COP27: Africa’s Opportunity To Lead The Way

The effects of climate change are being felt globally. While African countries have done little to contribute to the causes of climate change, people across the continent are being hit hard by its impacts. In the lead up to November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, Dr. Emily Musil Church, Senior Director at the Milken Institute, shares her insights on innovations coming from the continent that has the potential to change future outcomes.

Dr Emily Musil Church

The UN’s recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report revealed that climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying. Africa accounts for the smallest share of global greenhouse gas emissions – 3.8% – in comparison to China (23%), the United States (19%), and the European Union (13%), yet it is one of the world’s most vulnerable to climate change especially because of its reliance on agriculture as an economic driver. To put it in perspective, Ethiopia generates 1.3 metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions per year, while the average American generates about 20 tons, and the average Kuwaiti generates a staggering 60 tons.

Unstable temperatures increase the risk of drought in southern and central Africa and the risk of flooding in east Africa. This means much lower yields for farmers, and higher food prices for everyone. It is estimated that by 2050, if temperatures continue to rise, total crop production across the continent could be reduced by 10%. With close to 280 million people suffering from chronic hunger, a reduction such as this would be devastating for the continent, and have global repercussions.

Despite the challenges, one thing is certain: the rise in innovation and rapid adoption of technology is seeing Africa take the reins to shape of its own destiny and lead the way to sustainability for the rest of the world. The continent is proving to be a hotbed of innovation talent, creativity, resilience, and resourcefulness that is showcasing possibility and hope, rather than despair.

William Kamkwamba is one of the continent’s recent success stories. At only 13 years old, Kamkwamba could see the devastation of the severe drought in his home country of Malawi. He was determined that his family would not be plagued by hunger and built a windmill to bring electricity to his family’s home. He had no funding or help, but equipped with the drive to change his circumstances, and spare parts, old textbooks, scrap metal, and an innovative mindset, he not only realised his dream, he went on to build a solar-powered water pump along with two wind turbines, to supply clean drinking water to his entire village. Today Kamkwamba is working with Moving Windmills Project to build an Innovation Center in Malawi where young people can find tools and mentorship to co-create simple solutions to everyday agricultural challenges.

The story of the “Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” and his innovative thinking to combat daily challenges captured the world’s attention, but his ingenuity not unique. A promising transformation is already sweeping over African farmlands. Increasingly innovative approaches are being combined with traditional knowledge to increase productivity of yield and diversify crops to boost nutrition and build climate resilience. 

But how?

At the foundation of any thriving innovation ecosystem is an enabling environment. Supportive government policies are critical, as is access to finance and funding. But most crucial, is the continued development and support of talent. Initiatives that recognise talent and provide the fertile learning grounds for young innovative entrepreneurs to develop, test and implement their ideas will pave the way for Africa to meet several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Milken-Motsepe prize for example, focuses on accelerating progress towards SDGs 1 and 2: no poverty and zero hunger. It is a global competition for innovative AgriTech solutions to increase economic value to farmers, from seed to sale.

Innovation is key to and growth in the coming decades. But time is running out. We need extraordinary efforts by innovators in Africa and around the world, and the collaboration of the global community. to meet any aspirations and the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As global leaders prepare to come together at COP27 to take action towards achieving the world’s collective climate goals, Africa can take centre stage. There has never been a more pressing time to think big, act big, and change the lives of millions. As the old African proverb succinctly warns: “you cannot build a house for last year’s summer”.

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