Today in Mali, one of the main rice baskets of West Africa, it’s not unusual to find young women and men equipped with tablet computers loaded with an app called RiceAdvice, advising local farmers on best-fit management practices to implement under weather extremes caused by climate change. RiceAdvice can, for example, help farmers choose the best rice variety to grow and the right amount of fertilizer to apply to reduce the risk of fertilizer loss due to flooding. The collaboration has helped thousands of small-scale rice farmers in Mali increase their rice harvest yields by about a ton per hectare.  

What is at work here goes beyond farmers using digital technologies to achieve a sizeable bump in food production. It’s an example of what needs to happen at scale to ensure that agriculture in large areas of the world can cope with a climate crisis that risks spiraling out of control.  

This week, leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa are gathering in Nairobi, Kenya, for Africa Climate Week. With the world having recently experienced the four hottest days ever recorded, this will be a critical moment for African leaders to unite behind a shared agenda for the global climate summit (known as COP28) that will take place in November in the United Arab Emirates.  

For agriculture-dependent regions across sub-Saharan Africa, and much of South Asia as well, avoiding disastrous effects on agriculture inflicted by climate change will require a major global effort to help small-scale farmers adapt to the changes.  

There is an urgent and compelling need for action; these regions are home to about 3 billion people, including small-scale farmers like those rice growers in rural Mali. Their operations supply most of the food and, in Africa in particular, they generate most of the employment. Today, small-scale farmers have become a major focus of global efforts to fight hunger and poverty. In many African countries, growth in the agriculture sector, achieved through investments in small-scale farmers, stimulates a much larger reduction in poverty than growth in other sectors.  

This is not a new or geographically specific economic phenomenon. Small-scale farmers were central to China’s historic achievements in poverty reduction a century ago. They were also an engine of economic progress for North America and Europe.  

What’s different today is climate change. I grew up in Sierra Leone and I’ve spent decades working with African farmers in humid and arid regions across Africa. I know what it means to grow food in challenging environments. Yet, what farmers face today — a surge in droughts and floods, and increasingly unpredictable and shifting patterns of rainy seasons — is unlike anything I have ever encountered. 


The science confirms my observations. Much of sub-Saharan Africa lies in a tropical zone where climate change has caused temperatures to rise faster and weather patterns to shift more dramatically than almost anywhere in the world. As a result, climate-related losses on farms in sub-Saharan Africa, in terms of yield, are predicted to decrease by 10 percent.  

That makes climate change a threat to our food systems and a menace to our best opportunity for achieving economic progress. And that’s why, at Africa Climate Week, African leaders must present a strong case for a global response, noting that our farmers are suffering the most from climate change while contributing the least to causing it with all of Africa accounting for only about four percent of the world’s carbon emissions.  

Of equal importance, African leaders must point to sustainable solutions as well as the many partnerships now working across Africa to deliver innovations that can be rapidly scaled up to help millions of farmers adapt.   

For example, farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, and many other places are embracing new, improved varieties of locally adapted food crops such as cassava, millets, pigeon pea, and sweet potatoes, which are naturally suited to stressful growing conditions. Livestock experts are working with small-scale dairy and poultry farmers to identify more resistant cattle, small-ruminants, pigs and poultry, as well as resilient feeds, to help them sustainably increase production as temperatures rise. Affordable digital technologies are powering new early warning systems like one that is preventing wheat rust outbreaks in Ethiopia and another helping Africa’s pastoralist herding communities cope with drought. There are many such climate-smart innovations available. 

A call to invest in adaptation should not be viewed as an excuse to abandon efforts to reduce emissions. Both are equally important. Today, however, investments in adaptation, especially for African farmers, are far below what’s needed.  

This year’s COP28 global climate summit is supposed to be a “COP of solutions.” There can be no solution to the climate crisis that does not include a rapid and massive effort to ensure African farmers can continue supplying our region with food while generating economic growth. At Africa Climate Week, it will be of utmost importance for our leaders to acknowledge that the climate crisis in Africa is largely a food and agriculture crisis, and to lead the way in showcasing the solutions our farmers can use to overcome this unprecedented threat.   

Harold Roy-Macauley is the Managing Director of Regions and Partnership at CGIAR.