FEATURE: Building smallholder farmers’ resilience to climate change for food security in a future climate in Ghana
Prof. Philip Antwi-Agyei, Associate Professor in Environmental Science at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, gives a first-hand account of how climate change is undermining food security in northern Ghana – and what to do about it. This is one of a series of blogs on ‘Accelerating adaptation action in Africa’ published by CDKN to frame the Africa anchoring event of the Climate Adaptation Summit, January 2021.
Climate change presents a considerable challenge to the socioeconomic development of Ghana where rain-fed agricultural systems provide livelihoods to millions of households. This has repercussions for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those relating to poverty reduction and food security. In this blog, I explore how smallholder farmers’ resilience can be built to ensure food security in a future climate in Ghana.
Over 80% of farmers in Ghana are smallholders who play a critical role in food production. Most smallholder farmers depend on rain-fed agricultural systems, making their livelihoods more vulnerable to rainfall variability. In particular, the northern region of the country is disproportionately affected by the devastating effects of climate change.
I have had the opportunity to undertake fieldwork for several months in northern Ghana, where I have witnessed persistent climate change- related floods and droughts that wreak havoc on food systems. For example, I recently met an elderly female farmer who could barely make ends meet because of floods that destroyed her food crops. All her investments in her farming enterprise had literally been washed away.
Challenges facing smallholder farmers
One of the key factors limiting the resilience of smallholder farmers’ capacity to respond to climate change in Ghana is inequality in access to the productive and economic resources that are critical for adaptation to climate change. My previous research has revealed that lack of access to land can be a serious hindrance to adaptation practices for women and migrant farmers in northern Ghana where socio-cultural norms and values preclude women from owning land. Without access to land, they are limited in their ability to respond to climate change.
Existing high poverty rates, illiteracy and poor infrastructural development enhance the vulnerability of smallholder farmers to climate change. Climate risks do not act independently but rather interact with non-climatic factors that affect the ability to earn a living. Key non-climatic factors include inadequate market access, land degradation and inadequate farm inputs, which act to keep smallholder farmers at the mercy of weather conditions.
Additionally, smallholder farmers in Ghana often have inadequate access to climate information services that are critical for planning farming operations including when to plough, plant and apply fertilizers. In a recent study conducted in northeastern Ghana, we discovered that over a quarter of the study respondents were not receiving any form of climate information. This is very worrying considering the fact that over 90% of the population in this region depend on ran-fed agriculture for their livelihoods.
Building the resilience of smallholder farmers
To address these challenges and build the resilience of smallholder farmers in Ghana, it is important to adopt a holistic approach in managing both climatic and non-climatic stressors including access to ready markets. Ready access to a functioning market is key. As one smallholder farmer I met on fieldwork, explained, “How can we repay loans we have contracted for our farming activities when we cannot have markets for our farm produce?” This is a common sentiment that acts as a barrier to effective adaptation.
There must also be a conscious effort to address inequalities that make it particularly difficult for smallholder female farmers to manage climate risks. To do this, we need to support and empower government agencies to identify and address gender barriers to adaptation. It is also critical that we work with the traditional authorities that are critical in addressing the traditional practices and norms that give rise to gender inequalities.
Using improved crop varieties, such as those that can withstand drought, is a key adaptation strategy in northern Ghana. However, these crop varieties are not always available and, even if they are, the cost can be prohibitive for many. Smallholder farmers need access to innovative funding mechanisms to finance adaptation practices. Forming strong and empowered co-operatives is critical as this can be used as collateral for accessing funds. Provision of subsidies for such improved varieties of crops is another viable option that could yield significant benefits.
Solutions targeting smallholder farmers themselves are more likely to be successful if they are combined with appropriate support from the authorities. Agricultural extension services are critical in building resilience to climate change because extension agents act as bridge between farmers and research, ensuring the smooth flow of information and innovations to farmers. Farmer-to-farmer exchange and sharing of relevant agricultural information should also be more pro-actively encouraged and supported by the relevant governmental agencies and ministries, in Ghana led by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
We need to find new ways of blending scientific knowledge with local indigenous knowledge in addressing climate change effects on food production. Certainly in Ghana, I have seen many local farmers using their rich and sophisticated agro-ecological knowledge to forecast impending rainfall or to predict a dry spell. They use observations of the direction of the wind and the flowering and fruiting of certain trees species to decide when to plant and how to tend their crops.
Climate information is critical in guiding the adaptation needs of smallholder farmers – so getting it to them in a format they understand in time to make farming decisions is key. However, it does not all have to be about science. We need to develop a framework or model that will integrate both the scientific knowledge and the indigenous knowledge.
In short, the challenges are significant, but the potential solutions are known and just need to be systematically made available to those that need them most. As climate change will continue to militate against efforts by smallholder farmers to achieve food security, all hands should be on deck in building the capacity of our smallholder farmers whose agricultural-based livelihoods are threatened.
Read more blogs about accelerating adaptation action in Africa, for the Climate Adaptation Summit: