Smallholders on the Frontline: A Call for Action at COP 28

By Annie Wakanyi, One Acre Fund

At the beginning of 2023, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed that the previous eight years had been the warmest on record. Meanwhile, preliminary data indicate that average global temperatures on 17 November were more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels for the first time ever. While this threshold was surpassed only briefly, it serves as a jolting reminder of the extreme temperatures we are witnessing this year.

What will the future look like if we continue on this trajectory? Data suggest that by 2050 we could see 90% of soils become degraded, with crop yields declining by 3-12%, and a 20% rise in the risk of hunger and malnutrition. In a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global average temperatures could increase by as much as 4.4°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. At this degree of heating, the proportion of category 4 and 5 tropical cyclones could increase by 20%.

These are just some of the statistics highlighted in One Acre Fund’s ‘Global Croptake’ – an in-depth examination of threats to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers since the adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015 and into the future.

Smallholder farmers are already witnessing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis on their crops, harvests, and consequently their livelihoods. These impacts – which smallholders have had little role in causing – include rising temperatures, degraded soils, and more frequent and intense weather events. Early in 2023, Cyclone Freddy ravaged communities in Malawi and Mozambique, whilst an intensified El Niño is currently causing extreme flooding in Somalia and neighboring East African countries.

Around 2 billion people – a quarter of the global population – rely on smallholder farms for food and income. Despite this, a recent report reveals that in 2021, smallholder farmers received a mere 0.3% of international climate finance. It’s plain in that we are failing to prioritize investment in the very people who hold the keys to resilience.

As the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 28) kicks off this week in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the need to engage with smallholder farmers across the globe has never been more urgent. As custodians of the land, smallholder farmers hold a crucial role not just in addressing the impacts of climate breakdown, but in advancing progress towards a host of other SDGs, from ending poverty and hunger to achieving gender equality and protecting biodiversity. In our journey towards a sustainable future, smallholders are big players, and women and youth, who face additional systemic barriers to prosperity, should be a particular focus. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) estimates that if women smallholders had the same access to productive resources as men, they could help increase food production by 30% and reduce world hunger by 15%. 

One Acre Fund provides smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa with the necessary tools, innovations, and knowledge to increase their climate resilience, while helping tackle immediate barriers to prosperity. Our farmer-led work is focused primarily on adaptation, allowing smallholders to safeguard their livelihoods in the face of a rapidly changing climate. Our field officers, who are largely smallholders themselves, train fellow farmers to adopt climate-smart practices to increase farm yields, resulting in sustainable growth of income. We have seen first-hand that equipping farmers to adopt climate-smart approaches to farming helps build resilient families and farms.

Whilst smallholders should not be responsible for climate change mitigation as they produce just 0.6% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions each year, many are contributing to global mitigation efforts through initiatives like on-farm tree planting. There is an enormous opportunity to scale these efforts.

To continue building resilience and mitigating the effects of the climate crisis with their one or two acres of land, smallholders need investment from the global community – governments, policymakers, financial institutions, development partners, and civil society. It is vital that this need is met if we are to transform global food systems to be more sustainable, equitable, and resilient. A thriving network of climate-smart and resilient farmers across sub-Saharan Africa – and beyond – is a win-win for people and the planet. 

COP 28 is a key opportunity for the global community to engage with and invest in smallholders. Putting farmers at the center of global climate dialogue is paramount to identifying effective resilience solutions. We are calling on the COP community to recognize the power and agency that smallholders possess, by explicitly referencing smallholder farmers in COP 28 outcomes and acknowledging both the barriers they face and the solutions they hold. 

Smallholder farmers have an opportunity to combat global heating, secure livelihoods, build soil health, and safeguard the world for future generations. It’s up to us as the international community to step up finance for impactful programs that support smallholder farmers to overcome the challenges of the climate crisis, embed resilience, and ensure a prosperous future.

If we don’t act now, our Global Croptake analysis shows us the sobering alternative. It’s time to ask the questions: what kind of future are we collectively sowing? And how can we ensure smallholders are supported to adapt to this future? Solutions exist. Now it’s time to support smallholders to scale them.

Annie Wakanyi is Director of Global Government Partnerships at One Acre Fund.