“How long will inaction define us,” ponders Dr. Agnes Kalibata. The Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for the 2021 Food Systems Summit has joined me via Zoom to discuss the future of agriculture in Africa. I immediately pick up on her frustration with the inability of rich nations to follow through on emissions plans and climate finance pledges, despite their sizeable contribution to the climate change challenge.
As the President of AGRA (formerly Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), an NGO that works to improve the productivity and livelihoods of the region’s smallholder farmers, Kalibata believes that the continent would be more resilient to climate change if it received Marshall plan-style “real” investments as opposed to incremental solutions that have not enabled comprehensive change.
Climate change impacts have prevented African countries from capitalizing on the development potential of a thriving agricultural sector. Still, the African Development Bank is confident that with the aid of ambitious investments, barriers to agricultural development could be removed and Africa’s agricultural output could rise from $280 billion per year to $1 trillion by 2030.
Kalibata, a farmer’s daughter cum former Rwandan Minister of Agriculture, knows first-hand the power of agriculture to alleviate poverty and create economic stability.
She recounts what it felt like to resuscitate the agricultural sector of Rwanda during her six years as Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources (2008-2014) and describes the euphoria she experienced when her efforts resulted in 20% growth of the national economy.
“You could feel the transformation going on all around you,” she recalls. “Business was happening where previously there was none.”
But as Kalibata concluded her ministerial term— having led the shift of the Central African nation from food insecure to food secure— farmers would begin to experience the climate change-induced impact of failed seasons.
“You have a farmer who puts all of their savings in a crop, and then the rain fails…” She shakes her head. “You’re talking about a very small capital base, and that can be taken away in just one drought season.”
Today, almost a decade following her years at the helm of Rwanda’s agriculture sector, the impacts of climate change on the African continent have gotten progressively worse. Temperatures have risen at a faster pace than the global average; extreme weather, droughts, degraded lands, floods, and inundation of destructive pests have had devastating impacts on the region’s economies and food security.
“We do know that countries that on the equator, where Africa is, are going to be struggling the most,” she says. “And yet we contribute less than 4% to climate change… Wealthier countries have for years been making commitments that have not been kept.
Africa has no place in a world that is 1.5 degrees warmer.”
According to research released by Climate Policy Initiative, climate finance to the continent averages at around 11% of the estimated US$277 billion in annual financing required to address climate change. And while capital is desperately needed for climate adaptation, most climate finance has gone towards mitigation, with 60% of adaptation dollars coming in the form of loans that place added strain on financially strapped countries.
Climate-vulnerable countries have argued that the multinational financing system needs to be “rethought” to respond to the climate crisis more effectively, but change has been slow.
“Has the world let Africa down? I would say absolutely, in the sense that we spent so much time denying climate change,” she says. “We spent so much time failing to see what was in our midst. And even when we began to acknowledge that climate change was real and was impacting people’s lives, there was still inaction.”
With the compounded impact of climate-related events, such as the recurrence of extreme drought in the Horn of Africa, agriculture’s contribution towards poverty alleviation has been limited.
As the leader of the Food Systems Summit, Kalibata worked with governments and world leaders to steer national food systems pathways— assessing and addressing global COVID-19-related food systems challenges against a pre-existing backdrop of climate change-related issues.
According to Kalibata, heightened consciousness spurred by COVID-19 resulted in higher-than-expected participation from the continent, with 49 out of 51 African nations— 37 at a head of state level— attending the Food Systems Summit with a unified position.
“It was important for Africa to engage in the Food Systems Summit… That was exactly what I was hoping for. That we’d engage, that we’d make our voice heard, and that would provide for a follow up mechanism by AGRA and others.”
The platform created at the Food Systems Summit for shared experiences among African countries, coupled with the unprecedented impact of multiple global crises would catalyze a strategic reroute for AGRA, causing it to reassess its “green revolution” approach.
“The rules have changed,” Kalibata explains. “Climate change eroded the traditional knowledge of farmers, and in the absence of huge amounts of money available to invest in irrigation, business declined… When COVID-19 came in, resources had to be diverted. Countries that were just beginning to look at what the agriculture sector could do for them became completely cash strapped.”
The conditions under which Kalibata had successfully led the growth of Rwanda’s agriculture sector had become drastically different and hence, prior mechanisms for boosting the sector would have to be revised.
“I do recognize from a global perspective, the challenges of a green revolution,” she admits.
“We now have the food systems perspective, so we don’t have to make the same mistakes that others have. We are looking to reduce our environmental footprint and make sure that we can be a part of a sustainable solution while feeding our people.”
AGRA has consistently upheld that one of the reasons behind Africa’s low agricultural productivity, as compared to the rest of the world, has been due to its limited use of fertilizers and high-yielding, climate smart seeds. Since its rebrand, the organization has maintained its allegiance to a strategy of providing these inputs to farmers under a sustainable food systems approach.
“In Africa, our challenge is that we don’t produce enough and as a result, we are depleting the environment,” she says. “Those farmers who don’t produce enough end up depending on the environment more. The fertilizer and the seeds that we use, give us the opportunity to have a decent crop with less impact on the environment.”
The experiences and first-hand observations of Kalibata herself have substantiated the efficacy of many of AGRA’s strategies.
“I grew up on a small farm. My dad was a farmer,” she says. “My life was defined by the fact that we did not have access to basic inputs like fertilizer and seeds that the rest of the world takes for granted. I also have experience working in the agriculture sector and seeing the difference in the lives of a farmer whose crop yields half a ton using the same energy as another farmer whose crop yields 5 tons.”
Kalibata believes that a country’s “sweet spot” lies between the polar extremes of “poverty sovereignty” in which farmers do not have access to yield-boosting inputs, causing them to be at the mercy of environmental conditions, and the other extreme of industrial agriculture, which depletes the environment, and contributes to an estimated one-third of total global carbon emissions.
But while AGRA’s new strategy has not come without its detractors, Kalibata has stood firm.
“I’m very unapologetic about how we do business to support farmers. I don’t apologize for that. We can’t let people die because we refuse to use fertilizers; neither can we use fertilizers to the detriment of the environment… My lack of apology comes from the fact that I know we must find the right balance… I love food sovereignty, but I don’t love poverty sovereignty. I do believe that the agriculture sector will get us out of poverty.”
In addition to providing farmers with fertilizers and advanced seeds, AGRA is working towards addressing market failures, with the goal of unlocking the private sector to make it more viable to create jobs and is enhancing the resilience of the sector by improving technical capabilities, infrastructure, and access to irrigation.
As part of its new Strategy, the NGO is experimenting with sustainable and regenerative farming methods and is working to protect and increase the production of African indigenous crops while improving the yields of staple crops.
“We want to improve the productivity of staple crops that farmers have in front of them. We want to give farmers choices. Today, choices are critical because they allow farmers to either achieve success with a specific crop, or switch to a backup crop in case that crop fails.”
Using lessons learned at the Food Systems Summit, AGRA has been able to work with three African countries to design “cutting edge” food systems strategies that incorporate the needs of governments, farmers, businesses, and communities while highlighting where further investment is required— all at the nexus of food security and food production, nutrition security and environmental benefit.
With respect to the future, Kalibata says she is optimistic. She believes that African leaders have woken up to the potential of agriculture and she is inspired by the rate at which innovation is being adopted on the continent. The only limitation that remains is a lack of ‘real’ investment.
“I know what is possible,” Kalibata affirms. “I know that farming is a multi-trillion-dollar industry that Africa has failed to tap into to reduce its poverty and secure food for its people… We are trying to define a new way of doing business for us because we recognize that we must survive whether the world steps forward or not.”