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African women adopt smart solutions for climate change

March 6, 2018

Climate-smart agriculture practices are helping to counter the devastating conditions faced by farmers in Africa in recent years. Sithembile Ndema Mwamakamba is Programme Manager for the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), a longstanding CTA partner. She explains how women are at the forefront of farmers’ efforts to build resilience to climate change.

Climate-smart agricultural (CSA) practices are helping small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to cope with increasingly difficult conditions due to erratic weather patterns, which are having a devastating effect on their crops and livestock. Women are at the frontline of efforts to salvage agricultural production for their households, as they seek to ensure that the quality as well as quantity of food eaten by their families suffers as little as possible.

“Farmers are actually seeing the effects of climate change in the form of droughts, flooding and changes in rainfall patterns, resulting in a decline in crop yields and livestock production,” said Sithembile Ndema Mwamakamba. “It’s not just science any more, or a phenomenon being talked about by experts. It’s something very real that is happening on the ground.”

Mwamakamba coordinates CSA policy research and advocacy projects for FANRPAN, which supports the development and implementation of better food, agriculture and national resources policies in Africa. Earlier in her career with FANRPAN, Mwamakamba was involved in various CTA initiatives, including a workshop to review issues related to youth agriculture and rural development and a study visit to Dominica as part of the 10th Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA). “It was quite an honour to take African experiences to another part of the world,” she said in reference to her participation in the CWA.  

As part of its mandate to ensure that research feeds into climate change policies, FANRPAN recently released a report that examines the climate situation in 15 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The findings reveal a bleak picture for smallholder farmers, especially in Southern Africa, where the El Niño weather event has left an estimated 31.6 million people food and nutrition insecure. In South Africa, more than 250,000 cattle died from heat stress and lack of grazing in 2016 alone, and crop farmers have seen their harvests decimated by the acute lack of rainfall in recent years.

Choosing the right technique

A number of sub-Saharan countries have introduced climate change policies, but the challenge now lies in implementing them and allocating budgets, says Mwamakamba. Encouragingly, some farmers are already putting CSA into practice, in many cases adapting indigenous techniques that have been used for generations.

“Farmers have their own ways of coping, and a lot of organisations are now working on the ground to deliver research-based CSA solutions,” said Mwamakamba. “Women, being the custodians of agriculture and representing a greater percentage of the agricultural labour force, are very active adopters of these techniques, though we found that they favour less labour intensive methods. That’s because they already have multiple duties, within the household and on the farms.”

Mulching is a popular CSA technique, because it is highly effective and requires relatively little physical input. It involves covering the topsoil with crop residue, grass and other organic material to reduce loss of soil moisture. In Zambia, women are growing crops on ridges in shallow wetland areas, making use of nearby water to irrigate by hand, before relying on residual moisture once the root system takes hold. Other CSA techniques include digging pits around plants to retain soil moisture and using livestock manure as fertiliser.

Women are particularly receptive to learning about new techniques that can improve agricultural production, and are active in sharing their knowledge and experience about effective CSA methods. “I have seen this myself on many occasions. For example, we have an irrigation project that has introduced a monitoring device to encourage more efficient water use,” said Mwamakamba. “Often, when meetings are arranged, it is women who attend. I think women are always looking for ways of improving their families’ lives. So whenever people come into the community with something to propose, they are interested in finding out about it, and in sharing the knowledge if they see it’s useful.”

Saving time, water and labour

The soil water-monitoring device is a classic example of how simple technologies can be used to help counter climate change. Called the Chameleon Soil Water Sensor, the device measures how hard it is for plants to suck water out of the soil, and the data is displayed with coloured lights: blue (wet), green (moist) and red (dry). The Chameleon has been introduced in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, where it has been welcomed with enthusiasm by women farmers.

“Women in Zimbabwe told us that the device had helped them to free up valuable time,” said Mwamakamba. “Before, they would water regardless, but now they test the soil first, and if it’s blue, they don’t water, but go and get on with other things, which might be weeding their fields or doing family chores. That for me demonstrates the uptake of technologies by women, and how they can use these to realise their other duties.”

Aside from increasing productivity and bolstering resilience, CSA can also make a valuable contribution to combating malnutrition, while offering an opportunity to mitigate climate impacts. Here too women are playing a key role. Nutrition sensitive agriculture is an important feature of the FANRPAN portfolio, casting the spotlight not just on the volumes of food produced, but also on the substance and quality.

“Malnutrition levels are rising and food consumption patterns are changing, especially in urban Africa, where people are eating more processed foods,” said Mwamakamba. “CSA promotes the growing of nutritious, indigenous foods that have long been neglected. Given women’s responsibilities as the primary caregivers to families and communities, and the fact that they are the critical link between the farm and the dinner table, it is important that CSA technologies are tailored to the specific needs of these heroines!”