06/03/2017 03:05 GMT | Updated 06/03/2017 05:03 GMT

Africa Needs To Adapt To The Changing Climate

The challenge raised by current developments is whether South Africa and the continent at large is prepared to deal with these erratic weather patterns.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters

A recent report from the South African Weather Services suggested that an El Niño weather pattern, which is typically associated with hot and dry weather conditions, may potentially return around August 2017. This would be an odd phenomenon, given that we recently came out of an El Niño induced drought period in 2015/16.

Although it would be premature to provide any certainty on this outlook, it is worth noting that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology concurs with our local Weather Services, which has noted a 50 percent chance of El Niño development later in 2017.

This will not affect the current summer crop as it has already reached pollination stages and likely to be a good season for grains and oilseeds. However, the challenge that is raised by these developments is whether South Africa and the continent at large is prepared to deal with these erratic weather patterns.

In October 2015, AfricaBio, an independent, non-profit biotechnology stakeholders association - hosted a business breakfast under the theme, Water-Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA): Delivering the Promise to African Smallholder Farmers. WEMA is a drought-tolerant maize variety developed for dryland farmers who are dependent mainly on rainfall.

This initiative came at a time where Africa was seeing early signs of the 2015/16 drought. In fact, participants in the event, of which many were seed breeders and farmers, were enthusiastic with hopes that this could be a breakthrough for agricultural development in Africa.

However, many months have gone by without hearing much about this development. As if to spite our inaction, we could soon experience another drought season, which would underscore the urgent need for initiatives such as WEMA, which bode well for the continent's food security.

There is a generally low adoption rate of agricultural technology amongst African countries. For example, there are only three African countries that plant Genetically Modified crops (GM), South Africa, Sudan and Burkina Faso.

South Africa was the first country on the continent to commercialise biotech production of cotton, maize and soybean in 2002 and is currently the largest producer of GM crops on the continent and the ninth largest producer of GM crops in the world.

Although opinions about GM crops tend to differ, based on production volumes, South Africa has seen tremendous gains. Before the introduction of GM maize, average yields in South Africa were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare, but these increased to around 5.3 tonnes per hectare in the 2013/2014 production year, which is the highest average commercial yield on the African continent to date. Meanwhile, sub-Saharan African average maize yields have remained at levels below 2 tonnes per hectare. Much of this can be attributed to lack of GM crops adoption.

More recently, the GM maize crops have proven to be slightly more tolerant against the armyworm pests in some regions of South Africa. As I noted in my column on February 16, African countries that do not plant GM maize are in a more precarious food security position due to armyworm infestation than South Africa.

According to BMI Research, the low adoption of GM crops on the continent is largely due to institutional problems. In other words, farmers on the continent have difficulty building savings or acquiring credit for expensive inputs, such as GM seeds. This is a vicious cycle, as profitability in the sector remains poor due to low yields. Moreover, the lack of wide-scale GM adoption can also be attributed to the absence of functional regulatory systems across the continent. This has led to conflicting views about the control of first-generation seeds.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, Africa's agricultural sector will need to devise strategies that will allow the sector to thrive and adapt in these unpredictable climatic changes. One way of this is through seed development that will enable farmers to produce food with limited water intake.

At the same time, African regulators and seed technology developers will have to devise strategies that will lead to seed development that are fitting toward the needs and budgets of African farmers. Fortunately, the WEMA project seems to concur with this view, and it would perhaps also offer some lessons for further development.

More encouraging are developments in Kenya and Ethiopia, where governments have started conducting field trials of GM cotton and maize. I hope that with time, these will be commercialised to see farmers enjoy the higher yields and pest tolerance likened to that of many South African commercial farmers. For this to succeed, local scientists in these respective countries will have to collaborate with farmers in improving local seed-strains that adapt to changing climatic conditions and share knowledge with them.

Overall, with the world's population expected to grow by 30 percent to 9.7 billion in 2050, Africa will need to increase its efficiency in agricultural production in order to benefit from the prospective global food demand. One way of doing that could be through maximising and rolling out technological benefits.

This blogpost is an extract from my Business Day Column, published on 02 March 2016.