Text: Niina Pitkänen
The impact of deforestation and changes in favourable conditions for cultivation are felt around the world, especially on the African continent. The rules of climate have already changed, and people must learn new ways of adapting to these.
In Kenya, the long rains began on 15 March for decades – always on the same day.
Today, the rains can begin in January or February, when the previous season’s crops are still being harvested.
Climate change affects different parts of the world differently. In the Northern Hemisphere, the average temperature is rising, but near the Equator, extreme weather events, such as torrential rains and floods on the one hand, and droughts on the other, are becoming more common. It has also been predicted that regular weather events will disappear.
Professor Hannu J. Korhonen, who has followed the development of agriculture in various African countries for decades, knows the story well.
“In East Africa, it can already be seen that monsoon patterns have changed. The so-called long rains often start during the harvest, meaning that maize crops are easily damaged by mould. They can produce aflatoxins, which are compounds that can cause cancer. This reduces food security in many African countries,” he notes.
Producing enough food
In Africa, the greatest threat from climate change is that food will be scarce and what is left of the forests will disappear. The availability of food is, of course, also influenced by problems related to land productivity. Additionally, food security is impacted by social and political conditions.
“Particularly in East African countries, the population is too dependent on maize. That is why many countries currently aim to transform agriculture so as to add other staple foods to the diet,” Korhonen says.
Climate change cannot be reversed through research, but studies focusing on agriculture can help develop new varieties resistant to drought and plant diseases.
Food producers can also be aided in adapting their ways of working to the changed climate. Luke’s FoodAfrica research programme, for example, aims to identify such practices.
“In East Africa, we are developing maize drying techniques, together with innovations aimed at preventing the growth of mycotoxin producing moulds using biological control methods and reducing the mycotoxin risk using weather data for risk prediction. In West Africa, we are building prediction models to assess how much climate change will influence small producers’ livelihoods and nomads’ living conditions,” says Korhonen, who heads the programme.
How will pots be heated?
Senior researcher Jussi Saramäki, who retired from the Finnish Forest Research Institute (Metla) a few years ago, is also worried about cooking habits in African families – and especially what they will use to heat their pots.
“When you travel inland from Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, you don’t see many trees. All wood has already been turned into charcoal over a distance of some 200 kilometres,” he says with a sigh.
Charcoal continues to be the primary source of energy for households in both rural areas and major cities. In Dar es Salaam, for example, 30,000 sacks of charcoal are used every day – and these are large sacks that hold about 150 litres.
“Wood is definitely used at a pace that greatly exceeds the pace of regeneration. Treeless zones form around cities, and they expand rapidly. Also, when trees are further and further away, transport distances become longer and prices rise. This naturally has an immediate impact on families’ livelihoods,” Saramäki explains.
Forests have also been cut down to clear areas for crop cultivation, in particular. Slash-and-burn plots, which can be farmed only for a few years, are set up by local residents. Also owners of large-scale farms coming from abroad are clearing land for agriculture.
The negative effects of climate change can be compensated for by artificial regeneration. However, climate change can impede forest growth, since the reproduction schedules of trees do not necessarily coincide with the most advantageous weather conditions due to the changes in monsoon patterns. Moreover, the cultivation methods for local trees have not been much studied yet and new varieties have not been bred.
Artificial regeneration is taking root
No accurate data is yet available on African forest resources. Saramäki calculates that Tanzania has around 35 million hectares of forest, of which 150,000 hectares is cultivated.
“In artificial regeneration, investments require a long-term view – dozens of years – as returns are not generated in the next growing season, or the season after that. However, small private forest plots were once set up near forests established by the Tanzanian government, and artificial regeneration is beginning to take root there. These forests are mainly managed using handsaws, but some portable sawmills have also been introduced in the area,” he says.
Two of Luke’s ongoing projects focus on building forest inventory capacities in Tanzania and Mozambique. They have the same objective as many other Luke projects: to reinforce local research skills.
“The development of the world of research can be compared to the growth of a tree – it takes a generation for the structure to get strong enough,” says Saramäki, who has previously headed similar projects in Zambia.
Luke in Africa
All of Africa
A new form of partnership between Africa and the EU, focusing on the sustainable improvement of food and nutrition security in Africa. www.intensafrica.org
Benin, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, Senegal and Uganda
Improving food security in East and West Africa through capacity building and information dissemination. www.luke.fi/foodafrica
Safe Food – Safe Dairy
Improving the safety of the feed-dairy chain and the maize value chain, and reducing the health risks caused by mycotoxins by building research capacities in Kenya.
Building forest inventory capacities and skills in Kenya. Developing forest inventory methods.
Developing dairy production in Ethiopia. Improving local organisations’ capacities by building know-how related to the assessment of an animal’s breeding value and new breeding tools.
Liming and fertilisation in Ethiopia
Led by the Geological Survey of Finland, this project studies Ethiopia’s limestone resources and their suitability for agricultural use. Other research topics are soil fertility and acidity, and soil improvement through liming and fertilisation.
Mapping and managing Ethiopia’s ecosystem services in the changing climate. The project aims to identify soil properties, symbiotic micro-organisms and agroforestry practices that improve the production of ecosystem services.
The production of disease-free plant material for potato, sweet potato and cassava in Zambia has been strengthened by establishing a laboratory and training researchers. The project ended in the spring of 2015.
Crops resistant to salt and aridity as well as cultivation methods are developed in Egypt in order to cultivate the desert. Priority areas include the breeding of the broad bean and alfalfa, and the production and use of biochar in desert conditions.
Developing potato production in Tunisia, with the aim of making cultivation more sustainable.
Building forest research capacities in Mozambique.
The planning project supports putting into practice the results of the first inventories of Tanzania’s forests at regional and local levels.
Seed Potato Development Project
Led by the University of Helsinki, this project developed the production capacity of seed potatoes. The project ended in the spring of 2015.