A Path to Sustainable, Climate-Resilient Agriculture in Eastern and Southern Africa: Enhancing Science to Support the Agribusiness Ecosystem

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For more than 300 million people in Africa, maize is the most important dietary staple. Produced widely, the crop is especially dominant in sub-Saharan Africa, where it provides roughly 30 percent of caloric intake and basic food security. While popular, accessible, and an important part of many Africans’ diets, maize is also associated with lower nutritional content, soil degradation, and vulnerability to climate change. 

Often under-resourced, maize-reliant smallholder farmers across eastern and southern Africa — where almost two-thirds of the population depends on farming—are dangerously exposed to climate extremes. The region struggles with intensifying cycles of flood and drought that threaten US$45 billion worth of agricultural produce. Maize is beset by other challenges including extreme heat,  reduced soil fertility, and pests and diseases like Fall Armyworm. 

While East and Southern Africa are home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, growth has not led to a reduction in poverty. Instead, the number of people living below the poverty line has increased. This is partly because Africa has the world’s largest proportion of young people, many of whom are unemployed.  

Fundamental weaknesses in the agricultural sector have prevented reduction in rural poverty and inequality, leaving many small farmers trapped in poverty. These weaknesses include a lack of secure access to land, credit, and profitable markets. This is a particular problem for women and youth. Value chains are fragmented, with unstable relationships between firms and farmers. 

Increasingly, agriculture start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are rising to these challenges to strengthen value chains. They help smallholder farmers improve productivity, boost incomes, and increase climate resilience. There is a vibrant agribusiness ecosystem, with a mature formal market, such as retail stores and supermarkets. With targeted, evidence-backed investment in food systems, many of the system’s weaknesses can be remedied. 

Can small- and medium-scale agribusinesses in eastern and southern Africa find a sustainable path forward? One capable of delivering improved nutrition, better public health outcomes, and enhanced food security amid intensifying climate shocks? 

We think the answer is yes. CGIAR has been a major force behind a global coalition of development organizations dedicated to introducing sustainable agricultural practices to countries in eastern and southern Africa. This coalition has engaged hundreds of stakeholders from the food, land, water, and development sectors to identify innovative, science-based policy pathways for empowering agribusiness SMEs to diversify agricultural production and become sustainable, profitable, and climate-resilient. 

Informed by this collaborative research, CGIAR is proposing a bold, visionary regional initiative —Ukama Ustawi (U2): Diversification for Resilient Agribusiness Ecosystems in East and Southern Africa —that could transform the region’s agriculture sector through research and the promotion of policies, technologies, services, and best practices. This includes finding inclusive, science-based ways for agribusiness SMEs to support sustainable, resilient, and intensified maize production, while complementing with environmentally appropriate and nutritious, diversified farming with legumes, alternative grains, vegetables, trees, livestock, or fish. 

To speed the transition, the initiative engages farmers in research that pursues water-secure, low-emission crop production and improves access to innovative digital and financial tools. These tools can empower producers to efficiently cultivate and sell a range of crops better suited to withstanding an increasingly erratic water supply. 

Further, the initiative seeks to strengthen agribusiness sustainability by helping unlock private investment and deploying evidence-based advocacy for government policies that can help improve market access for these farmers. Agribusinesses and farmers across eastern and southern Africa’s “maize belt”— including Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe — could benefit immensely through diversification. 

One aspect of the initiative will be modeled around the AGRF’s “Agribusiness Dealroom,” a matchmaking platform to drive new business deals and commitments. This model will provide agriculture SMEs with the opportunity to access finance, mentorship, and market entry opportunities. It will also create opportunities for governments to present investment opportunities, promote investment incentives, and engage with interested investors. 

The right business climate 

Given that these countries have signed the Africa Free Trade Agreement as a step toward joining the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), there is arguably great potential now to connect small- and medium-scale farmers to new markets. Avenues are opening for the region’s agribusinesses to transport and sell more nutritious, higher-value crops to consumers across borders. The time is right to accelerate research on economic incentives, best agricultural practices, and climate change in an enabling economic environment comprised of some of the world’s fastest-growing — but poorest — economies. 

CGIAR envisions that by 2024, 50,000 farmers — including 20,000 women — across the region will benefit from policy and technology innovations to practice mixed-maize agricultural production, with 1 million farmers utilizing climate advisory and agricultural risk management services accessible via mobile phone to better time planting and harvesting.  

CGIAR’s vision for the region aims to fuel substantial progress toward the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals for reducing poverty and hunger while promoting gender equality and advancing responsible consumption and production. By easing maize-intensive agriculture’s ecological footprint, the initiative will also drive progress toward creating a sustainable foundation for resilient food systems that decreases malnutrition. It will empower a new generation of climate-resilient farmers with knowledge and tools to anticipate and navigate future climate shocks and stresses.  

Widespread adoption of mixed-maize systems represents a rare win-win-win, as it has the potential to improve diets, raise farmer incomes, and ease agriculture’s environmental footprint while achieving a more sustainable, food- and water-secure future. The time for taking visionary action to transform African agriculture is now. 

Authored by: Inga Jacobs-Mata, Country Representative – South Africa, International Water Management Institute (IWMI); and Evan Girvetz, Africa Lead for Climate Action, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT.

Header photo: A farmer shows off his crops in White River in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Photo by E. Kritzinger.

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