Matching farmers to innovation in Africa makes communities resilient to climate change

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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This article is part of our special report Accelerating climate smart agriculture in Africa.

On the frontline of climate change, farmers across Africa face huge challenges to their livelihoods. But EU supported projects show what can be achieved when we matchmake these farmers with innovations farmers from the private sector.

Rhys Bucknall-Williams is a Global Communications and Knowledge Manager at CGIAR.

The dust has settled on COP26. Food and agriculture appeared high on the COP agenda as never before, rightly taking its place as one the key sectors that contribute to climate change, yet also most vulnerable to its effects.

Campaigns like ClimateShot demonstrated how innovation helps vulnerable communities build more climate-resilient livelihoods and feed growing communities as the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050.

Nowhere is this more true than in Africa, and next year’s COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is important.

Climate action for communities across Africa will be front and center of debate in Sharm el-Sheikh, with greater emphasis than usual on the role of agriculture, farming and food systems, which are central to so many African economies.

It’s critical that we better understand how farmers actually adopt climate-smart agricultural technologies and practices on the massive scale needed to address the climate crisis.

Projects like ‘Building Livelihoods and Resilience to Climate Change in East and West Africa’ – funded by the European Union and supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – deploy Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D) to answer how.

Matchmakers must connect innovations to farmers

Many of us are familiar with how apps like Uber and Lyft have radically changed mobility ing major cities around the world.

In Kenya, a mobile app called Hello Tractor connects farmers to scarce tractor and related equipment that is often unaffordable to farmers to own outright.

The Hello Tractor business model is itself innovative, making older business models suddenly viable by connecting geographically disparate consumers (i.e. farmers) and using big data to allocate the use of those resources in a much more efficient way. The company literally map out delivery routes to minimise unnecessary journeys.

Kenyan tractor owner Dominic Kimani told Africa News:

In the old days we used to park our tractors at shopping centres and patiently wait for customers who would not show up sometimes. However, with the use of this application I can get customers from far and wide and it has been easy to find work“.

Hello Tractor founder Jehil Oliver emphasised that:

“Nearly all farmers in the Africa region are reliant on rain fed agricultural systems….There is simply not enough labour available in these rural communities to ensure farmers have access to the labour that they need to plant on time and maximise their productivity. That is where Hello Tractor comes in”.

Kenya based researchers from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) had separately met with both farmers and business leaders – including Hello Tractor and US tractor firm John Deere – in various community forums.

Meanwhile, AR4D research by CCAFS showed that farmers should adopt new tillage methods – namely ‘ripping’ – which required specialist equipment produced by firms like John Deere.

The CCAFS team introduced ripping technology into the Hello Tractor platform by connecting them to producers John Deere.

The impact emerged by taking disparate innovations a step further and  ‘bundling’ them together, matchmaking producers with farmers.

Bundling innovations delivers greater impact than the sum of its parts

 In Africa, 85% of agriculture is rain fed and that means rainfall heavily influences crop yields.

The problem is, rainfall is very poorly measured in many African countries, most of which have seen dwindling numbers of meteorological observation stations over past decades.

Satellites can help, but most farmers need ‘hyper-local’ measurements of rainfall to be able to plan how to farm, and only rain gauges on the ground can provide the granular data needed.

And without easily verifiable metrics of the climate risks that smallholder farmers face – particularly rainfall – it’s often impossible to overcome the ‘risk aversion’ that hinders the establishment of contracts between farmers and service providers like bankers and investors.

This is where ‘frugal’ innovations – simple, low-cost technologies – can be matched with data-driven digital platforms.

In West Africa, the agCelerant platform deploys  ‘phy-gital’ agriculture – the combination of physical asset management tools with digital solutions – so that banking or investment service providers for smallholder farmers can be scaled across markets.

Assume that a farmer has taken insurance out against drought. If at the end of the season of poor rainfall, the farmers applies for a pay-out. How does the insurer know that the farmer is telling the truth about the amount of rainfall on the farmers land in that year, and that they have just not been complacent?

To overcome this challenge, CCAFS and its partners developed prototype rain gauges, that were recyclable and enabled with ‘Internet-of-Things’ technology. These affordable gauges cost only US$ 50 apiece.

These gauges provide critical data and information to other key players in crop value chains who can provide finance, insurance and investment services to farmers, who are them empowered to better leverage climate risks.

So far, these gauges have been installed in Kenya and Tanzania, with further units ready for field deployment in Ghana and Ethiopia. Procurement for more units is underway to support projects in Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal.

Innovation must be demand driven

Raising awareness of new innovations inevitably leads to greater demand, making them more sustainable in the long term with better value for money.

In Ethiopia, the CCAFS team collaborated with the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and the National Meteorological Agency (NMA) on a major public awareness campaign delivered through Fana Radio, one of the major media houses in the country.

Messages about climate-smart agriculture – and the innovations that are opening up access to such technology and practices – were shared with 15 million farmers across Ethiopia.

Making use of this extensive infrastructure (including 12 regional FM radio stations) and the Fana’s reputation, the broadcasting campaign delivered specific and highly contextualized information in the local languages to farmers in support of projects across different areas.

What this EU-IFAD supported project in Africa shows is how – on the frontlines of climate change – there is ample opportunity to connect and capitalise on all the innovation that’s already happening in communities vulnerable to climate change.

Major pledges at COP27 aside, such ‘grassroots’ efforts can be a major part of the solution to the climate crisis, especially when guided by the best climate and social science and supported with investment from international partners.

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