Feeding the nation in a changing climate

In July this year, I returned to my farm after a trip to Kampala. I drove across central Uganda. As far as I could see, every field was brown and yellow. As I took it in, I cried. I know the story behind every dry field – another farmer with no crops to sell, and more families going hungry.

This should be harvest season, but people in my country – in the Karamoja region and other areas – are dying from hunger.  The UN is warning that extreme drought is putting 21 million people at risk of hunger across the Horn of Africa.

As a farmer and agripreneur, I am closer than most to the reality of what’s happening. I’ve worked on my smallholding family farms in Bushenyi and Ntungamo districts in western Uganda for over 12 years. As President of the Eastern African Farmers Federation, I speak to farmers and for farmers every day.

I don’t want to be a prophet of doom, but it’s my responsibility, to tell the truth. Smallholder farmers – the women and men who grow 80% of the food consumed in sub-Saharan Africa – have reached a breaking point. Without more support, we simply won’t be able to produce the food we need.

To reliably grow food, we need help to adapt to a changing climate. Almost all the farmers in my region have seen maize crops fail because of the drought. Last month, my Friesian heifer, which I could have sold for over $1000, died from dehydration caused by eating toxic drought-ridden grass.

In a lifetime of farming, I’ve seen the consequences of climate change spiral out of control. We used to have a predictable rhythm: every February, we’d plant, then harvest beans in May, maize in July, and have rains by mid-August for another planting season. But that doesn’t happen anymore.

Farmers are at the mercy of God. We plant not knowing when the rains will come, or how heavy they’ll be. Just this August we woke up to the shock of landslides and floods in Mbale District in Eastern Uganda where we lost over fifteen people, animals, crops, and property. In Northern Kenya, the situation is heartbreaking with over three million people going without food due to extreme drought.

There are many complex causes for this food crisis. But it’s a simple truth that we can’t escape the current crisis – or avoid the next one – without small farms like mine. Farmers, scientists, and the UN also agree that farming needs to be more diverse and more local.

Very soon, world leaders will come to our continent to talk about the climate crisis. I will be joining them at COP27 in Egypt with a message from farmers across East Africa.

Here’s what they should do.

First, we need help to adapt. Despite our critical importance for food security, we get little help from the government or the international community – just 1.7% of climate finance is used to help smallholder producers – and no say in how and where any funds are spent.

Second, we need better access to finance to help us invest in our businesses and provide a safety net when times are hard. When my newly-planted field was washed away, I had the money to re-buy seeds so I could keep growing. Many others aren’t so lucky. Farmers need affordable and accessible loans, grants, and insurance to help them through when the worst happens.

Third, we need more diverse, local food production. Farmers, scientists, and the UN agree that farming needs to be more diverse and more local: growing a greater range of local varieties, relying on a mix of crops, planting more trees, and developing strong links to local markets.  This is the only way to beat the cycle of food crises we are trapped in.

Smallholder farmers are ready to play their part, but we can’t do it alone. World leaders need to show the way at COP 27. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves back here again: brownfields, flooded fields, empty markets, and hungry families. We need to act together!

By Elizabeth Nsimadala, farmer, Agri-preneur, and President of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF).

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