Experts use many numbers when talking about climate change. However, rising temperatures, the resulting crop failure and consequent loss of livelihoods and destitution of millions of households are this year’s most important and urgent developments for millions of smallholder farmers across African agro-ecological landscapes.
To illustrate the unfolding crisis, let us consider the case of Malawi, one of the few countries to have achieved a fair deal of agricultural success but is now facing the worst drought in over three decades. As is the case with many countries in southern Africa, Malawi has experienced widespread crop failures due to a devastatingly strong El Niño. The country has witnessed late onset of rains, erratic rainfall, floods and prolonged dry spells this year.
Thus, the production of maize — the country’s main staple crop — is estimated at just over 2.5 million tonnes in 2016. This is 16 per cent lower than the reduced harvest in 2015 and 34 per cent below the previous five‑year average. Consequently, 39 per cent of the population are dependant on national and international food aid to survive — a 129 per cent increase over last year’s vulnerable population. In the hardest hit areas, harvest reduced by 70 per cent while farmers in some areas simply couldn’t plant as the rains never came. 
Tackling climate change
Dealing with this challenge in the future will require both efforts to reduce climate change and, most importantly, strategies to enable farmers to adapt to its effects.
All eyes were on the meeting of the world’s climate change experts and policymakers that ended in Marrakesh, Morocco, last month (7-18 November). The meeting sought to set the world on track to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
Last year, the same experts met in Paris, France, and reached a welcome agreement that seeks to limit the rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by two degrees Celsius. However, the emissions of greenhouse gases are not yet falling and the effects of climate change are worsening. Much more still needs to be done to address this challenge proactively.
Nowhere else is the imperative to act more urgent than in Africa, where about 70 per cent of the population is dependent on rain-fed, smallholder agriculture. As the case of Malawi shows, rising temperatures in Africa often signal drought and other extreme weather events that put the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers at greater risk, increasing their vulnerability to famine and diseases. This reality is here with us today, and far beyond Malawi and southern Africa, with large swathes of the continent currently under the grip of a historical drought.
By Agnes Kalibata
Follow her on Twitter: @Agnes_Kalibata
Agnes Kalibata is the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.