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Climate change? Technology offers innovative solutions

Working in Kenya, I’ve been getting drenched daily. That mild inconvenience is nothing compared with the terrible flooding afflicting many rural people. In February, they were praying for rain. Now they’re seeing neighbours drowned, homes and infrastructure washed away, and schools submerged.

Sure, Kenya has suffered from floods before. But nobody can remember it this bad. Climate change is not some theoretical topic for academics. It’s here, now, and with a vengeance.

Farmers are taking a multiple hit. Crops already harvested are rotting because transport can’t get through. Seeds planted in the joy of the first rains have disappeared under water. Livestock has died, large and small. And in the wake of flooding will come diseases for humans, animals and plants. Pests will have a field day.

A huge question is therefore: how can countries like Kenya increase farmers’ resilience to the future effects of climate change? Flooding is just one aspect; other extreme weather will also recur. (I’ve met a widow here who lost three successive pea crops to frost). Rising temperatures will take their longer-term toll as well.

We at the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture don’t know all the answers. Like most people, we don’t even know all the questions. But we are convinced that we can, and must, help smallholders tackle one of agriculture’s two greatest challenges: the weather. (The other one, similarly universal, is politics – but that’s a different story).

One approach we’ve helped pioneer is insurance. East African smallholders and insurance companies used to live worlds apart. Thanks to our partners, us and others, insurance has for many farmers now become relevant, accessible and affordable. Technology plays a big role: we started our insurance work here ten years ago because Kenya is a world leader in mobile financial transactions. Other hi-tech tools like satellites also help with insurance. Having created ACRE Africa to take our weather cover forward on this continent, we’re now building similar programs to help Asian smallholders.

The Syngenta Foundation believes strongly in the benefits of technology. Digital solutions don’t have to be about weather alone, of course. The USAID-led ‘Fall Armyworm Tech Prize’, for example, addresses exactly what the name suggests. The prizes are for digital contributions to tackling this corn-devouring pest. Our Chief Science Advisor is on the jury.

When it won’t stop raining, start more training

Better crop varieties are also crucial. That’s why we help African universities educate their next generation of plant breeders on meeting market needs. In the face of climate change, one major market need will be for varieties that cope better with extremes of weather.

It’s not all about hi-tech, however. Changing smallholders’ agronomic practices can also greatly strengthen their resilience. Advice from my colleagues and our partners in Africa and Asia is often fairly ‘lo-tech’. That’s not a negative word: changes that avoid expensive kit are considerably more likely to support resilience sustainably. What matters more than the degree of digitalisation is that the advice is locally relevant, for each field, crop, community and climate challenge.

In my own area of communications it’s not all hi-tech, either. The internet has its place in agricultural advice. But it’s useless to the millions of farmers with no access. Like other media that depend heavily on text, websites (and keyboards) exclude people who can’t read or write. That’s part of the reason we’re working with radio stations. Kenya has a rich choice of stations, often very small. Importantly, many broadcast in local languages rather than Swahili or English. Local idioms promote change better because they’re the languages of the heart. And (ok, so here comes some ‘higher-tech’) mobile phones now give far more men and women access to radio. When local stations start working with nearby agricultural extension officers, the positive effects on farm practices can be remarkable. Greater resilience to climate change is a constant focus of the radio programmes.

So the bad news is: climate change is real, multi-faceted and often destructive. The good news is that innovations of all sorts help tackle it. And there is room for many more!

Paul Castle

Written by Paul Castle

Paul Castle is the Syngenta Foundation’s Communicator Manager. Between a decade each in healthcare and agribusiness, he worked as a freelance journalist and translator. Thirty years after graduating from Oxford, he completed a Certificate in African Studies at Basel University. His concluding essay was on radio extension for smallholders in minority languages, an initiative he now leads professionally.

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