Agriculture is the backbone of the African economy. According to the World Bank,1 two out of every three Africans are employed in the agriculture sector, producing about a third of the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP). While overall growth in agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa almost doubled from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, it is still far outpaced by current (let alone emerging) demand and reliant, so far, on the unsustainable extension of farmland. The result is that many countries are already coming up against limits to growth. 2

Today, Africa remains the continent with the highest number of hungry and malnourished people.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than one in four people remain chronically undernourished in Sub-Saharan Africa,2 home to over a quarter of the world’s 800 million hungry.3 Shifting rainfall and other consequences of climate change could add about 130 million more by 2050.4 Even without global warming, shifts in demography and demand will place increasing pressure on African food and farming systems.

Yet, despite its present predicament and contrary to widely held stereotypes, Africa does not lack for natural capital. It is widely agreed that the continent is, as a whole, endowed with rich soils, ample water supplies, and an amenable climate, which allow it not only to feed its peoples, but to service a wider world eager for its agri-food exports.5

There is an opportunity to promote a higher performing agriculture—by Africans, for Africans. With two-thirds of Africans’ livelihoods dependent on farming, a boost to agricultural productivity will propel the drive towards a suite of key development goals, including reduced malnutrition and poverty alleviation. Sadly, African governments have long neglected agriculture and, until recently, have failed to create the policy and regulatory conditions that favor more sustainable, more productive agriculture.6 In the last decade, however, we have begun to see a turnaround.


African Agriculture at a Crossroads

Asia’s Green Revolution of the 1960s was led by public institutions with investments in irrigated large farms supported by improved technology for seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer to promote cereal production.7 A key lesson, however, is that rapid productivity growth requires not just techno-fixes, but a supportive policy environment tailored to local conditions.

Harvested rice in Morogoro, Tanzania.

Since the 1960s, India has seen the White Revolution and the Blue Revolution focused on increasing production of grains, milk, and fish. In 2000, the Government of India launched its first national agriculture policy, which introduced the “Rainbow Revolution” aimed at sustaining the country’s GDP growth at 6.5 percent. The new Rainbow Revolution in India was about reducing costs while promoting increased soil health and agricultural productivity and minimizing environmental damage from fertilizer overuse.8

In Africa in 1994, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu popularized the term Rainbow Nation to capture the multicultural nature of the post-independence South Africa.9 It is, therefore, fitting that smallholder farmers leapfrog from green, blue, and white to champion Africa’s own “Rainbow Revolution” to feed the current populations and generations to come. The bulk (80 percent) of these sub-Saharan farmers typically farm on less than two hectares of land and are producing a variety of commodities that include cereals, fisheries, livestock, and trees; mostly under rain fed conditions. This grassroots movement needs to be reciprocated from top-down by policymakers.10

In 2003, African heads of state signed the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Plan (CAADP): a made-in-Africa solution aimed at improving food security and incomes in the continent’s largely agrarian economies. Under this plan, governments committed to raising the productivity of African agriculture within five years, by at least six percent per year by 2008.11 Thus far, only a few countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Malawi, Niger, and Senegal) have met or surpassed the target, but most have made noteworthy progress, even so. Governments also agreed to commit a minimum of 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture (a significant improvement over today’s roughly five percent average).12 Again, while many have fallen short of the goal, it has nevertheless served to drive considerable progress.

Crucially, CAADP has brought together not just governments, but regional bodies, donors, agriculturists, and other stakeholders. Together, they have established four continent-wide priorities or “pillars” for investment and action. The pillars focus on agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and livestock production, and aim to:

  • Extend sustainable land management and reliable water control systems to new areas, by, for example, improving access to irrigation.
  • Increase market access through improved rural infrastructure and other trade-related activities.
  • Increase the supply of food and cut hunger by lifting smallholder productivity, and improving emergency preparedness and response.
  • Promote agricultural systems research, disseminating appropriate technologies, and fostering farm-level adoption.

While CAADP’s aims are not very new, the fact that Africans, not outsiders, are organizing to make these aims a reality is new. CAADP has been instrumental in putting agriculture at the center of the development agenda, with multi-stakeholder partnerships and investments gravitating around national food and agriculture plans, and a greater overall effort now mobilized. CAADP has also encouraged and facilitated evidence-based planning and review, driving mutual accountability for actions and results.

To date, 40 African Union (AU) member states have signed CAADP compact agreements, 28 of which have formal national agriculture and food security investment plans. These documents have become countries’ medium-term expenditure frameworks for agriculture, imbedding improved agricultural planning in government business. Even though only 13 out of 53 countries have so far met the 10 percent budgetary target, average national expenditure on agriculture has nearly doubled to over seven percent per year since 2003.13

A smallholder rice farmer thrashes harvested rice in Morogoro, Tanzania.

Under the leadership of the AU, African heads of state have put together a new development framework, Agenda 2063, which serves as both a vision statement and an action plan. Agenda 2063 calls on all sectors of African society to “work together to build a prosperous and united Africa based on shared values and a common destiny.” Specifically for agriculture, the vision for 2063 is to have banished the hand hoe! African leaders, through Agenda 2063, have committed to have Africa’s agriculture completely modernized. Science and technology will take center stage to make the agriculture sector profitable and attractive to the continent’s youth and women.14

Managing the Climate Risk to African Agriculture

Africa’s climate is changing. While the uncertainties are many and large, “agriculture everywhere in Africa runs some risk to be negatively affected by climate change; existing cropping systems and infrastructure will have to change to meet future demand”.15  According to a recent report to the World Bank,16 rainfall patterns are predicted to shift markedly, broadly increasing in East Africa while dropping by as much as 30 percent in southern Africa by the 2080s.  Arid lands are expected to grow by the 2040s, with drought more commonplace and arable areas contracting. Moreover, maize, wheat, and sorghum are sensitive to rising temperatures, and with more frequent and more intense heat extremes, productivity of these staples is expected to fall. Currently, few smallholders have the capacity to adapt to these sorts of changes. Without action, climate change is expected to severely compromise the continent’s food security.17


The new narrative is climate-smart agriculture, a set of practices and technologies that empower smallholder farmers through more profitable crop and livestock management, better landscape-level planning, more efficient use of natural resources, reduced emissions, and better understanding of new climatic realities and risks.18 The approach encourages learning and collaboration between practitioners, researchers, NGOs, and other stakeholders.


With rising awareness of the risks, African countries have begun to develop concerted plans, prioritizing adaptation and participating in global efforts for climate change mitigation. Both adaptation and mitigation represent opportunities to promote sustainable development on the continent.

In Malabo in 2014, the 31st AU Summit delivered a clear resolve to act on the nexus between agriculture and climate risk.  Heads of state endorsed the New Partnership for Africa’s Development program on agriculture and climate change.19 The program includes components on women’s empowerment, augmented support for smallholder farmers, and an African Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) Coordination Platform. As a result, the African Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance (ACSAA) was set up to realize the AU’s goal of at least 25 million farm households practicing climate-smart agriculture by 2025. ACSAA seeks to leverage policy, technical, and financial support for grassroots programs and initiatives to drive the widespread adoption of CSA in Sub-Saharan Africa.20

This is the first time that the AU and CAADP have explicitly called on international NGOs, whose location in communities means they are often best placed to deliver pro-climate smart agriculture extension services.


From Little Things Big Things Grow

Africa’s 175 million smallholder farmers occupy four out of five farms below the Sahara. It is with them that change should start to meet existing and emerging food security challenges. Governments and intergovernmental endeavors, like CAADP, should serve to create the space and provide the assistance farmers need.

The Namibia Green Scheme Policy is working to increase areas under irrigation, in part by installing watering devices, as pictured.

A decade of CAADP experience has demonstrated that Africa, as a continent, has the homegrown wherewithal to make positive change. Of course, the success of CAADP will be best measured by on-ground results: the modernization of African agriculture, using combined scientific and indigenous resources, and rendering farming profitable and attractive to women and young people.

The good news is that policymakers and Africa’s development partners do view smallholders as the driving force for economic growth and poverty reduction in Africa. While smallholders across the continent have begun to embrace climate-smart agriculture, for Africa to raise its exports in an increasingly hostile climate is no small challenge. The widespread adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices will require a conducive public policy environment and strong public support, along with greater access to improved technologies and local and international markets. This means that grassroots practitioners and country and continental-scale policymakers and business leaders must work together much more for Africa to not only feed itself, but the rest of the world.


  1. World Bank. The World Bank and Agriculture in Africa (The World Bank Group, Washington DC, 2013).
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization. Regional Overview of Food Insecurity: Africa (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Accra, 2015).
  3. Bain, L.E. et al. Malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa: burden, causes and prospects. The Pan African Medical Journal (PAMJ) 15 (2013): 120.
  4. World Resources Institute. World Resources Report 2013–2015: Creating a sustainable food future (WRI, Washington DC, 2015).
  5. World Bank. Africa Can Help Feed Africa (The World Bank Group, Washington DC, 2012).
  6. Toenniessen, G., A. Adesina, and J. Devriesa. Building an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. New York Academy of Sciences 1136 (2008): 233–242.
  7. Hazell, P. The Asian Green Revolution (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington DC, 2009).
  8. Singh, R.K.P. Rainbow Revolution in Bihar: Problem and Prospect [online] (August 18, 2015)
  9. Valji,N. Creating the Nation: The Rise of Violent Xenophobia in the New South Africa. Unpublished Masters Thesis, York University Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (2003).
  10. Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Africa agriculture status report: Climate change and smallholder agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa (AGRA, Nairobi, 2014).
  11. Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme. Introducing the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (New Partnership for Africa’s Development, Johannesburg, 2005).
  12. Agenda 2063. About Agenda 2063 [online] (2013)
  13. Five out of ten? Assessing progress towards the AU’s 10% budget target for agriculture. Act!onAid [online] (2009)
  14. Agenda 2063 Second Edition, August 2014 Popular version [online] (2014)
  15. Müller, C., W. Cramer, W.L. Hare, and H. Lotze-Campen. Climate change risks for African agriculture. PNAS 108 (2011): 4313.
  16. World Bank. Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience (A report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics) (World Bank, Washington DC, 2013).
  17. Lipper, L. Climate-smart agriculture for food security. Nature Climate Change 4 (2014): 1068–1072.
  18. New Partnership For Africa’s Development. History [online]
  19. Synthesis of the Malabo Declaration on African Agriculture and CAADP [online]
  20. Africa CSA Alliance, What Is Climate Smart Agriculture? [online]

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda

Lindiwe is the Chief Executive Officer and Head of Mission of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network. Lindiwe coordinates policy research and advocacy programs aimed at making...


Sithembile Ndema Mwamakamba

Sithembile is the Natural Resources and Environment Programs Manager of the, Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network. She is leading work and policy programs related to climate...

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