African Agriculture: a hard sell in a hot climate?

By Nick Brooks, Director of Garama 3C Ltd.

At the last round of the African Development Bank Group’s Annual Meetings, held in Marrakech at the end of May 2013, Abdirahman Belieh, head of the AfDB’s Department of Agriculture and Agro-Industry, emphasised the need for transformation of the agricutural sector in Africa. Specifically, Belieh advocated a “transformation from the traditional way of producing for consumption to producing for commerce.” This will be achieved by “training farmers and smallholders into the idea of transformation of agriculture and commercialisation of agriculture so that they can be entrepeneurs that will produce, consume and at the same time have have the mentality of producing for the market.” Belieh also stated that “whenever we are doing business in agriculture we must also take into account the isue of climate” (1).

While there is an obvious and urgent need to enhance agricultural productivity and improve food security across the continent, doing this in the face of climate change is likely to be challenging. This challenge is widely recognised, at least in principle, and there is increasing emphasis on building resilience to climate change into African agriculture. A variety of measures including seasonal forecasts, weather-related insurance, improved irrigation, and agricultural research are commonly invoked as ways of building resilience in the agricultural sector. Better transport and communications, and thus better access to markets, are rightly seen as ways of improving the lot of smallholders and reducing poverty. Commercialisation of smallholder agriculture can add value to agricultural products and generate income that helps farmers invest in agricultural improvements, adaptation and other livelihood activities that may make them less vulnerable to climate-related shocks.

Nonetheless, commercialisation carries risks, particularly when it is pursued against a backdrop of increasing climatic variability and uncertainty. Too often there appears to be an implicit assumption among development planners that adaptation simply means expanding commercial agriculture and making it more ‘resilient’, coupled with the expectation that agricultural ‘modernisation’ will somehow tend to make countries less, not more, susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

The history of agricultural development in Africa offers some cautionary lessons about commercialisation in an unpredictable climate. The development model in which people are encouraged to move from the subsistence sector to the commercial sector was introduced during the colonial period, and continued by post-colonial African governments (2). This model was pursued particularly vigorously in West Africa and the Sahel, an area characterised by marginal and highly variable climatic conditions, with large changes in rainfall from year to year, associated with fluctuations in the strength of the African Monsoon. On timescales of decades and longer, significant variations in rainfall are associated with shifts in the position of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) that is closely linked with monsoon dynamics (3). These shifts in turn are mediated by changes in ocean surface temperatures, which are sensitive to global climate change (4).

A big push for commercialisation of agriculture in the Sahel took place in the 1950s and 1960s, a period of particularly high rainfall (3). The move to commercial agriculture involved agricultural intensification and the expansion of agriculture into areas that were seen as potentially productive but ‘under-utilised’, often in the drier northern regions. The expansion of agriculture in these areas put pressure on pastoralists, who were systematically marginalised by development policies (a situation that persists to this day (5)), and pushed further into the desert fringes as historical grazing lands were converted to crop land.

The humid conditions of the 1950s and 1960s did not last, and rainfall began to decline in the late 1960s, culminating in severe drought in the early 1970s (3). Many smallholders lost their farms, millions of livestock were lost, and an unknown number of people died in the ensuing famine. Livelihoods were destroyed and communities and societies at large were disrupted as people left their homes in search of food and work (6, 7). In some areas such as northern Senegal, irrigation programmes were implemented in order to sustain the agricultural expansion that had occurred during the previous wet period; clashes between herders coming from the north and settled farmers in this area precipitated the Senegal-Mauritania border conflict of 1989 (8).

Food insecurity and conflicts between farmers and herders over land rights remain chronic problems in much of the Sahel today (7). These are not simply the result of drought or climate change, but rather of decades of development policies, based on a transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture, that have failed to grapple with the need to address extreme climate variability, and that have marginalised traditional livelihoods, specifically mobile pastoralism, in favour of agricultural expansion into pastoralists’ traditional grazing areas (5).

By emphasising commercialisation, productivity and economic efficiency at the expense of traditional livelihoods, development planners in the Sahel built a house of cards based on unsustainable agriculture that massively increased the region’s (and its populations’) vulnerability to climate change. Traditional livelihoods may not have been particularly productive by modern economic standards. However, this was not because they or the people that practiced them were somehow backward or primitive, or simply didn’t have the ‘capacity’ to produce more. Rather, it was because the inhabitants of the Sahel historically have been more concerned with livelihood security, and the predictability of food supply in the face of extreme environmental uncertainty, than with producing surpluses for commercial sale. Mobile pastoralism and low-productivity, low-impact agriculture requiring few inputs and based on various risk spreading practices are sensible strategies in a marginal and highly variable environment.

This point was not appreciated by development planners who forgot that national economies (particularly those built on agriculture) do not exist in isolation from the physical environment, and that the physical environment of the Sahel is particularly dynamic and unpredictable. The sustained high rainfall of the 1950s and 1960s and the multi-decadal dry period that followed may have been ‘unusual’ compared with the pattern of alternating wetter and drier years that characterised the first half of the 20th century, but such extreme multi-decadal variability is a characteristic of the Sahel and other semi-arid regions (3). By implicitly assuming that the climatic conditions of the day would continue, development planners in the mid-20th century Sahel exhibited a deadly ignorance of the environmental context in which development was embedded.

The past is not the future, and the Sahel is not Africa. Nonetheless, the problematic history of agricultural development in the Sahel, driven by the imperative of a transition from subsistence to commercialisation, should give African governments and policymakers pause for thought. There is no reason in principle why African agriculture cannot become more commercially oriented, or why African producers cannot take advantage of modern technology and innovative practices to add value to what they produce. In fact this will be vital in the fight against hunger and poverty in the continent. However, these reasonable goals need to be pursued with open eyes, and must be based on a sound understanding of the potential risks – risks that will be heightened as weather and climate become less predictable in a world that is transitioning to a different climatic state as a result of global warming.

There are likely to be parts of Africa where settled agriculture remains possible under climate change, but only if it is based on entirely different crop mixes and cropping practices to those of today. In such locations, adaptation might involve the import of cropping systems from other areas where today’s climatic conditions represent analogues for potential future conditions (10). However, in some parts of Africa there may be no such analogues, and adaptation will depend on the development of completely new ways of doing things (10). Simple ‘climate proofing’ of existing agricultural systems through the introduction of measures to make farmers more ‘resilient’ will be insufficient in such contexts. Instead, more ‘transformational’ adaptation will be required (11).

While climate change will demand novel adaptation solutions in many instances, traditional livelihood models and practices should not be written off. These are not simply legacies of a more primitive past, but key components of complex social and cultural systems that have developed in specific environmental contexts. While those contexts will evolve as the world – and Africa – warms, the need for flexibility, mobility and risk spreading is likely to increase rather than decrease. Traditional systems that have evolved to meet these needs in historically marginal environments will provide a basis for further adaptation, particularly in areas where resources are becoming scarce and conventional settled agriculture more difficult. The reasons for the development of these ‘low productivity’ livelihood systems, and their potential adaptation value under climate change, need to be understood and addressed when new agricultural policies are being developed. These new policies will need to accommodate increased environmental variability and uncertainty, and will need to blend the most appropriate elements of the traditional and the ‘modern’, not simply replace the former with the latter.

There must be a place for mobile pastoralism in the new landscapes of African agriculture, particularly in areas where higher temperatures and reduced rainfall may make other forms of production less viable. In such areas, adaptation might mean more mobility and more reliance on extensive livestock husbandry (12), the opposite trajectory to the one favoured by most governments and policy makers. Pastoralism first emerged in Africa in response to climate change and environmental deterioration, and has proved to be a reliable strategy for navigating environmental marginality and uncertainty in the continent for some eight millennia (13, 14). There are environmental limits to the viability of mobile, extensive pastoralism (15, 16), but an environment that is too harsh for low-impact mobile herding is likely to be one in which agriculture is impossible. A phased transition away from settled agriculture, with more support for pastoralism (including adding value to pastoralists’ products) might be the only sensible policy option where climate change means water scarcity will cross thresholds beyond which existing cropping systems are no longer viable (12).

Morocco, where the AfDB’s last annual meetings took place, currently consumes almost half of its annual renewable surface water resources, with 88% of that consumption going to agriculture (17). A 2003 Moroccan study concluded that a warming of 1 degree Celsius would result in a reduction in surface water availability of around 10% in the catchment of the country’s largest dam (18). Climate projections indicate a warming over Morocco in the region of 4 degrees by the latter part of the 21st century, and a decline in rainfall of up to around 40% in some locations (19-22), suggesting that climate change could take available water resources in the country below current usage in the medium to long-term. The figures are similar for Tunisia, where AfDB is based (17). Agriculture as it is currently practiced in these countries, already highly commercialised compared with that of many African nations, will not be sustainable under climate change.

AfDB and other development organisations are not wrong to promote agriculture that increases farmers’ incomes and uses modern techniques to enhance agricultural productivity. However, they need to avoid simplistic, ideologically-driven “subsistence to commercialisation” and “tradition to modernity” models based on narrow and flawed European ideas of progress (7). Instead they need to blend tradition and modernity to build sustainable African models of development that are appropriate to changing African environments, and the needs of Africa’s people.


(1) Belieh, A. “Our priority: switch from subsistence agriculture to commerce-based agriculture.” Speech at 2013 African Development Bank Annual Meetings, 29 May 2013.

(2) Cooper, F. 1997. Modernizing bureaucrats, backward Africans, and the development concept, in F. Cooper & R. Packard (eds.) International Development and the Social Sciences, , pp 64-92. Berkeley: University of California Press.

(3) Brooks, N. 2004. Drought in the African Sahel: long-term perspectives and future prospects. Tyndall Working Paper No. 61. (pdf).

(4) Losada, T., Rodriguez-Fonseca, B., Mohino, E., Bader, J., Janicot, S. and Mechoso, C. R. 2012. Tropical SST and Sahel rainfall: A non-stationary relationship. Geophysical Research Letters 39, L12705, doi:10.1029/2012GL052423,

(5) Bloch, P. and Foltz, J. 1999. Recent Land Tenure Reforms in the Sahel: Assessment and Suggestions for Redirection. BASIS/Land Tenure Centre, Madison.

(6) Heyd, T. and Brooks, N. 2009. Exploring cultural dimensions to climate change. In W.N. Adger, I. Lorenzoni and K. O’Brien (eds.) Adapting to Climate Change: Thresholds, Values and Governance, pp. 269-282. Cambridge University Press (pdf).

(7) Brooks, N., Brown, K. and Grist, N. 2009. Development Futures in the Context of Climate Change: challenging the present and learning from the past. Development Policy Review 27, 741-765. Download (pdf).

(8) Parker, R. 1991. The Senegal-Mauritania conflict of 1989: a fragile equilibrium. The Journal of Modern African Studies 29: 155-171.

(9) Brooks, N. 2012. Climate, Development and Conflict in the Sahel: A Review. Supporting Study (updated) for Goulden, M. and Few, R. 2011. Climate Change, Water and Conflict in the Niger River Basin, 70 pp. International Alert and University of East Anglia (pdf).

(10) Burke, M.B, Lobell, D.B. and Guarino, L. 2009. Shifts in African crop climates by 2050, and the implications for crop improvement and genetic resources conservation. Global Environmental Change 19, 317-325.

(11) Brooks, N., Anderson, S., Ayers, J., Burton, I. and Tellam, I. 2011. Tracking Adaptation and Measuring Development. IIED Working Paper No. 1, November 2011. IIED, London/Edinburgh (pdf).

(12) Jones, P.G. and Thornton, P.K. 2009. Croppers to livestock keepers: livelihood transitions to 2050 in African due to climate change. Environmental Science and Policy 12: 427-437

(13) di Lernia, S. 2006. Building Monuments, Creating Identity: Cattle Cult as a Social Response to Rapid Environmental Changes in the Holocene Sahara Quaternary International 151: 50-62.

(14) Jousse, H., 2004. A new contribution to the history of pastoralism in West Africa. Journal of African Archaeology 2: 187–201.

(15) Brooks, N. 2012. Beyond collapse: climate change and causality during the Middle Holocene Climatic Transition, 6400-5000 years before present (BP). Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography 112(2): 93-104. (pdf)

(16) Brooks, N. 2010. Human responses to climatically-driven landscape change and resource scarcity: Learning from the past and planning for the future. In I. P. Martini and W. Chesworth (eds.) Landscapes and Societies: Selected Cases, pp. 43-66. Springer, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York, 478 pp. Access chapter via Google Books.

(17) Based on data from EarthTrends 2007, World Resources Institute (available at

(18) Agoumie, A. 2003. Vulnerability of North African Countries to Climatic Changes Adaptation and Implementation Strategies for Climate Change. IIED and the Climate Change Knowledge Network.

(19) Christensen, J.H., B. Hewitson, A. Busuioc, A. Chen, X. Gao, I. Held, R. Jones, R.K. Kolli, W.-T. Kwon, R. Laprise, V. Magaña Rueda, L. Mearns, C.G. Menéndez, J. Räisänen, A. Rinke, A. Sarr and P. Whetton, 2007: Regional Climate Projections. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

(20) Giorgi, F. and Lionello, P. 2008. Climate change projections for the Mediterranean region. Global and Planetary Change 63: 94-104.

(21) Gommes, R., El Hairech, E., Rosillon, D., Balaghi, R. and Kanamaru, H. 2009. Impact of climate change on agricultural yields in Morocco. World Bank -Morocco study on the impact of climate change on the agricultural sector. World Bank, INRA, Maroc Meteo, FAO.

(22) Füssel, H. M. 2010. Global maps of climate change impacts on the favourability for human habitation and economic activity. Potsdam Institute for Climate Research.

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