Africa is home to a growing number of entrepreneurs who see business opportunities in sustainable agriculture and forestry. This is an opportune time to invest in nature-based ventures, partly because African governments have committed to begin restoring 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of degraded land by 2030 as part of the AFR100 initiative. Restoring land with certain trees, crops and grasses can help improve land productivity, as well as ecosystem services like water management and carbon sequestration.
However, this is also a time of increasing climate risks. Late last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report describing the various intensifying impacts of global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). Regardless of whether and how much greenhouse gas emissions are eventually reduced, small and medium businesses in Africa are already feeling these impacts. They are trying to grow their companies while grappling with climate risks like rising temperatures and more frequent, intense droughts and floods.
Last month in Nairobi, WRI and Fledge, a global network of company accelerators and investment funds, held the Land Accelerator, the world's first startup accelerator focusing on scaling businesses involved in land restoration. After leading a session on climate risks that businesses in Africa face, I sat down with two of the participating companies to better understand how they are adapting to a changing climate.
Planting Trees and Diversifying Crops Buffers Farms from Weather Extremes
Aoulaye Sesame, a company that grows white sesame in Niger, has helped restore 100 hectares (247 acres) of arid, degraded land by planting trees alongside sesame. The company's director, Mamadou Ousseini, reports that the trees retain water around the crops and keep the farm green, which also helps it adapt to increasing droughts. However, Mamadou was not prepared for the intense rainfall and flooding that Niger has also experienced in recent years.
Floods and heavy rain are unusual for Niger, where two-thirds of the country is comprised of the Sahara Desert. The farm's sesame plants have so far survived the heavy rainfall. But Mamadou knows that diversifying crops is more reliable than luck. The company is now considering planting more water-tolerant plants, such as cassava, on some of its land. This way, if Mamadou's sesame crop does not survive one year, he could still harvest cassava. Diversifying crops helps companies such as Aoulaye Sesame stay in business and cope with the uncertainty in rainfall that climate change brings.
Crop Variety Helps Farmers Adapt to Drought
On the other side of the continent in Ethiopia, Eden Field Agri-Seed Enterprise supplies drought-tolerant tree and grass seeds. Yirsaw Wubete Ayele, the company's technical manager, provides seeds to farming and herding communities to restore degraded land and to use as livestock feed.
Like Aoulaye Sesame, Eden Field is searching for ways to cope with drought, a recurring and intensifying risk for Ethiopia's arid highlands. To help customers combat drought, Eden Field started specializing in hardy varieties of grass, such as Sudan grass. The company now acts as a broker, buying drought-tolerant seeds from the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and the International Livestock Research Institute, and then selling them to 2,500 farmers and herders in the region.
These hardy grasses not only help restore rangelands, they also improve feedstock and allow livestock to thrive, protecting livelihoods and food security in a changing climate.
Supporting Small Businesses Helps Communities Adapt to Climate Change
Though companies like Aoulaye Sesame and Eden Field Agri-Seed Enterprise are threatened by droughts, floods and heat waves, they are finding innovative ways to minimize climate risks.
Many people in Africa depend on small businesses like these for their livelihoods and food security. By supporting these resilient entrepreneurs, governments, NGOs and larger agribusinesses can help rural African communities thrive well into the future.
For instance, government agricultural agencies could join forces with development organizations to offer businesses access to weather forecasts so that they can better prepare for extreme weather events. In Chiredzi, Zimbabwe, farmers and small agribusinesses have struggled in the past to plan around extreme changes in rainfall. To address this, the Zimbabwean Environmental Management Agency, with assistance from the UN Development Programme, created a customized rain forecast for farmers and small business in Chiredzi.
Larger companies, including multinationals, often rely on small businesses as part of their supply chains. To better sustain their own businesses, these companies can invest in financial and technical assistance for their local suppliers. In Uganda, Café Direct is supporting farmers who grow tea for the company by promoting disease-resistant tea varieties, planting trees to improve land productivity, and installing water tanks to harvest rainwater. In Kenya and other parts of Africa, Unilever is also investing in tea plants that are drought- and disease-tolerant. These adaptation measures help companies and workers throughout the supply chain.
Specialized training programs such as the recent Land Accelerator can further help small companies incorporate adaptation into their business plans, so they can build resilience to increasing climate shocks for themselves and for the communities they support.