Today, with global attention increasingly focused on political conflicts and rising food prices, it can be challenging to equally focus on the hunger and humanitarian crisis unfolding across East Africa. It involves a prolonged drought decimating crop and livestock production—Africa’s primary source of income.  

I admit that a food crisis in the Horn of Africa may seem like a depressingly familiar situation. But if you talk to people on the ground, for them, the situation today feels very different. And they’re right: climate experts say you have to go back decades to find anything comparable.

There is ample reason to fear that in the coming decades, climate impacts to agriculture will present an existential threat to hundreds of millions of people across large areas of Africa and Asia who depend on small-scale or “smallholder” farming and livestock keeping to support their families. These climate stresses also imperil the two billion people who depend on these smallholder farmers for food.  

Thankfully, there is evidence that the world is stirring to action. Last November’s global climate summit, known as COP26, in Glasgow consolidated almost a billion dollars in new support for developing climate-smart farming innovations through the CGIAR global agricultural research partnership.

Equally important, the summit featured the launch of a major new coalition called the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, or AIM for Climate. It was started by the United States and the United Arab Emirates and now includes 40 government partners and 100 non-government partners. Together, they are marshalling billions of dollars in increased investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation to develop breakthrough tools and technologies targeting the needs of farmers, ranchers and producers globally, to include smallholders, and building momentum towards COP27 in Egypt. The good news is that we already know the kinds of innovations that can be instrumental in helping farmers adapt. They include:

  • A new generation of early warning systems that capitalize on advances in satellite imagery, climate modeling and data science to alert farmers about threats to their crops and help them avert disaster. For example, Ethiopia’s wheat rust early warning system tracks climate conditions that can produce rapid outbreaks of this devastating crop disease. It delivers regular advisories to farmers via text message that have been instrumental in avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.  
  • The CGIAR crop breeders already have developed new varieties of stress-tolerant rice, maize and beans developed specifically for farmers in Africa and Asia. The challenge is to do the same for a wide range of other crops—and to adopt technologies that allow breeders to work at the rapid pace of climate change.
  • Innovations that support livestock health and sustainable productivity are also critical for agriculture adaptation in low-income countries. Many people in wealthy countries focus on livestock contributions to climate change, and they are real. But in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that accounts for only about four percent of global carbon emissions, livestock are a family’s most valuable financial asset and livestock losses are among the worst outcomes of the current drought in East Africa. Today, there is promising work underway to develop sustainable strategies to provide farmers with climate-smart feeds and fodder. Also, in Kenya, the government is supporting an innovative effort to provide livestock insurance for pastoralist herders that uses data from satellites and other sources to quickly issue payouts when grazing conditions deteriorate.

These are just a few of the many promising innovations that can be deployed to protect agriculture-dependent families in vulnerable regions. I remain hopeful that the world will ultimately mount a vigorous response, even if it can be difficult to summon hope at a time that seems to feature such a convergence of crises—from climate disasters to COVID-19 to conflict.

My faith in smallholder agriculture is rooted in my upbringing on a family farm in Zimbabwe. My parents experienced a lot of adversity, yet the income they earned supported me and my 10 brothers and sisters. Yes, African farmers today face a new set of challenges caused by climate change. But every day I learn about an exciting new tool or technology that could help them adapt. The key is to summon the investments and partnerships that will ensure farmers have the innovations they need to overcome a wide range of climate threats, so they can do for their children what my parents did for me and my siblings.

Enock Chikava is Interim Director, Agricultural Development, Global Growth & Opportunity, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.