, regenerative agriculture and skills could help Africa handle future crises

Camilla Toulmin is a senior associate and former director of the International Institute for Environment and Development and the author of Land, Investment, and Migration – Thirty-five Years of Village Life in Mali.

Global lessons can be learned from Africa’s villages.

Each one is different and yet, large or small, they represent a microcosm of the forces at work across the continent. They show a capacity to mix traditional with new forms of knowledge, to take advantage of innovations which make sense for them.

And people show a tenacious ability to adapt and prosper in the face of land shortages, urban migration and climate impacts. People get on with daily survival despite shortcomings in support, whether from national or international levels.

At a time when COVID-19 has now joined climate change as another ‘problem without a passport’, local capacity and institutions are central to building resilience to disruption.

 Across the world, the COVID pandemic has called into question long-established assumptions. Despite the difficulties, this health and economic crisis offers Africa the chance to re-think the direction of travel and shift from carbon-intensive growth to low-carbon development.

By investing in renewable energy, regenerative forms of agriculture, and workforce skills, countries can become less vulnerable and better able to handle future crises.

While Africa’s rapid urbanization takes the headlines, agriculture remains vital for future development. It provides roughly 40% of export earnings, half of household incomes and a ready foundation for industrialization. However, progress has been mixed despite the 2003 launch of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP).

The 2014 Malabo Declaration supported the CAADP with a detailed programme for 2015-2025, but review reports in 2018 and 2020 note many targets unmet, evidence of backsliding and now performance badly hit due to the pandemic.

Already, rising temperatures and unprecedented climate variability in parts of Southern Africa, the Maghreb and Sahel are forcing a rethink of what crops to grow. Around the continent, rainfall patterns are shifting erratically, with the whole season’s volume coming in a couple of sudden deluges that cause floods which sweep away fields and settlements.

CAADP policies focus more on boosting production than ensuring sustainable food security and livelihoods for Africa’s predominantly smallholder farmers. They need support to reinvest in land, water, soils, vegetation and tree cover, preserving local livelihoods and strengthening landscape management.

However, the main challenges are often to change mindsets and establish genuine partnerships. Too often, the top-down approach persists, issues are seen mainly through the “expert” eyes of government and donor agencies. Local African voices are rarely heard, and research continues to focus on discrete technical questions rather than on broader systemic issues.

There are also equity issues in how climate finance is mobilised and disbursed, with real problems of access to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), through which industrialised countries promised to deliver finance to the most vulnerable populations.

The 2014 Kathmandu Declaration highlighted these problems and insisted on principles such as climate justice, additionality, gender equity and accountability as well as democratic, participatory, and inclusive processes. Subsequent efforts to track climate finance show that less than 10% of public sector climate finance was approved for local climate change projects in the 2003-2016 period.

This undermines the widely acknowledged finding of sustainable results – ‘more bang for the buck’ – when climate finance reaches local communities.

Everybody needs to do better and do more to shift power and accelerate progress. A promising example is the European Union’s new commitment to a mutually respectful and beneficial partnership with Africa, including aid and private investment, to support green energy, agriculture, health, digital and transport connectivity, working to EU Green Deal principles.

African governments also need to use international agreements to speed up funding for climate-resilient agriculture. There are multiple gains to scale up, such as solar-pumps for irrigating plots, planting new crop varieties and spreading use of nitrogen-fixing trees.

There are also success stories to be emulated in technology and innovation, risk mitigation, and financing. Governments also need to strengthen connections between producers, agricultural markets and value chains, working intelligently with a private sector composed in most countries of thousands of informal processors and retailers.

Factoring in the youth bulge, Africa needs new, job-creating patterns of growth supported by improved education (particularly of girls) to benefit from a technically skilled and entrepreneurial workforce.

Policy clarity will help avoid unbalanced trade-offs so that agricultural modernisation preserves and strengthens livelihoods instead of facilitating land grabs by local and foreign investors. Tangible support can be given at local level, through extension services, delivering weather data by mobile phone, and establishing local platforms for farmers, herders and researchers to test out new ways of solving shared problems.

Climate change and variability cause disproportionate harm to poor and vulnerable people, who live far from international conference halls and capital cities. While rural families have been adapting to change for generations, governments could do much more to support them by drawing on their knowledge and practice, providing local funds for building climate resilience, and decentralising power and authority to local levels.

The gains from greening Africa will then become evident in the wellbeing and resilience of local communities.

 This is part of a series produced for the United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA) and the German Economic Cooperation and Development ministry on green transformation post COVID-19. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the institutions involved in the project.