Building a Climate-Resilient food system in Sub-Saharan Africa

Jan 21, 2021Climate & Environment, Perspectives

In this article, we will unpack the climate change-attributed challenges facing the food system in Sub-Saharan Africa and some of the improvements needed to mitigate potentially catastrophic climate effects and support continued regional progress and prosperity.

By Zack Henderson

In the face of mounting challenges attributed to anthropogenic climate change, many in the international development community are grappling with its effect as a risk multiplier for those who suffer most from preexisting inequities. Recent research has found that since 1960, climate change has worsened economic inequality worldwide by stifling economic prosperity and GDP growth in the world’s poorest and often formerly-colonized countries, many in Sub-Saharan Africa – and it will continue to do so. [i]

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region undergoing significant change. The region has seen generally positive economic growth in the past decade, which are expected to continue after a year of significant contraction due to COVID-19.[ii] At the same time, health and development were significantly improved in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[iii] Amidst these changes, malnutrition remains a stubborn challenge for the region among low-income populations – between 2010 and 2016, Sub-Saharan Africa saw its number of undernourished people rise amidst economic growth, and 59 million children under the age of 5 were developmentally stunted in 2017.[iv]

Malnutrition is a symptom of many underlying challenges, but primarily indicative of a food system that cannot provide a nutritionally adequate diet at a price the population can afford. Urbanization, a growing population expected to double by 2050[v], and economic inequality have strained an already fragile food system, hamstrung the supply chain, and elevated the risk of food insecurity. Climate change is decreasing the availability, access, and utilization of nutritious food through decreased crop productivity, strained infrastructure and food storage, and increased disease. The outcome is a more expensive diet, progressively composed of a less diverse range of food sources of increasingly lower nutritional value and absorption capacity.

In a region already forced to contend with some of the most acute changes in its weather patterns and environment, climate change poses an existential threat to food security and malnutrition.Crop and livestock failure, reductions in biodiversity and food nutrient content, disruption to supply chains and labor, and increased disease and food safety challenges have already materialized and are anticipated to get much worse. Subsistence farming remains a primary element of the food system, and it is estimated at about ~80% of the African continent’s population remains dependent on low-yielding, rain-fed agriculture.[vi] These less climate-resilient farming practices will be hard-hit by shifting weather patterns and other changes, and yields are forecasted to drop by ~15% for sorghum and 10% for millet by 2050, both of which are key food staples. Additionally, some important cash crops, such as coffee and cocoa, will no longer flourish in parts of their present growing areas.[vii] Heat stress will cripple productivity and livelihoods, with estimates of excessive heat leading to a loss of 5% of working hours in 2030, equal to ~9 million full-time jobs. Of these hours, 60% are accounted for by heat stress-related losses in the agricultural sector.[viii]

Through their damaging effects on the food system, these impacts would have a significant destabilizing effect on societies and populations. The end line impact on nutrition of all of these climate and food system-related challenges is sobering: in Mali, climate change is expected to increase the percentage of the population at risk of hunger from 34% to between 64-72% by 2050,[ix] and a study cited in a 2018 IPCC report found that the relative percent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa with severe stunting would see an increase of 31-55% due to the impact of climate change.[x] Worryingly, food insecurity has been found to increase strife and migration, disrupt global markets and supply chains, exacerbate inequities and governance limitations, and increase strain on women and caretakers – a tragic cascade of effects that are difficult to reverse once they have begun.

To meet this challenge, we believe that there is a need for multi-level collaboration amongst governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders to help reinvent the food system in Sub-Saharan Africa to be resilient, adaptable, and equitable. We see the need for action existing at 3 levels:

1. Elevate the discussion. To date, acute needs around other areas of health and human development have created an environment wherein the connections between climate change and nutrition have been under-recognized and under-resourced. At the international and regional level, there is a need for coalition building and investment to build awareness and understanding among key international development players.

2. Create an enabling policy environment. Policies and government structures must acknowledge food system vulnerabilities. At the national and sub-national levels, more robust food systems will require policy change as well as larger scale access to innovations which support resilience in food production and security.

3. Empower communities. Solutions are needed which are built by and for unique communities within the Sub-Saharan African context, allowing growth to leapfrog less efficient stages of food systems development. Community and individual-level interventions will be key to changing practices and improving the resilience and adaptability of households and farmers, while also sparking innovation in infrastructure and the supply chain.

The food system is just one of many foundational systems which are already being fundamentally changed and challenged by climate change; however, it is decidedly unique in its dual role of both nourishing populations and serving as an economic engine which offers employment and supports livelihoods. Enhancing these essential functions of the food system will be a cornerstone of the region’s continued rise to prosperity, and that calls for concerted action at all levels to acknowledge, explore and overcome this critical climate challenge.

Global warming has increased global economic inequality. Noah S. Diffenbaugh, Marshall Burke. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2019, 116 (20) 9808-9813; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816020116

[1] World Bank: Africa Regional Overview

[1] UN: The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020

[1] WHO AFRO. Strategic plan to reduce malnutrition in Africa adopted by WHO Member States. 21 August 2019.

[1] UN Population Division. Global Issues: Population.

[1] Sy. Africa: Financing Adaptation and Mitigation in the World’s Most Vulnerable Region. Brookings Institution. August 2016.

[1] Searchinger et al. Creating a Sustainable Food Future. A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050 (Synthesis Report). WRI. Dec 2018

[1] Kjellstrom, et al. Working on a Warmer Planet. The Impact of Heat Stress on Labor Productivity and Decent Work. International Labor Organization. Jul 2019.

[1] Butt et al. The economic and food security implications of climate change in Mali. Climatic Change. Feb 2005

[1]Lloyd et al. Climate change, crop yields, and undernutrition: development of a model to quantify the impact of climate scenarios on child undernutrition. Environmental Health Perspectives. Dec. 2011; 119(12), 1817-1823