African scholars and their impact need to be more visible

“Agroecological intensification; reducing chemical inputs while building soil health and microorganisms; fostering diversification, alongside social and political transformations needed to guarantee equity in food systems, must be ramped up urgently to create resilient food systems that can withstand climate change, conflicts and other shocks.”

This is according to Dr Susan Chomba, a Kenyan social scientist, who is the director of Vital Landscapes for Africa at the World Resources Institute. During an interview with University World News, Chomba shared her experience at the recent COP27, where she was a presenter on pathways to resilient agricultural and food systems in Africa.

UWN: What is your main field of expertise and how did your work in climate change begin?

SC: My main field of expertise is forestry and agriculture, and how these two interact with each other, shaped by people, and then having positive or negative outcomes for people, nature and climate. It requires systems thinking to connect the dots.

I began my work, on climate change specifically, back in 2007 as a researcher at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, where I was tasked with synthesising and providing evidence to the African Group of Negotiators on the forest and land use sectors’ role in mitigation and adaptation.

UWN: What is the focus of your work at the World Resources Institute and how is it relevant to climate action?

SC: My work focuses on food systems transformation, landscape restoration, nature protection and the securing rights of indigenous groups and local communities. I also oversee our work on water.

There is an inherent link between food systems, nature and climate in Africa because a big percentage of productivity increase in agriculture comes from expanding into natural ecosystems, and this increases our carbon dioxide emissions, while leading to biodiversity loss.

Consequently, the more we degrade our natural capital base, the more our food systems become vulnerable to climatic shocks.

Looking into the future, we need to think about building resilient food systems in Africa. This will involve a lot of modelling and scientific research that helps us to factor in changes such as climatic shocks and demographics, while taking advantage of our local knowledge systems and the diversity of indigenous African foods (vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals and root crops) that are resilient to droughts, rich in nutrients.

We risk losing this diversity of crops because of the current industrial models that prioritise, breed and promote a few crops.

Some of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming come from food systems – the way we produce, transport, process, package and consume food. We can’t solve the climate crisis without addressing emissions in the food systems, and that’s a major part of our work.

While greenhouse gas emissions from Africa remain relatively low, there is more urgency to adapt and make our food systems more resilient to climatic shocks. It is crucial to also think about the scenario of feeding a rapidly growing population that is projected to double by 2050, and what that means for emissions.

Rather than wait until Africa’s emissions skyrocket, we are looking at innovations that help us to transition our food systems so that we do not have huge levels of emissions like we have in the rest of the world. This form of leapfrogging is important and is only possible with contextualised solutions.

UWN: As a climate scientist and researcher, against the backdrop of COP27, what are some of ways of building sustainable agriculture and food systems in Africa?

SC: During this COP, I have been providing a few key transformation pathways for food systems in Africa that can really help us move forward. One, we need agroecological intensification in our production systems. The High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) produced a comprehensive report in 2019 laying out 13 principles for transforming our food systems.

If we can work towards those while paying attention to contextual variabilities and applicability of those principles, we would make tremendous progress. In line with this, we need to restore degraded lands to enable sustainable production. At least 60% of the land used for agricultural production is degraded on the continent and that is why initiatives such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) are needed.

In our effort to restore these landscapes, we must resist the urge to only count trees and the number of hectares regreened, but look at how restoration impacts food security. You can have negative or positive impacts on food security, depending on how you restore landscapes.

The second pathway is to invest heavily in reducing food loss and food waste on the continent. At least a third of the food produced globally is wasted and this extends to our region where we have millions of people starving. This is unconscionable.

We have constantly evolving solutions for food loss and food waste, but the scaling requires financing, policy and partnerships. Through our circular food systems project in Rwanda, for example, we have seen endless innovation by private sector and small and medium enterprises to address food loss and waste that can be scaled.

The third area we need to focus on is dietary shifts. There are many campaigns to reduce meat and milk consumption because they have a huge carbon footprint in the Global North.

We have an opportunity in Africa to have a different discussion about our dietary shifts and, in this case, we need to focus on the diversity of crops that will help us close the malnutrition gap, lower the diseases burden that comes from consumption of unhealthy foods and create value and market for our local foods. We need to promote a diversity of foods that are indigenous, resilient to climate change, nutritious and require less production inputs.

The last one is on trade. Policies such as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement that was enacted in 2021 offer a window of opportunity to shorten our value chains. It also increases inter-African trade.

This will help us reduce our carbon footprint and reduce reliance on imports that are susceptible to shocks that are outside our control – for example, the war in Ukraine – and divert our foreign exchange to food that we can clearly produce.

That trade must also benefit smallholder farmers and the trickle-down economics has not been effective at achieving that without proactive measures that enable farmers to aggregate, collectively negotiate better prices and market access.

UWN: What role are universities and research centres playing in climate innovation, especially the transition to clean energy?

SC: Research and innovation are fundamental to ensuring that the African continent transitions to clean energy, both for domestic and for industrial use, and growth.

For instance, we need clean cooking options to help rural women who use biomass for cooking, which has negative impacts on their health and negative environmental impacts.

Universities and research institutions have a role to play in innovating around clean energy on the continent – whether it’s geothermal, solar, wind, or other renewable forms of energy.

Some of the key issues affecting our research and academic institutions include the lack of access to sustainable funding that can help them invest in long-term research, innovation and experimentation.

There are many conditions in our countries that must be shifted to allow researchers to establish their research careers and to prevent the continent from brain drain, whereby most of its brilliant scientists migrate to the developed world.

UWN: How has COP27 been helping to empower universities and researchers to increase their impact on climate action?

SC: We saw a proliferation of scientific evidence being presented in different pavilions and, obviously, the very solid evidence that is used to inform the COP negotiations, which is produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports both on adaptation and mitigation.

Research is crucial for any discussions around the COP because we need to ensure that the options we are putting forward to climate change negotiators for both mitigation and adaptation are based on solid evidence.

There is work to be done on the COPs to ensure that whatever is being discussed in the pavilions is synthesised and presented on the negotiation table because, unfortunately, the two processes seem to be running parallel at the moment.

Being an African scientist and researcher, I was very conscious of the under-representation of African researchers, scientists and academics, even in a COP that was held on African soil.

We need to see more visibility of African scholars and how their science is being used to inform transformation pathways for the continent.

It is also important that we look into the number of African academic institutions that are accredited to be part of the COP process and to ensure that they have the resources to be able to attend. For example, this last COP has been extremely expensive, especially on accommodation, and this can lock out scholars in the Global South from participating.

UWN: What was different during COP27 compared to previous gatherings? What would make COP27 be considered a success?

SC: COP27 was happening on African soil, so issues that are pertinent to the continent have been at the forefront at this conference and that is amazing. We have had discussions and sessions on loss and damage, adaptation and food systems.

A successful COP27 must recognise the issues affecting one of the most vulnerable regions in the world – in other words, Africa – and one that contributes the least to emissions (less than 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions) and yet is heavily impacted by climate change.

It is important to recognise those issues and ensure that they are not left in Egypt, but that they proceed towards COP28.

We must not lose focus on the urgency of loss and damage and increasing adaptation finance, even as we know mitigation is a priority for the Global North. Above all, we must see action.

We have to ask the hard questions on what institutional changes are needed so the funds reach affected communities at the speed and scale required to help them adapt to climate change.