Dr. Susan Chomba on Africa’s role in the climate crisis: Opportunities, challenges, and the path forward

By Climate Champions | August 31, 2023

In her role at the WRI, Dr. Susan Chomba leads the Food, Land and Water programs in Africa under the Vital landscapes pillar. Susan is leading the nature track and has contributed to the Food Systems as a whole at the Africa Climate Summit and the Africa Climate Week next week. Here, Susan explains her vision for the summit – and the opportunity to transform Africa’s food systems – while setting in motion a reset of the global food system as a whole. 

Increasingly, the world is waking up to Africa’s potential as a pivotal leader in the climate crisis. Why is Africa central to the climate change conundrum?

Africa does not bring all of the historical baggage of major emitting countries to the climate crisis. The entire continent contributes less than four per cent of global GHGs, an amount that is absorbed by African forests currently. So, Africa comes to the table with an even ledger in terms of carbon debt. This allows African countries to see two things clearly. 

Firstly, we must avoid coupling the growth of our economies with volatile, polluting fossil fuels. Secondly, we must protect Africa’s existing ability to act as a carbon sink – and more than this, on the way to 2050 we must massively boost the capacity of natural systems to absorb the emissions already locked into the atmosphere. 

I call this “Africa’s latecomer advantage” – it’s a clear perspective that a different path is vital and possible. But make no mistake, Africa cannot realize the opportunity by itself.  


What are the key opportunities for Africa?

Africa has all the ingredients of a global climate leader. Firstly, Africa’s natural resources are unsurpassed, accounting for 30% of the world’s mineral reserves, many of which are critical to renewable and low-carbon technologies, such as electric vehicles. The continent is also home to vast areas of uncultivated land and forests, for example, the Congo Basin absorbs four per cent of global carbon emissions annually – even more carbon than the Amazon. These factors add up to huge potential for Africa to pioneer climate mitigation, direct carbon capture, and the transformation of global food systems. 

Secondly, Africa is projected to overtake Asia as the world’s fastest-growing region, with a ready market of over 1.4 billion people, twice that of Europe. As Africa also has the youngest population in the world, we’re not entrenched in conventional ways of working. With the right steer new innovation can be designed by Africa’s young people and rapidly scaled across the countries of the continent.

What are the key food challenges faced by Africa?

Africa is one of the world’s critical bread baskets but it’s facing a perfect storm leaving nearly 290 million Africans facing hunger. Almost 60% of arable land on the continent is degraded – and rising, largely due to failed industrial farming methods, placing yields on a downward trajectory.

Climate change is exacerbating food shortages. Agriculture is also one of the sectors most vulnerable to climate change, especially droughts and cyclones, which is increasing in frequency and severity in the Horn of Africa countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Cyclone Freddie was also one of the most dangerous cyclones of the last few decades; having a massive effect on food security in countries like Malawi. And when extreme weather events of this scale hit, they wipe out previous attempts to bolster food security. 

Simultaneously, the cost of traditional fossil fuel-based fertilizer has soared in African countries such as Kenya, due to the war in Ukraine. With yields falling, prices rising, and without adequate support systems, African farmers are increasingly clearing areas of forest, wetlands and grasslands to feed themselves, which drives further biodiversity and habitat loss. To break this cycle, we must urgently scale-up innovative, regenerative and agroecological practices. 

And lastly, the global food system, including the processing, transport, and retailing of food, is responsible for at least a third of GHGs. So, it’s impossible to meet the 1.5 target unless we address emissions from the food system as a whole – from farm to fork – including food production, transport, processing, through to retail. The good news is that the solutions to decarbonising the core emissions of food production, can also enable land degradation to be addressed, while drastically improving the resilience and health of African communities.

How can regenerative and agroecological practices be scaled up in Africa?

Industrial agriculture driven by large multinational food corporations that have captured our food systems from seed systems to input supplies will not save us from the current path of rising emissions, biodiversity loss and land degradation. They will certainly not save poor farmers–instead they are extractive models that maximize profits on the back of poor farmers. Approximately 33 million small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa provide over 70% of the food produced in Africa – and much of our food exports to other countries. So, it’s only by supporting smallholder farmers (of which 50% are women), can the continent realize its potential.  

Smallholder farmers need the support systems to make a shift to sustainable practices, including access to finance, information and technology. It’s going to be difficult, and requires smart policymaking to create the right incentives. For example, farmers are not currently rewarded for regeneratively grown, healthy food – the premiumisation of healthy, sustainably-sourced food in the West isn’t currently being passed onto African farmers. Governments need to intervene to prevent counterproductive policies and set the right price incentives to encourage the switch. 

How can the upcoming Africa Climate Week catalyse African climate leadership?

The summit is a major moment to unify African stakeholders to address the climate and finance issues ahead of the COP28 climate talks. Crucially, the summit is open to all. It’s not just about politicians negotiating at a top-level – it’s an opportunity for the voice of private sector actors, especially smallholder farmers, to be heard. This is crucial. Also, it’s an opportunity to match up innovative ideas and new models with investors that are seeking bankable, long term solutions to the climate crisis. The summit should connect large-scale investors with small-scale innovators on the ground in Africa, so that investment is not just absorbed by big-scale corporate players. We need to consciously catalyse small-scale initiatives, allowing them to grow and attract investors of their own. 

What projects are you seeing landing with investors and driving impact in Africa?

The AFR100 is an outstanding example of a large-scale initiative delivering real impact. It was launched in 2015 to bring 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes across Africa into restoration by 2030. Within a year, 21 countries have signed on to committing 63.5m hectares into restoration, and more than $1 billion in development finance and $545m in private investment, including the Bezos Earth Fund, has been secured. 

This success story, and others like it – are encouraging communities to see the potential for restoration as a business model. With innovative financing models, such as blended finance models that integrate risk, and loan facilities that can be repaid, these models are tested and ready to be scaled across Africa.


Land Restoration in Makueni County, Kenya. Credit: Third Factor Productions/Priceless Planet Coalition.


AFR100 shows that landscape restoration and sustainable agriculture are not only grant-based. With the right grant funding new industries can grow and attract their own investment. We’re seeing this in Africa’s energy sector, plus in the regenerative agriculture sector where a fantastic range of innovators are improving methods of growing, processing, transporting and packaging food – plus addressing food waste. There are so many opportunities for innovators and investors, Africa Climate Week is a key moment to make those linkages between investors and innovators. 

How important are the social dynamics of equity in the transformation of Africa’s food system?

Absolutely crucial. Transforming the production system to produce food without harming nature is the first step. However, to gain support for a full transformation, the demands of nature and the climate must be integrated with economic and social dynamics so that systems change doesn’t come at the expense of different groups of people, especially women, youth, pastoralist communities, indigenous people, or groups. For example, some areas in Kenya produce a lot of food, but at the same time, in the same country, people in some arid and semi arid places are dying of starvation. As climate impacts intensify, we are faced with the stark realisation that not every region is going to be an optimal food production area. To create an equitable food system, we need to look at access and distribution mechanisms to ensure that if people are unable to produce food for themselves, they still have the ability to purchase food, no one should be left behind.

It’s no accident, however, that regions that are under the most intense pressure from climate change are ahead of the curve in implementing radical change. We have a saying in Africa, “If your house is on fire, you do anything and everything to change the situation. But if your house is safe there is no urgency to act, which sometimes leads to complacency.” 

For example, we’re seeing that countries in the Sahelian part of Africa, which have been extremely vulnerable to drought for decades, have made major leaps in resilience. Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) in countries like Niger, is an excellent example of the reversal of land degradation in action. By the 1960s, over five million hectares of land had almost turned into desert, but this area has now been transformed into green space, through technologies that are farmer-driven, farmer-owned and evidently scalable.


Farmer Managed Land Restoration in Niger, with Dr Susan Chomba. 


What does success look like for this Africa Climate Week?

Beyond the talks, I want to see changes in policies, new deals for sustainable innovation on energy, food systems and nature. I want to see more positive engagement with civil society, with new faces bringing forth innovative ideas, more innovators farmers, smallholder farmers, and Indigenous Peoples explaining what they’re already doing and what help they need, so that we can link them up with investors, and policymakers. Every segment of African society can be involved, and by working together we can put tangible outcomes on the table.

Dr. Susan Chomba is the Director of Vital Landscapes for Africa at the World Resources Institute (WRI). She leads the institution’s work on Forests, Food systems and People which includes forest landscape restoration, sustainable agriculture/food systems and thriving rural livelihoods in Africa. Susan is a distinguished global ambassador for the Race to Zero and Race to Resilience under the UN High Level Champions for Climate Action.

A video excerpt of the interview can be found here.

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