South Africans use ‘smart farming’ to counteract drought

Southern African farmers facing hunger as a result of worsening drought know a lot about climate change but lack the resources to put solutions that work into place, agriculture and development researchers say.

That is in part because government agricultural extension services, which offer training and advice to farmers, have too few agents, states a report by the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, based in the Netherlands.

In many cases, farmers are simply not aware of potential solutions, said Oluyede Ajayi, a senior programme coordinator with the centre, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Johannesburg on scaling up climate-smart agricultural solutions.

Such shortcomings are one reason an ongoing drought in southern Africa has left 23m people dependent on food aid, with another 13m in need of help, according to the Southern African Development Community, which launched a €2.5bn emergency appeal in July.

But a new regional push, focused on promoting four key actions to adapt agriculture and curb growing hunger, could help, Ajayi said.

The best ways to assist southern Africa’s farmers, agricultural experts said, are by increasing their access to insurance for crop failure and livestock deaths, and giving them better weather advice via mobile phone.

Helping them diversify their sources of income also is key, they said, as is developing stress-tolerant seeds and better ways of managing land to conserve water.

One way of diversifying incomes and reducing risk, researchers said, was for farmers to raise fewer cattle and more drought-resistant animals such as chickens and goats — or even protein-rich insects.

Many farmers, who pride themselves on their cattle, have so far resisted that switch. But “goats, sheep, and chickens are considered animals that can take care of themselves, unlike other animals,” said Shikhalazo Dube, a southern African representative of the International Livestock Research Institute.

Southern Africa has lost 630,000 cattle this year, worth an estimated €200m, to drought, says UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

That money could have been saved if farmers had taken out insurance on their livestock, slaughtered them early in the face of drought warnings or found ways to feed them as pastures dried up, said Godwin Mashiri, a micro-insurance expert with mobile phone firm Econet Wireless, in Zimbabwe.

However, persuading farmers to buy indexed insurance, which provides payouts when certain weather triggers are reached — such as a certain number of days without rain — is a struggle, he admitted.

“Farmers in southern Africa have mobile phones and may be aware of weather index insurance products offered via phones but their lack of understanding of and trust in insurance products meant they suffered losses when they could have taken some insurance on their livestock,” said Mashiri.


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