2 September 2014

African Malnutrition to Surge With Erratic Rainfall - Report

Photo: Jennifer Lazuta/IRIN
Finding enough food for the children is very difficult,” said Ndeye Diagne. “This year, we’ve just been eating rice with oil around 11am and whatever is left over before we go to bed. Always my children are hungry. I’m worried about their health and nutrition.”

London — The number of malnourished people in sub-Saharan Africa could rise 40 percent by mid-century as increasingly erratic rainfall and rising temperatures cause small-scale farmers to lose more crops, a new report says.

Such farmers - who produce around half of sub-Saharan Africa's food - "risk being overwhelmed by the pace and severity of climate change", warned the 2014 African Agriculture Status Report, released on Tuesday by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a Nairobi-based organisation focused on African food security.

About 90 percent of Africa's small-scale farmers - most of whom manage plots of two hectares (five acres) or less - rely entirely on rainfall to grow crops, the report said. As rains become more irregular, harvests of maize, for example, could fall by 18 percent by 2020 in southern Africa, with South Africa and Zimbabwe seeing losses greater than 30 percent, the report warned.

Such losses will come as sub-Saharan Africa's population continues to surge from approximately 900 billion to an expected 1.5 billion people by mid-century, the report noted, raising the prospect of growing food shortages.

"If these projections are right and nothing is done about it, it is going to have a critical impact on global food security," David Ameyaw, AGRA's director of strategy, monitoring and evaluation, said in an interview. "With more failed seasons, what we are going to experience is that most farmers won't be able to meet their dietary needs."

What smallholder farmers need to cope with changing climatic conditions is a range of innovations, including seeds to grow drought-resistant crop varieties, new water-harvesting technology and insurance programmes that pay out when crops fail or livestock die, said Ameyaw, managing editor of the report.

Some of those changes are already underway. AGRA, for instance, has released about 420 new "improved" varieties of African crops in recent years, which can better withstand drought and pests, he said. And the number of African-owned and operated local seed companies has surged to more than 100 over the last seven years, he added.

Insurance programmes and better weather information systems, many using mobile phone technology, also are multiplying in sub-Saharan Africa.

LOW ADOPTION

But these "climate-smart" farm innovations have yet to be widely adopted, Ameyaw said.

Some 25 to 35 percent of sub-Saharan African farmers are now using improved seed varieties, but only around 15 percent have access to a broader range of improved farm technology, he said.

Other key changes that could help farmers survive worsening weather pressures include more secure land rights, especially for women, and better access to early warning systems, as well as more water harvesting and stronger agricultural extension services to give advice on coping with shifting growing conditions to all farmers, Ameyaw said.

"There is urgent and growing need to improve climate risk management capabilities, especially among smallholder farmers," the report noted. Such changes "should be a matter of urgent priority if smallholder farmers are to remain in agriculture", it added.

The continent has already seen some areas become temporarily or permanently un-farmable, the report noted. Part of Angola, for instance, can no longer be planted after three years of poor rainfall.

Southern Africa faces the biggest risks from declining rainfall, but southern regions of Sudan, as well as a belt of farmland running from southern Ivory Coast to Nigeria, are also at high risk, it said.

As rainfall patterns change, other areas could see declines in certain crops, with protein-rich beans expected to become harder to grow in East and Central Africa, and banana production set to fall in the Sahel and West Africa, the report said.

Ameyaw said the report aims to spur action by African policymakers and decision makers to address the growing pressures on small-scale farmers in a continent where 65 percent of people make their living from agriculture.

"Helping smallholders adapt to climate challenges today will prepare them for even more serious challenges in the future," he said. "When farmers are able to employ climate-smart techniques, it makes a huge difference."

(Editing by Megan Rowling: megan.rowling@thomsonreuters.com)

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