I made my first ever visits to Ethiopia and Kenya not too long before a global pandemic up-ended our world. I travelled as president of the IFA with leading Irish agricultural development organisation Self Help Africa, met with farm leaders and saw farming programmes that the Irish charity was helping to implement.
The trip left a lasting impression. Once my term as IFA president ended in 2020, I accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of Self Help Africa, which I serve on today.
I’d seen first-hand the real and lasting impact that good farming practices and simple things like a dairy co-operative and access to good-quality seed could have for smallholder farmers in these two countries. I also saw how, just like in Ireland, support from farming associations and co-operatives was enabling growers to access finance and markets, get goods to market and earn more for their produce.
At the time of my visit, there had just been a failure of the rains – on which so much of Africa’s agriculture depends – so the challenge of growing food in the face of climate change was high on the agenda of the farming representatives that I met.
It was clear however that agriculture was the engine of much of the economic activity that was going on in both countries, and with the right support and investment, agricultural intensification would result in farmers in Ethiopia and Kenya playing a leading role in the economic growth of their economies in the years to come.
In recent weeks, I’ve been really disappointed to witness the extent of an unfolding food crisis that has plunged millions into hunger right across east Africa. Latest figures show that 23m people – almost five times the population of Ireland – face severe hunger in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia this year.
The region is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. Indeed, some parts haven’t seen proper rainfall since close to four years ago.
A number of factors including climate change have made an already desperate situation worse, in a region of the world with limited resources to cope.
Although the African continent avoided the very worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, its markets and food production systems were disrupted. Like elsewhere, limited government resources had to be channelled towards both combatting and protecting vulnerable communities from the virus.
African countries certainly haven’t escaped the other major crisis to have befallen us in the west over the past six months – the war in Ukraine.
The fragility of global food systems is laid bare by this crisis and spiralling prices of wheat – a staple for people in the region – together with soaring oil prices and costs of fertiliser, have put pressure on people from all sides.
East African countries import 90% of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia, and the disruption of grain supplies has meant that the cost of food aid – necessary when crops fail and when yields fall short – have increased by over 30% in price to relief agencies and organisations like the UN’s World Food Programme.
While Self Help Africa’s work, supporting and training farming communities to increase yields, diversify production and get their crops to market is continuing in response to the current crisis, the organisation has also begun to distribute essential supplies and cash vouchers to ‘in-need’ households within communities in Kenya and Ethiopia where it works.
Many small-scale farmers don’t use fertiliser to the same extent that we would here in Ireland. In many instances, this is because it is not affordable. Nonetheless, the increase in prices of inputs and fuel has added a further burden on producers, who rely on getting their produce to market to earn a living.
There are no quick fixes to the threat that global warming poses to African food production. Self Help Africa is working to promote ‘climate smart’ farming practices that help small-scale farmers adapt to and withstand the worst effects of climate change.
Intercropping cover crops alongside cereals, together with zero tillage planting and practices that encourage farmers to leave stalks and stems on the land from one harvest to the next all help to give shade to plants, keep moisture in the soil for longer and also keep it cooler.
Elsewhere, distribution of drought-tolerant seed varieties and activities that promote alternate crop varieties that cope better than maize in higher temperatures are just some of the measures being taken.
One of these alternate crops is cassava, which grows well in tropical and sub-tropical regions. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops in the world. Although the plant, like many tubers, is native to South America, up to 60% of the cassava grown worldwide is now produced across Africa. Recent estimates indicate that as many as 200m Africans survive on cassava porridge when other crops fail.
A major Self Help Africa cassava project is underway in drought-affected parts of Kenya, where 28,000 households are being supported to grow cassava tubers as an alternate food crop and steps are being taken to promote cassava as a consumer alternative.
Farmers are being trained to harvest and sell cassava cuttings in a commercial way. Activities are also taking place with farmer co-operatives and other producer groups to improve quality and add value to the crop. To this end, cassava milling operations have sprung up and cassava flour, together with flour that blends cassava with wheat, is becoming more commonly available in local markets.
There’s much to be done, and the challenge of supporting African smallholders to grow food in the face of global warming is not going to be overcome without dedicated, ongoing efforts.
The current food crisis that has hit the countries of eastern Africa underlines, however, that once the immediate threats of hunger and starvation have been confronted, there’s much more to be done to ensure that Africa can become a food secure continent for the generations to come.
To find out more about Self Help Africa’s work, and to donate to their current East Africa Food Crisis Appeal, visit www.selfhelpafrica.org.