Smart solutions for complex challenges in West Africa

NCDAcross West Africa, climate smart agriculture is improving the lives of millions of people. Faced with reduced food and water security, extreme heat and unpredictable rainfall, small-scale farmers and city dwellers alike are turning to smart food systems to help them adapt to climate change.

“Climate change can be a vicious circle. If we dont adapt to it, it can become a downward spiral,” says Yohann Zaba, a Project Officer with the EU GCCA+ West Africa programme, which is implemented by Expertise France, the French international technical development agency. “Climate smart agriculture is about increasing productivity by optimising the use of available resources, while taking into account climate variability. It’s an intelligent response to a complex problem.”

The €12 million, five-year project covers all 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), plus Chad and Mauritania. As well as helping governments to implement their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, the programme runs a range of smart agriculture projects which help vulnerable communities adapt to the worst impacts of climate change.

“The challenge with a country-by-country approach is that you can have impact at the national level, but climate change is a systemic issue which needs to be addressed regionally and indeed globally,” says Yohann. “Big actors such as ECOWAS can gather together different countries to devise and implement a common policy on climate adaptation. If the results are to be sustainable, you need political leverage and that’s where ECOWAS really helps.”

Fifteen climate smart pilot adaptation projects are being implemented across the region at a cost of €3.5 million, ranging from mobile and digital applications to lo-tech nature-based solutions. They focus on three main areas: green irrigation technologies, climatic and meteorological projects, and agro-forestry best practices. “There are some common challenges and some which are specific to different countries,” explains Yohann. “In Cape Verde, for example, famers face increasingly scarce rainfall and increasing pockets of drought. In the Gambia, the ground water near the coast is becoming more saline, and there is less sweet water for irrigation. In Benin, soil erosion caused by heavy rains and flooding is a significant problem. In all three countries - and elsewhere - people are really struggling, they cant grow enough food and they dont have enough money to buy food.”

Not all climate smart agriculture requires new technology - sometimes it just needs a change of attitude. In NDjamena, the capital of Chad, the market gardens on the outskirts of the city have been suffering from poor soil fertility, which is exacerbated by the use of costly chemical fertilisers. Now, with the help of €250,000 funding from the EU GCCA+ programme, farmers are being trained to use human waste from the growing urban population as a bio-fertiliser. This has the double benefit of improving soil fertility and improving production, whilst tackling the city’s waste problem.

“It’s smart because it recycles the human waste that is produced in urban areas. Its a smart response which takes account of the local context to develop a specific response,” says Yohann. “We started small pilot projects with farmers who were open to new ideas, and now it’s spreading. Its a very basic approach which could easily be replicated elsewhere. If a project is smart enough to provide a solution, if it can demonstrate a good result, it will help change people’s views and make them more open to new approaches.”

At the other end of the scale, farmers in the Gambia are using mobile phone technology to help preserve precious water resources. The IrriGambia project uses an Irrigation Advisory Service app automatically processes data collected by meteorological stations and combines it with crop, soil and irrigation data to calculate the exact daily amount of water needed by each crop in a specific location. The app sends personalised irrigation recommendations to farmers registered in the system which enables them to adjust the water flow.

“The mobile alerts are sent in local languages, along with information and training tips about how to make the best use of scarce water resources,” says Yohann. “It’s a smart response in a country where irrigation is really important because sweet water is a rare resource. The farmers responded to the project really well, because it builds on an existing messaging service which they know and trust. They are familiar with the technology so they find it easy to use it for other purposes.”

Across the region, ECOWAS and EU GCCA+ stress the importance of partnerships to ensure success. “We work with associations and NGOs on the ground in different countries who actually implement the projects,” explains Yohann. “Civil society leads the projects, but they partner with other associations, research institutions or the private sector.” The Gambia project, for example, is coordinated by Spanish NGO Fundación Sustalde in partnership with the National Agricultural Research Institute. In Chad, ECOWAS’ technical arm CILSS works with Oxfam France to deliver the human bio-fertiliser pilot project.

“It is really important for ECOWAS to be driving the project because it has political leadership, but national governments must also be involved. If they are not interested, the project will just remain a pilot,” he adds.