How to build the resilience of African smallholder farmers in a changing climate

African smallholder farmers are in the eye of the climate change storm. Increased flooding and droughts have seen crop yields diminish as many farmers struggle to support their own livelihoods. With over 70 percent of the continent’s populations dependent on agriculture, this is a problem which cannot be ignored. While Africa contributes less than 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it stands on the frontline of the economic and social consequences of climate change.

At his keynote presentation on Saturday 3rd December at the third Agriculture and Rural Development Day (ARDD), President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Kanayo F. Nwanze urged that “negotiators must recognize the critical importance of enabling smallholder farmers to become more resilient to climate change and to grow more food in environmentally sustainable, climate-smart ways.”

Later in the day, Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda opened up a side event on behalf of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) which focused on how we can build the resilience of African smallholder farmers in a changing climate. The event highlighted the work of smallholder farmers in Swaziland and how they are coping with the impacts of climate change.

Back in 2002, Swaziland was hit hard by drought. Many smallholder farmers in the region saw their crops destroyed and their livelihoods threatened due to changing weather conditions. Happy Shongwe, a mother of two from Maphumulo in the Lubombo district of Swaziland, was on-site at the event to discuss her experiences as a smallholder farmer who watched her food reserves run dry due to the drought and was left impoverished. Shongwe and others in her community were helped with food vouchers and knowledge on how they could best respond to the drought.

Shongwe realised that planting maize and raising broiler chickens were not viable ways of coping with a changing climate and instead she began planting legumes which proved to be drought resistant. Starting with just one hectare of land, she quickly increased yields and was able to plant three hectares the following season.

Since then, her fate has changed. Shongwe has since registered Hlelile Investments (Pty) Ltd, a company that produces and markets seeds and is now a certified seed producer through the Seed Quality Division of the Ministry of Agriculture. “I now have my own business and have been able to afford to buy a tractor – I have come along way over the past ten years”, said Shongwe at the event.

Sibanda highlighted the importance of labelling and certification from the government:

For a region to be food secure, it needs to be seed secure. We believe in our own farmers; if given the necessary knowledge, they can grow more food. However, there is still a great need for research, technology and to mobilise funding for smallholder farmers in Swaziland, and other regions across Africa.

Measuring the vulnerability of rural households to external shocks

Today, few tools exist that can effectively measure the impact of shocks and stressess on the lives of the poor. By intermittently measuring the livelihood assets owned by a household over a period of time, researchers can determine household vulnerability and provide evidence to inform investment decisions around the design of policy responses and programme interventions aimed at strengthening household resilience.

Along with World Vision, FANRPAN has developed the Household Vulnerability Index (HVI) to measure the vulnerability of rural households to external shocks such as disease outbreaks, extreme weather and other stresses such as food insecurity. Through this approach, households are categorized into three levels of vulnerability, namely low, moderate and high vulnerability. Based on this more targeted classification system, development response packages are formulated to assist the most vulnerable households at the root causes of their vulnerability.

Following the successful piloting of the HVI tool in three countries in Southern Africa (Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe), FANRPAN and World Vision have shared their perspectives on the importance on developing and updating livelihood databases to benchmark livelihoods and provide data for modelling projected changes in livelihoods as a result of climate change.

Speaking at the learning event, Dalton Nxumalo, a Knowledge Management Officer with World Vision Swaziland (who provide funding for the project) noted,

This tool is meant to be a community based tool. The HVI assesses a household’s access to five livelihood assets; natural; physical; financial; human; and social assets and a total of 15 variables are then assessed together and a statistical core is calculated for each household.

Read more about the other learning events at Agriculture and Rural Development Day on its blog.