"Extreme is the new normal"

As the climate changes, the population of Africa is growing and fertile land and jobs are becoming scarcer. New ways are currently leading to urbanisation of agriculture and a new mid-sized sector in the countryside

Thunderstorm in Angola © Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt

By Alexander Müller

Alexander Müller

Alexander Müller, a graduate sociologist, is the head of a global study of the UN Environment Program on "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food" and CEO of "TMG - Töpfer, Müller, Gaßner GmbH, ThinkTankforSustainabilty".

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By Jes Weigelt

Jes Weigelt is Head of Programmes at TMG Research gGmbH, the research wing of TMG. Töpfer, Müller, Gassner. ThinkTank for Sustainability. He tweets at @jes_tmg.


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TMG – ThinkTankforSustainabilty


Since 1961, average annual temperatures in Africa have been rising as a result of the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This increase is mainly due to the past and ongoing emissions of the industrialised countries. The consequences of this anthropogenic climate can already be observed on a regional and local level, for example in the variability of precipitation, and the forecasts are bleak. In its 5th assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that corn yields in many sub-Saharan countries will fall by more than 20 percent - and maize is the central food source there. Forecasts by the Intergovernmental Science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) predict that the productivity of African lakes will be reduced by 20 to 30 percent by the year 2100, which means that animal and plant biodiversity will decline sharply. It is only vaguely clear to what extent the resulting loss of ecosystem services will affect agriculture and rural development opportunities. What is undisputed, however, is that climate change will exacerbate existing challenges to food security and rural development and must be considered as an amplifier to the major challenges that already exist.


These tasks will become all the more challenging if the internationally agreed goal of limiting average global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius is reduced. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the implementation of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) presented so far will still lead to a temperature increase of around 3 degrees Celsius. There is consensus among scientists that temperatures in Africa are rising faster than the global average. Christoph Müller from the German Development Institute in Bonn provides the factor 1.5. That would mean a temperature increase of 4.5 degrees Celsius in Africa.

Adapting to climate change in Africa and resilience strategies (i.e. the ability to cope with crises) will be key tasks in the coming years. Climate change increases the vulnerability of people, especially the poor. This requires appropriate measures for shaping rural structural change and coping with massive urbanisation. This can only be accomplished by approaching rural development and urbanisation in new ways. Innovative forms of cooperation will be needed to secure food provision and maximise employment without overburdening natural resources.


We find it very important not to analyse these challenges individually, but rather in their complex interaction and, more importantly, with joint solution strategies in mind.


Development Trends

Climate change coincides with long-term trends, which must be understood as a framework for action over the next decades.


Population Growth and Urbanisation

Based on the so-called median population forecast, the population of Africa will increase from 1.5 billion today to more than 4 billion by 2100. This means that by 2050 an additional 1 billion people will need to be fed.


With an urbanisation rate of 40 percent, the population of Africa lives predominantly in rural areas. At the same time, the urban population is growing at a faster rate by global comparison. For that reason, the United Nations expects an urbanisation rate of 56 percent by 2050.


Need for Jobs

As the population grows, so will the demand for jobs. According to the African Development Bank, the number of young Africans aged 15-35 will double to more than 830 million by 2050. Of the 415 million young people in Africa today, one third are already without formal employment, one third in so-called precarious employment relationships and only one sixth have regular employment. And while 10 to 12 million young people enter the labour market every year, just under 3.1 million new jobs are created. The challenge also affects the entire education system. How many schools and universities need to be built and run, how many apprenticeships should there be outside the universities, how can equal opportunities be created for girls and boys in education to prepare for sustainable jobs? And what economic dynamism is needed to provide employment, income and a future for the graduates?


Malnutrition and Undernourishment

According to "The State of Food Security and Nutrition 2017", the number of starving people worldwide has been rising again since 2014. While there were around 900 million people starving in 2000, the number had fallen to 775 million in 2013, and has since risen to 815 million. The percentage of starving people in the total population also fell from 14.7 per cent in 2000 to 10.6 per cent in 2015, but has since risen again slightly. In sub-Saharan Africa, the absolute number of starving people has increased from 178 million in 2000 to 224 million in 2016.




At the same time, overweight and morbid obesity are on the rise worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that new cases of diabetes in Africa have increased from 3.1 per cent in 1980 to 7.1 per cent in 2014. The absolute number of people with diabetes has increased from 4 million to 25 million.

Scarcity and Loss of Fertile Land

According to estimates by the Intergovernmental Science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), approximately 500,000 square kilometres of land in Africa are already degraded by over-exploitation, erosion, salinization and pollution. According to the "Economics of Land Degradation" initiative, Africa could produce around 280 million metric tonnes more grain if it were able to stop the effects of man-made soil erosion. Overall, the initiative estimates that simply continuing to do things the same way and thus neglecting to take measures against the loss of fertile soil would reduce Africa's gross national product by 12 percent.


Complex Problems Require Systemic Answers

Sustainable food security strategies are needed in sub-Saharan Africa, covering both rural and urban areas. Focusing on either rural areas or cities alone will not sufficiently counteract the dynamic urbanisation and population growth rates. At the same time, strategies need to be differentiated to meet the individual needs and opportunities of vulnerable groups. As tempting as it is to solelyfocus on budgets, which are already positionedto become part of agri-economic growth strategies with market-based approaches, such an approach will not contribute to overcoming structural barriers to rural development. 

To avoid misunderstandings: These considerations are not aimed at stopping rural structural change. But even households without secure food resources must be successively bettered instead of pushing them further to the brink of poverty.


Taking the identified trends into consideration, three investment areas will be discussed here, which exemplify networked response strategies and which will play an important role in dealing with the challenges.


Urban Agriculture in Controlled Environments:

The high urbanisation rate and undernourishment among the urban middle class and poor populations highlights the importance of fresh food production in the cities. The image of the "prosumer", i.e. a person that is both producer and consumer of fresh agricultural products, is becoming increasingly important in cities as well. Creating jobs and improving nutrition go hand in hand. Food production in cities will take place in controlled environments, ranging from urban gardening to high-tech solutions that will allow production without pesticides. In combination with the increasing competitiveness of renewable energies, new forms of food production will become possible and necessary in the face of climate change and climate variability. This type of production is also an adaptation to climate change.


Creating a Framework for Ecosystem-Based Adaptation

Agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa will have to face increasing climate variability in the future. Heavy rain and prolonged periods of drought are just examples of climate extremes that will be the new normal due to climate change. Pilot projects have shown that successful ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change is possible through adaptation measures that are based on the proper use and protection of ecosystem services. These projects stand in contrast to pure infrastructure measures such as the construction of dams. Following the successful implementation of pilot projects, it is now necessary to create the framework for up-scaling, i.e. applying them on a larger scale. Thus, an ecosystem-based adaptation approach will become more "political" as issues of land use and land rights will become more prominent. Another challenge lies in how to design adapted financing systems for the preservation of ecosystems that allow both initial and long-term investments.


Designing Structural Change to be Active: SME Policies and "Responsive Service Systems"

 In the foreseeable future, insufficient jobs will be created in the service industry or in industrial production. The creation of new jobs in rural areas will therefore have to mainly focus on agriculture and the corresponding upstream and downstream sectors. For example, market-oriented companies can increasingly focus on specialised products, opening up new market opportunities for households with unsteady income and nutrition. A central component of food security strategies are responsive service systems that explicitly support such families. Agricultural production under the conditions of climate change will require even more intensive expertise. In many cases, households in sub-Saharan Africa with unsecured food availability often do not have access to agricultural advisory services and the necessary inputs. This means that the focus of demand-driven guidance systems must be on mixed counselling systems with content that is adapted and made available to vulnerable groups in an appropriate way.


Breaking New Ground!

The question is how solution strategies can be developed, tested and scaled up when faced with the size of the tasks, the time constraints and the complexity.


The 2030 Agenda and the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement open up the possibility for nations to agree on development priorities. And they open up the opportunity for citizens to hold their governments accountable. This means that the follow-up and review processes established in these agreements are very important. They must be structured and implemented both globally and nationally.


The search for solution strategies involves research that uses the need for action by political leaders and civil societies as a point of reference and challenges them critically. Care must also be taken to ensure that these solution strategies do not involve the externalisation of problems and thus make it even more difficult to tackle the other challenges. An example of how to analyse such externalities in the food supply system is the TEEBAgriFood initiative, which proposes a systematic framework for analysis.


Such solution strategies must be rights-based. In its report "Governance and the Law", the World Bank has set out that elites influence the process of policy formulation. Measures for the implementation of economic, social and cultural human rights are a central element to counteract this influence. This includes increasing the accountability of political leaders.


The solutions outlined above require alliances for change to be implemented. Development policy concepts and strategies must therefore highlight commonalities instead of getting lost in limitation issues. 


But this overview also shows Germany's global responsibility. Initially, this concerns the contributions to the achievement of the German and European climate targets. Failure to achieve these targets does not only have political implications, but also a direct impact on our neighbours and their stability. This overview also shows that development policy and its partners should focus significantly on giving marginal populations a voice in the transformation processes.


Über den Autoren

Jes Weigelt

Jes Weigelt is Head of Programmes at TMG Research gGmbH, the research wing of TMG. Töpfer, Müller, Gassner. ThinkTank for Sustainability. He tweets at @jes_tmg.


TMG – ThinkTankforSustainabilty

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