“Is anyone worried about the farmer? Don’t just express worry in words, do something about it”

ECDPM’s Cecilia D’Alessandro interviewed Elizabeth Nsimadala, a Ugandan agripreneur and farmer, who is the president of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF). They discuss the links between food and climate policies, gender equality in food systems, and the opportunities and challenges of improving access to finance for smallholder farmers. She argues that African governments and their development partners need to increase finance flows for African smallholder farmers, especially women and youth, to achieve food and nutrition security and improve the adaptation of African agriculture to climate change.

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    Cecilia D’Alessandro: Sustainable food systems are increasingly high on the agenda of global climate policy processes (COP27, COP28). Yet, the recently released Nairobi declaration at the Africa Climate Summit does not give much attention to food and agriculture, and the needs of smallholder farmers in particular. As the president of the EAFF, what would you like to see in the African common position towards COP28?

    Elizabeth Nsimadala: In my view, it is debatable that there is attention on smallholder agriculture, whether globally or in Africa. Yes, a lot has been written about the importance of farmers over the years, but the same farmers still remain vulnerable in this day and age.

    What we do see is that governments, researchers, NGOs, and even private companies, through the use of ambiguous words like ‘farmer-focused, centred, inclusive, centric projects’ have taken away resources which were set aside for farmers and handled all the flows of funds. Why is it difficult to finance farmers directly? No wonder we are paying for the sins of failure to invest in agriculture twenty years after the launch of the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP).

    Africa is currently importing $50 billion of food annually. I haven’t seen anyone who appears to care, we seem to be happy sharing this data in conferences.

    According to the African Union Commission, Africa is currently importing $50 billion of food annually. I haven’t seen anyone who appears to care, we seem to be happy sharing this data in conferences. Is there an urgency in tilting this balance favourably? I don’t think so. Is anyone worried about the farmer? Well, I would like to meet that person who does not just express their worry in words but also in deeds.

    Farmers have been left to fend for themselves!

    Cecilia D’Alessandro: But how can the international community support African countries in better linking their food and climate policies and investments, and also ensure climate finance reaches smallholder farmers?

    Elizabeth Nsimadala: We are asking that donors and governments channel resources directly to farmers if they want us to reduce food imports.

    The climate finance debate is clear. Most funds support mitigation, while there are few funds for adaptation, but adaptation funds are key for African agriculture. The finance architecture needs a policy reform so that we have more accredited entities in Africa but also entities that are agriculture-leaning as compared to the commercial banks with minimal agriculture portfolios that are currently accredited. Otherwise, we design a new funding programme that targets farmers’ adaptation.

    When it comes to food and climate, we definitely need to assess the harmonisation of the two. However, we need to have more influence over the debate about investments. We may need to map out investments and investors that are more inclined towards adaptation, if they are at all there, and find out what they are looking for, how to match the needs and how to put scale to it.

    Cecilia D’Alessandro: You are right, the balance between mitigation and adaptation financing is still skewed towards the former. And climate finance flows still struggle to reach smallholder farmers. To improve access to finance and stimulate private sector investments in agrifood systems, development partners are increasingly using blended finance instruments. This was a key topic of discussion during the World Food Forum flagship event at FAO.

    What are the opportunities and challenges of this approach, vis-à-vis the objective of improving access to finance for African farmers and SMEs?

    There is a need for innovation in agriculture finance. I think the opportunities abound in Africa for such arrangements and we have seen a lot of finance being unlocked through blending. However, when assessing this type of finance, we don’t see how smallholder farmers have benefitted. If they have, then it is an isolated island of success. So how can this be scaled up and made more pro-smallholder? Do we have institutions providing this support that are willing to take this risk? How innovative can they be to reach the smallholders?

    Cecilia D’Alessandro: We are definitely asking the same questions in our work at ECDPM, looking at how finance flows can better target and reach smallholders. But a broader question I have is, how can the international finance architecture better target food systems transformation? Can the G7 countries, for example, re-channel part of the recently allocated special drawing rights (SDRs) to African countries for food security and sustainable food systems?

    I want to reiterate that for as long as the resource pipeline fails to reach the farmer, then food systems transformation will remain a pipe dream. In fact, with all the challenges African agriculture is facing, it is actually not factual to talk about 'transformation'. Productivity is falling significantly across the majority of the value chains and global markets continue to be unfair after so many years. 

    Africa cannot add value and compete internationally because of WTO rules. We export the least in value compared to other continents and this has slowly but surely killed our promising value chains as they cannot sustain themselves.

    So, we need to first transition into more sustainable forms of agriculture before we can transform our food systems.

    As for the special drawing rights – again, we need a credible governance system that allows specific allocation of a percentage of funds to non-state actors for them to function. So, these funds by the G7 certainly need to come to Africa, but we need a decision-making mechanism that is inclusive and competent in agreeing on priorities and reporting on achievements.

    Cecilia D’Alessandro: After three years of heated negotiations, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) finally endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on Gender Equality and Women’s and Girls Empowerment (GEWE) in the context of food security and nutrition. That is an important first step. What do you think about this outcome?

    Elizabeth Nsimadala: As a woman leader, I applaud this outcome and any other outcomes that are pro-women and pro-youth – we should, however not just pay lip service, but we should also see adequate resources for its implementation.

    Cecilia D’Alessandro: In your view, what are the key actions that African leaders and their international partners can take to strengthen fairness, inclusivity and empowerment, especially for women and youth and marginalised groups, and promote gender equality in food systems?

    Elizabeth Nsimadala: First and foremost, well done to the countries that have embraced affirmative action for women and youth and walked the talk. They’re not many, but those that have done it are seeing real positive changes, especially in food systems at the local level.

    Secondly, it is pretty clear to me that policies and principles are not enough: women and youth can also be rightly called marginalised, as only a handful of them are major beneficiaries. So there is still a huge capacity gap, a lack of enablers or suitable mentors, limited access to affordable resources and support systems on management and responsibility over these resources and serious issues of governance and accountability. We need to ensure that affirmative action principles are respected.

    Thirdly, we need to invest in a monitoring and learning system. Honestly, there is a lot we do not know about how to empower young people and women, like how groups come together and their dynamics, how decisions are made during enterprise identification and roll out or communication, among others.

    When it comes to engaging in gender equity, there are usually a lot of assumptions and also miscalculated interventions that may, for example, bring conflict in families. So, we need to pay attention to family dynamics and look at cultural norms that might affect gender equity principles so that interventions take into account the heterogeneity of existing gender norms and roles.

    Lastly, governments have neglected marginalised groups for the longest time. There is a need to have better integration programmes for them, which needs a lot of heavy lifting in terms of investments. Having special seats in parliament or being recognised as marginalised is not enough. There should be deliberate and intentional programmes developed and monitored. We need well-thought-out and holistic programmes that address all angles, from economics to society, culture and the environment.

    About the interviewee
    Elizabeth Nsimadala is a Ugandan agriprenuer and smallholder farmer. She is the president of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF).

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