Blog Post

How Climate Change Is Fueling a Food Crisis in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria

Self portrait by Tim McDonnell

The frontline of global warming is on farms. But the story is about much more than hunger.

The village of Nowcaca is nestled in the verdant hills of northwestern Mozambique, some 600 miles north of the coastal capital Maputo. A footpath winds through a sea of shoulder-high grasses, leading from a two-lane highway back to a dusty plot where Amelia Tonito grows onions, tomatoes, and cabbage. Amelia presses her hand into the soil, next to a few meager green sprouts. Rainfall has been sparse this year, and without the money to buy fertilizer, her optimism for a profitable harvest is waning.

“We only produce enough to eat,” she says. “But we’d like to produce enough to eat and to sell.”

Across all of East Africa, farmers like Amelia are facing the same problem. Persistent rural poverty and food insecurity have long been a fact of life here. Rapid population growth—sub-Saharan Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, the fastest rate of growth anywhere on Earth—only threatens to make those problems worse. Now, a new threat has arisen: Climate change, which is raising temperatures even as it disrupts the seasonal rains on which Amelia’s crop depends. East Africa is roughly 1.5 degrees F warmer now than it was in the 1980s; during the same period, rainfall during the primary rainy season fell by 15 percent, according to climatologist Bradfield Lyon of the University of Maine. Emerging research indicates that climate change could drive down yields of staples such as rice, wheat, and maize roughly 20 percent by 2050. Worsening and widespread drought could shorten the growing season in some places by up to 40 percent.

For the past five years, I’ve covered climate change for Climate Desk, a collaboration of top-flight news outlets, lead by Mother Jones magazine, that includes The Guardian, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and others. I met Amelia in summer 2014 on assignment for the Economist, and her story reminded me of many I’ve heard in the United States—personal, often gut-wrenching dispatches from the front lines of climate change. In the U.S., those stories often involved dramatic encounters with extreme weather events: A family in Colorado visiting the smoldering remains of their home after a wildfire, or a lifelong New Orleans resident who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina worrying that sea level rise has left his city more vulnerable than ever.

Africa is no less vulnerable to extreme events, as this year’s powerful El Niño has shown: As estimated 14 million people across southern Africa are at risk of hunger this year because of severe drought. For many African farmers, the margin between prosperity and poverty is razor-thin. “One extreme event can drive people into poverty almost instantly,” says Calestous Juma, an expert on African agriculture at Harvard University.

Still, there’s more to the story of climate change in Africa than headline-grabbing natural disasters. The fact that agriculture is Africa’s biggest industry means global warming has sweeping social consequences. Ademola Braimoh, an environmental scientist at the World Bank, calls climate change and food insecurity “the twin crises facing Africa in the 21st century.” The two issues are a crossroads where science, technology, health, economic development, conflict, and many other social issues meet. It’s a space inhabited by a dynamic cast of farmers, entrepreneurs, scientists, politicians, and families. And that makes it a great place to find stories.

As a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow, I plan to spend nine months reporting from Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria on how climate change is affecting food security.

Because of their proximity to the Equator, their heavy economic reliance on agriculture (representing 25 percent of GDP on average, compared to just five percent in the U.S.), their lack of access to climate adaptation funding, and a complex web of other reasons, these three countries are among the most vulnerable on Earth to climate change impacts. An index produced by the University of Notre Dame ranks 180 of the world's countries based on their vulnerability to climate change impacts. New Zealand, at No. 1, is the least vulnerable; the United States is ranked No. 11. The best-ranked mainland African country is South Africa, down at No. 84; Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda rank at No. 147, No. 154, and No. 160, respectively.

These three countries already face extremely high rates of hunger, and climate change is poised to make the problem even worse. But hunger is not the only issue. In my research, I plan to focus on several themes—often interwoven—that illuminate what is at stake:

  • Landscape restoration. Planting trees, protecting biodiversity, and restoring nutrients in the soil could be a crucial defense against climate change.
  • Access to land. The fight against climate change is closely linked to the fight of countless rural communities to have their claim on farming land legally recognized by the government.
  • Access to money. Farmers need better access to markets, finance, and insurance, so they can survive bad years and thrive in good years.
  • Data: Known unknowns. Uncertainty is the new normal, but data and technology can help farmers understand the future and can confer political advantage to marginalized people.
  • Shifting demographics. An increasing number of young people are moving from farms to cities that are ill-equipped to receive them. How are cities coping? Can rural areas survive the exodus?
  • Conflict. Changes in land use and competition over diminishing natural resources can turn violent. Climate change significantly exacerbates existing social tensions for people whose food security is already tenuous.

If this all seems a bit overwhelming, well, it is. But the news isn’t all bad; there are also many signs of progress. Less than a third of Africa’s arable land is currently cultivated, meaning there is still room to grow. An acre of African farmland typically yields only one-tenth the produce of an acre of U.S. farmland, but many experts believe productivity could be massively improved—and the ravages of climate change significantly offset—simply by giving farmers access to the same fertilizer, improved seeds, and other basic resources (not to mention the Internet and mobile technologies) that have been available to Western farmers for decades. Land laws are being overhauled to benefit smallholders. Trees are being replanted by the millions. Because most African farmers are women, agriculture could become an important avenue for gender equity. And rural African communities are already in the midst of a renewable energy boom, using solar and wind power to leapfrog the fossil fuel-hungry electric grid.

My goal is to investigate all corners of this story and tell it through the voices of the Kenyans, Ugandans, and Nigerians who are living through these changes every day. I’ll divide my time between urban and rural areas, capturing the story in text, photos, video, and audio. Ultimately this iterative series will add up to a vivid, intimate, and rarely-seen portrait of food-related climate vulnerability and adaptation in East and West Africa.

My first destination is Kenya, beginning October 1. I hope you’ll stay tuned for the adventure!

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