A woman in Tanzania prepares a meal on an energy-efficient cooking stove

The cruelty of climate change: Africa's poor hit the hardest

Image credit: FAO, Giuliano Napolitano, Pietro Cenini, getty images, alamy

The terrible irony of climate change is that it affects most those who have done least to cause it - the very poor. Nowhere is this injustice more apparent than in Africa.

Africa’s carbon dioxide emissions are less than seven per cent of the world’s total. Yet, three out of the five countries listed as most vulnerable to climate change are African - Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic.

The economic cost of climate change to Africa is estimated to be about US$45-50bn a year by 2040, comprising up to seven per cent of Africa’s GDP on average by 2100. The political consequences are already being felt, with many conflicts that have taken place in areas such as northern Nigeria or Somalia exacerbated by climate-induced poverty.

“Africa contributed very little to climate change, yet we are suffering from drought and floods and all the other things that come from it,” said Abdalla Hamdouk, deputy secretary general of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. “But as a latecomer we can benefit a lot from alternative models of development. We need not follow all the paths that destroyed the environment.”

Last December, 195 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) agreed in Paris to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature increase to “well below 2°C”. After years of wrangling, a package of climate financing of $100bn by 2020 for developing countries was agreed. Compared to the scale of the problem, this is mere ‘seed’ money - but it is a start and has helped provide a momentum in Africa for moves towards a green economy.

The primary human activity affecting the amount and rate of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, producing greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet only 42 per cent of Africa’s population has access to electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa, the ratio is much lower at 30 per cent and much lower still in rural areas.

Lack of access to cooking fuel has a major impact on the continent’s environment. Poor rural people have no choice but to burn wood and charcoal for cooking - accelerating deforestation and soil degradation, which in turn speeds up the warming of the planet. An estimated 600,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa die every year from fumes emitted from cooking stoves, most of them under the age of five.

If current trends continue, fewer than half of African countries will reach universal access to electricity by 2050, but the 58 per cent of Africans who do not have access to an energy grid are also the green energy consumers of the future.

Just as Africa bypassed the analogue phone systems of Europe and went straight to mobile phones, energy consumption should grow and be green at the same time, creating a marketplace for the whole world to examine and even emulate.

Africa has the natural resources for green energy, including plenty of sun, and with good governance miracles can be achieved.

The Kingdom of Morocco, host of the 22nd session of the UNFCC that takes place mid-November, currently buys in 97 per cent of its energy from abroad.

Yet it has ambitious and achievable plans to reach a target of 52 per cent of renewable energy by 2030. The cornerstone of this strategy is the Noor solar energy park outside Ourzazate. The power station on the edge of the Sahara desert will be the largest in the world when it is finished in 2018, providing energy for 1.1 million people.

“It is a very, very significant project in Africa,” said Mafalda Duarte, manager of Climate Investment Funds, which provided US$435m of the $9bn project’s funding. “Morocco is showing real leadership and bringing the cost of the technology down in the process.”

Morocco also has the largest wind farm in Africa in the north near the city of Tangiers. Kenya and South Africa too are developing the sector.

Ghana, another stable nation, now obtains just over half of its installed capacity from hydropower, most of it from just three stations along the Volta River. The government is also encouraging private investment in renewable energy.

The government of Malawi has launched an ambitious scheme to roll out ethanol-fuelled cars. Nigeria has passed legislation to stop the open burning of flares in its oil fields.

In a suburb of the Togolese capital Lome, the first African-made solar-powered three- and four-wheeled cars are coming to market through a joint venture between Chinese solar technology company K-Star and a local partner. Equipped with a 250W solar panel, they can keep going for 180km at a speed of 60km/h. The starting price for a three-wheeled vehicle is around £2,500.

“The first challenge is an economic one. Economic because especially on our farms, people don’t have much money and if they want to take their tomatoes or bananas to market, they can’t afford to keep up the fuel costs, which is why our slogan is ‘let the sun pay your fuel bills’,” says Felix Etoh, managing director of the Togolese partner in the venture, Le Monde d’Energie.

Momentum is growing elsewhere for the greening of Africa. The evocatively named Great Green Wall of Africa is a major flagship project that was sneered at by many when it was adopted by the African Union a decade ago, 50 years after it was first proposed.

The idea was to plant a 15km-wide 7,000km-long band of trees and vegetation across the southern edge of the Sahara desert, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti, to halt the effects of land degradation and desertification.

Today, some 21 African countries are involved. No longer just a wall of trees, the Great Green Wall has become a vehicle for a wider goal: regional cooperation to tackle climate change, food security and economic growth.

In Nigeria alone, an estimated 20,000 jobs have been created because of the project. Ethiopia plans to reclaim 15 million hectares (150,000km2) of land.

The international community gave its stamp of approval to this ambitious project with four billion dollars of funding in Paris last year. The success of the Great Green Wall of Africa will depend on local people who will be its guardians, seeing its benefit. The hope is that when farmers see the effects the improved soils around it have on their crop yields and incomes, they will protect it.

Indeed, all over the continent, farmers are on the front line of the battle to survive climate change. More than half a billion Africans are smallholder farmers. In some countries, they make up as much as 85 per cent of the population. Even in the most urbanised countries, that figure is above 50 per cent.

As well as having to cope with drought, floods and an increase in pests and diseases, countries such as Ethiopia and Tanzania say the growing period is getting shorter too.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that unless concerted action is taken, 75 per cent of Africa’s population will be at risk of hunger by 2080 because of climate change.

A recent study published in BioMed Central Agriculture and Food Security of two villages in Tanzania shows that decreased rainfall means people are already eating one meal less a day than ten years ago. Change has to start in a farmer’s field.

One of the solutions put forward by the policy officials at the FAO and the CGIAR - which oversees 15 research centres round the world concerned with food security - is what is known as climate-smart agriculture (CSA). CSA is designed for the whole world, rich and poor countries alike, but it is of particular significance in Africa, where basic food security is still a challenge in many areas.

The aim of CSA is to produce more food using less resources - efficient, waste-free farming that is also kinder to the environment than many current practices. It is a holistic strategy covering fishermen, herders, policy-makers, financial institutions and technical experts.

“CSA is not a set of practices that can be universally applied, but rather an approach that involves different elements embedded in local contexts,” said Leslie Lipper, executive director of the CGIAR Independent Science and Partnership Council.

“It involves building an evidence base to identify where, when and how climate change threatens agriculture and food security, as well as actions that can be taken to adapt to such threats, and where the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be synergistic with agricultural development for food security.”

Many technologies required are there already - starting with simple things like drip irrigation that waters plants close to the roots, to planting the right fodder for cattle to improve milk quality. Globally, livestock produces almost 15 per cent of global gas emissions.

This is one area where Africa is emitting proportionally more greenhouse gases than the developed world. It is estimated that the continent’s livestock sector produces almost 100 times more carbon per kilo than in the developed world, according to a joint study from the International Livestock Research Institute, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

This is particularly true of livestock-dependent places like Somalia and Ethiopia, and is due to the quality of the pastures the animals feed on. Improved fodder would greatly raise production while cutting emissions.

African farmers also need improved varieties of seeds that are resistant to droughts, floods and pests, which mature more quickly to adapt to shorter growing seasons.

The continent has many varieties of indigenous food crops with genetic properties that plant breeders round the world can use. The challenge is that this agricultural biodiversity is lost at an alarming rate because of urbanisation, over-grazing and land degradation.

These are not just the major commercial staple crops like rice and wheat that we are familiar with on the international market, but also minor crops that have been neglected up to now, such as minor millets, yam, cassava and ground nuts.

Policy makers in organisations such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) are developing systems to both store and document the genetic properties of these crops, as well as provide some way of sharing the benefits with the poor African farmers who have been developing useful varieties on their farms for generations.

There is another issue that crops up time and time again in international conferences on climate change in Africa. It is the need to collect weather data better and coordinate weather early-warning systems and GPS satellite mapping of water resources so the continent’s farmers and herders have the information they need to prepare better for extreme weather events.

With more than 70 per cent of Africa’s population, estimated to be about 1.13 billion, now owning mobile phones, warnings can be transmitted by text messaging. Yet if one mistake is made, farmers see their seedlings washed away after being told there would not be rain, or a pastoralist drives his herd hundreds of miles to a water hole only to find it has dried up. It would be unlikely they would trust the weather services again, so the data has to be accurate.

Even if more climate-friendly and efficient farming methods are introduced, it is unlikely that African governments will be able to halt the continuing exodus from rural areas to cities.

Africa is the second-fastest urbanising continent, after Asia. It is already home to three mega-cities containing more than 10 million people: Lagos, Kinshasa and Cairo. The total number of individuals living in Africa’s urban areas is expected to rise from 400 million in 2010 to 1.26 billion in 2050. Climate change is accelerating this trend.

Whereas urbanisation traditionally meant a place was getting richer, this is no longer the case. Many of the continent’s urban poor do not even have access to basic necessities of life such as proper sanitation. This growth demonstrates a great need for better urban management and institution-building, especially as more than 60 per cent of African urban residents live in slums.

Modern sewer systems such as the ones we are used to in developed countries may not be the way forward. Here again, if the right technologies and policies are in place, sub-Saharan Africa could leapfrog over the developed world. Instead of adopting traditional sanitation systems that have proved so damaging to the environment, Africa could lead the world in waterless toilets.

Eyebrows were raised five years ago when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced it was pouring millions of dollars into projects to reinvent the toilet. Most of the models so far involve composting toilets, which can be good but tend to work better in rural areas where the waste can be removed and buried. In poor communities where whole families can live in just one room, these climate-friendly toilets are rather less attractive.

The city of Durban in South Africa installed 90,000 compost toilets, but people, not surprisingly, didn’t want to empty them so the municipality had to do it.

Dr Alison Parker at Cranfield University in the UK is leading her team to develop a waterless toilet using nanomembrane technology to treat human waste on-site.

“Our prime purpose is to make something safe so that it is not an environmental hazard, cutting out flushing and the need for expensive infrastructure,” she says.

The toilet developed at Cranfield, which has already gained the attention of policy-makers in countries like Nigeria, uses a gasifier, which turns waste into ash that can then be thrown out with ordinary household waste. Researchers say the water produced will be drinkable.

Even in times of flooding, these toilets won’t wash waste out onto the streets and create a health hazard. They also cut back on the carbon emissions created by sewers and improve water quality.

All over Africa, other steps are taken at a practical level towards the greening of the economy, driven by forward-thinking entrepreneurs and community organisations. Far too numerous to mention in this article, they range from solar lighting in villages in Kenya or in the Ugandan capital Kampala to cooking fuel briquettes made from wastepaper and combustible plant and agricultural waste - including straw, water hyacinths, maize husks, peanut shells and vegetable peels.

Most Africans are not naturally wasteful people; recycling is a way of life. The waste comes from the developed world. The challenge is to maintain and build the momentum for the greening of the continent at the same time as improving economic output and the wellbeing of people.

It is a gigantic task, but with sound policies, adequate investment in green energy and clean technologies, and most importantly of all, bringing the population on board, it could be a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous future for Africa.

Ethanol: farmer-friendly fuel

The biofuel ethanol has been touted by a handful of African nations as a way of both producing cleaner fuels and providing a better income for the continent’s farmers.

Ethanol is an alcoholic biofuel easily distilled from sugary or starchy plants and not only produces less carbon emissions, but the crops grown to be used also captures CO2 so that the overall carbon footprint is better.

 It has been used to power cars since Ford’s Model T, the first affordable motor car at the beginning of the last century. 

Blended into conventional petrol, it constitutes about 10 per cent of fuel burned by vehicles in the US.

Malawi, along with South Africa and Sierra Leone, is leading the group of African nations producing and using Fuel Ethanol, currently with a national blend of up to 20 per cent alcohol in its petrol.

Press Corporation Limited, a government owned conglomerate, is spearheading the ethanol project through its subsidiary, the Ethanol Company Limited.

Commissioned in 1982, Ethanol Company Limited has produced well over a quarter billion litres of ethanol and is one of the pioneers of Ethanol production in Malawi.

Petroleum companies are the sole buyers of this product. Ensuring full enforcement of mandatory blending can further increase the size of Fuel Ethanol market locally.

Ethanol is also seen as a possible future cooking fuel in Malawi. The Malawi University of Science and Technology is leading a trial of ethanol cook stoves in the Nkhotakota district. The fuel is made from cassava peels and excess ethanol produced will be sold to the Ethanol Company as the venture, funded by the governments of Malawi and Norway, is scaled up.

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