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Earth Day 2022: Stepping up climate adaptation for development and poverty reduction

By Ken Chomitz, Chief Economist  |   Posted 22nd April 2022

Earth Day 2022 centres on the theme Invest in Our Planet, calling for individuals to “act (boldly), innovate (broadly), and implement (equitably).” In celebration, GIF Chief Economist Ken Chomitz highlights how GIF experience points to three routes that harness innovation to drive both climate resilience and poverty reduction.

Building tailored solutions to specific climate challenges faced by investees

There are about half a billion smallholder farms in the world. These farms and the rural communities that depend on them are home to most of the people living in extreme poverty – those living on less than $1.90 per day. The development challenges they face are exacerbated by an increasingly fickle and hostile climate. Crops are at greater risk of failure from multiple threats: droughts, floods, higher temperatures, and pests and diseases that thrive in warmer conditions. When crops fail, families can spiral even deeper into poverty. So adaptation is essential to build resilience and keep open the path to prosperity. Furthermore, adaptation approaches must be context-specific, and cognisant of threats, vulnerabilities, and resources of each locality across diverse landscapes.

One Acre Fund, our biggest single investment, is a great practitioner of devising and diffusing innovative context-specific solutions to the challenges faced by their smallholder farm clients. One Acre Fund serves more than 1.3 million farmers in East Africa, providing a comprehensive package of advice, inputs, credit and marketing. Their approach is based on an exemplary system for testing and scaling up the use of locally-appropriate seeds and farming practices. They develop more than 100 innovations per year, with each one passing through up to four stages of iterative testing and refinement, progressing to the next and larger scale stage only if shown effective and feasible. In this way, they assure that the innovations are acceptable to farmers and adapted to local soil and climate. This process underpins their success in boosting farmer income by $110 per year on average.

One Acre Fund has identified climate change and environmental degradation as key threats to their clients – farmers are facing inexorably higher temperatures and report increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns. Fall armyworm – an invasive pest which has spread rapidly through Africa since its introduction in 2016 – has emerged as a serious scourge.

In response, the organisation has directed its innovation platform towards these threats, in a variety of tailored ways. To protect farmers against crop loss, the organisation has bundled insurance with loans and disseminated drought-resistant seeds. They encourage farmers to diversify crops as a hedge against pests or price shocks. They rolled out integrated pest management responses to the armyworm invasion. One Acre Fund is also promoting the use of conservation agriculture, which retains crop residue after harvest and minimises soil disturbance. This can increase soil fertility and water retention, reduce farm costs, and reduce the need for agrochemicals. Finally, the organisation has also vigorously expanded tree planting, with the triple benefit of preventing erosion, serving as a drought-resilient source of income, and sequestering carbon.

Developing tools that help governments and stakeholders detect, diagnose, and address emerging threats

Environmental problems manifest locally in diverse ways, but often need coordinated responses. Historically, a lack of timely, accurate information has hampered the ability to craft and refine effective action – technological innovations are rapidly changing this.

GIF-supported researchers at Stanford are testing methods to use satellite imagery to monitor crop yields in near real time at the level of individual farms over wide areas. Atlas AI, a spin-off public benefit corporation, has used these techniques to support Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture in monitoring maize yields.

GIF is also supporting PATH in its work to develop and adapt Environmental Surveillance (ES) methods to low-income contexts for monitoring the circulation of the COVID-19 virus in populations to support national and global monitoring and management plans. The idea is that ES of wastewater for viruses can provide real-time, comprehensive monitoring of disease prevalence. This has the potential to be a particularly powerful tool in COVID-19 response in countries with limited capacity to test and trace.

Laying the foundations for resilience

Children born today will have working lives that extend until late in this century. They will need to adapt to sweeping climatic, economic, and social changes. Many rural dwellers will move to cities and take up new occupations, and those who remain will need to constantly adopt new farming technologies in response to the changing climate.

Other late-century climatic and social changes are less unforeseeable. The common denominator is that mid-century workforces and communities must be prepared to learn, adapt, and innovate throughout their lifetime.

Education is a proven accelerator of innovation adoption. For instance, more educated farmers are significantly more likely to adopt agricultural innovations. Early childhood education, such as that offered by Lively Minds in Ghana, has been rigorously demonstrated to boost children’s cognitive and socio-emotional capacities, preparing them for these lifetime challenges. Education, like gender equality, is a goal in its own right, but both underpin the capacities that society will need to adapt to the climate challenge.

In the end, the challenge of poverty elimination is deeply intertwined with the challenge of adapting to climate change. Novel challenges require novel solutions, and innovation can power all three routes to climate adaptation. There is ample scope to direct innovations to improve and make more resilient the lives of the world’s poorest, who are disproportionately affected by climate change.