COP27 must address food and water security in Africa — including nurturing innovation across the Global South

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Opinion section of the Financial Times. You can read it here:

World leaders gathering in Egypt for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference must place food and water security in Africa at the top of their agenda — with a particular focus on supporting and scaling innovation emerging from within the Continent.

The past few months alone should act as an urgent wake-up call. Floods in Nigeria have killed more than 600 people and damaged or destroyed 440,000 hectares of farmlands. Meanwhile, one of the worst droughts in four decades is putting 22 million people, including 10 million children, at risk of starvation in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Malnutrition, the largest contributor to climate change-related mortality around the world, currently causes an estimated 1.7 million deaths every year in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly hard hit, with 37 of 52 countries suffering from an extremely high level of food insecurity, according to a new report by the Institute for Economics and Peace. The same study also found that a staggering 206 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are at extreme risk of water insecurity.

And unless we act now, things are going to get much worse. The report predicts that the population in the region will grow to 2.1 billion by 2050, a 95% increase from today, which will put extraordinary pressure on its fragile food and water infrastructure.

Africa’s food and water systems, already the most vulnerable in the world, are particularly vulnerable to global warming. Despite accounting for only 3.8% of global greenhouse emissions, Africa is suffering the most harmful effects of the climate crisis. According to the World Meteorological Organization, both temperatures and sea levels in Africa have increased faster than in other world regions.

Put simply, we are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, and we must do all we can to avoid it.

Today, the most urgent priority is to provide immediate support to the people affected by the most recent natural disasters, as well as the drop in grain shipments from Ukraine due to Russian aggression. UNICEF’s Deputy Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Rania Dagash, recently warned of an “explosion of child deaths” in the Horn of Africa if we don’t do more to save lives. We can’t look the other way.

Wealthy nations must also deliver on the promise we made in Paris in 2015, when we all set out the goal to limit rising global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. A new UN Climate Change report found that we are not doing nearly enough to reach that objective. Clearly, we need a much more ambitious climate agenda.

Given the immense suffering caused by food insecurity, it’s clear that acting to slow rising temperatures is a moral imperative. It also happens to be in the self-interest of the Global North. While African countries will bear the brunt of food and water shortages initially, it’s only a matter of time until these issues affect the rest of the world, in the form of higher migration pressure and disruptions to supply chains.

Warmer temperatures will also make zoonotic diseases more common, potentially causing another global pandemic, according to research published by Nature. When that happens, the world will need African scientists like Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum – who helped discover the Ebola virus in 1976 and is still working to identify new pathogens in Congo – to operate in a politically and economically stable environment so they can warn the rest of the world.

Finally, we need to rebuild Africa’s food and water systems so they can withstand future climate shocks. This will require international cooperation, investments from public, private, and philanthropic interests — and, critically, innovation led by African scientists, engineers, farmers, financiers, entrepreneurs and political leaders.

Priorities should include increasing Africa’s agricultural productivity, expanding trade, improving crop storage systems to help farmers maintain supply over time and providing them with high-yielding seeds and contaminant-free fertilizers. We also need to build early-warning systems for weather emergencies, new roads and railways to connect farmers to the areas most affected by food scarcity and flood barriers to protect water distribution infrastructure.

Here’s one example of an infrastructure project that could have enormous impact: Expanding access to groundwater.

According to the African Ministers’ Council on Water, the volume of groundwater in Africa is about 20 times greater than the volume of river and lakes across the continent. Yet in drought-stricken sub-Saharan Africa, less than 5% of the available groundwater is currently being used. Expanding that figure could strengthen the region’s resiliency against droughts and other climate shocks; most countries in Africa have enough groundwater to last decades, even if rainfalls diminish.

An economic simulation run by the International Food Policy Research Institute suggests that doubling investment in groundwater development in Uganda, for example, could increase the country’s agricultural GDP by 7% and lift 500,000 people out of poverty. And if we increased investments by five times, agricultural GDP would grow by 10% and almost 700,000 people would be lifted out of poverty. That’s a powerful return on investment.

In closing, I’d like to underscore a key point: While the Global North has a vital role in financing and investment, finding sustainable solutions to food and water security will require fostering local R&D and innovation and supporting local companies and institutions as they scale the most promising ideas and technology coming from within Africa.

Too often, the Global North takes a top-down approach, imposing plans generated in America or Europe on other regions of the world. I’d postulate that the best way to solve Africa’s food crisis is to support Africans in developing their own solutions, drawn from their deep experience with local conditions, local politics, and local capacity. Great ideas, as we know, come from everywhere. We just need to be open to hearing them.

In Kenya, for example, Jehiel Oliver founded an app called Hello Tractor, which helps farmers rent smart tractors and other agricultural equipment that they might not be able to afford outright. And Nigerian entrepreneur Abdou Maman Kané started Tech Innov, a tele-irrigation system that automatically monitors factors such as temperature, soil moisture content and wind speed, and regulate the water flow accordingly.

These are just two examples, among many, of local innovation that could improve food and water security in the face of climate change.

At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, wealthy countries committed to invest $100 billion per year by 2020 for climate action in low- and middle-income countries. It’s time to deliver on that promise. We have a moral responsibility to make sure that the people who least contributed to this crisis don’t end up paying the highest price.