Agriculture technology is key to ending food insecurity, expert says

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Friday, 16 September 2022 10:31

Wheat stem with pustules caused by stem rust. Photo credit: Thomas Lumpkin/CIMMYT.

Ahead of the COP27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is promising to take action on climate change and its impact on the growing food insecurity engulfing the continent.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural branch recently warned of severe drought in the Horn of Africa, the worst in more than 40 years which has left 18 million people facing famine in Ethiopia, Somalia, and parts of Kenya.

Despite growing insecurity and concern among African NGOs and activists, Enock Chikava, Interim Director for Foundation’s Agricultural Development branch, remains cautiously optimistic about the future of Agriculture on the continent.

With more readily available data about the climate and the most recent $4.5 billion pledge by the G7, Chikava says the Foundation will be “taking action on several other promises in the past from the 2015 Paris agreement”.

The continent, which emits less than four per cent of total greenhouse emissions, is being ravaged by climate change, with survival coming at a cost. A recent IPCC report estimated it would cost $140 billion a year to adapt Sub-saharan, Africa and South Asia to the “vagaries of climate change”.

Pandemic impact

Chikava shies away from pointing fingers at the big global polluters but points to the pandemic as the clearest example of countries putting themselves first. “It’s very clear now, as we look at the numbers of the contributors to the current emissions causing climate change.”

Whilst the Foundation will continue to donate billions of dollars to the swelling of humanitarian aid, Chikava attests it is an “extremely expensive solution”, fuelled by the inaction of African nations desperately seeking to slow their growing debt.

He said, “crises are inevitable. We will have droughts. Of course, we are going to have conflicts and economic downturns. But each time we face one of these crises, it should not equal food insecurity.”

Instead, the Interim Director favours further investment in climate and agricultural technologies. “In the past, people used to say better fortunes are found in urban areas. But now we have solar energy … the innovations are now heating the rural areas.”

Climate-proof projects

One of the main ways Chikava believes this is possible is through the development of long-term agricultural projects which are not only “climate-proof” but focus on the smallholder farms, of which he is a champion.

The Foundation estimates that it will need approximately $2 billion a year to continue its innovation and new crop varieties that are adaptable for smallholder farmers. He says in most countries in East and Southern Africa, 50 per cent of people are employed in agriculture.

We need to diversify production, but then there’s also a need to diversify diets,” Chikava says, whose childhood on a smallholder farm has inspired his outlook on agriculture. “Some 475 million families are dependent on smallholder agriculture, and if you really focus on what they need, it is innovation.”

“[On our farm] we used to grow rice. We don’t even grow rice now because there’s no paddy. There’s no sufficient moisture.”

Diversification

Although more than 80 per cent of the food consumed on the continent comes from smallholder farmers, today, the continent imports $43 billion worth of food.

The Gates Foundation has focused its research on diversifying popular grains, like drought-tolerant maize and heat-tolerant beans, which withstand the ever-growing harsh climates that farmers on the continent face.

Philanthropic organisations like the Foundation have often faced criticism regarding their monopolisation of social projects in favour of local entities.

However, Chikava promises partnerships and cohesion with future schemes. “Everything we do is for the global public good, and everyone has access to it, including the private sector,” he says. “After [analysing], why the private sector wouldn’t be getting into cassava, once we develop new varieties, then the private sector can come in and take them.”

Some 475 million families are dependent on smallholder agriculture.”

The Foundation says they work with SMEs and other charitable organisations, like AGRA and the Africa Enterprise Challenge, to avoid circumventing local collaborations.

Chikava’s positive future mindset revolves around the youth. He says, “We are not able to provide sufficient jobs for the youth. Africa churns about 20,000 new graduates every year.”

“We have sufficient opportunities to talk about. How do we begin to urbanise? By using innovation, the right policies and more funding.”

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