Climate change and the challenges in the Sahel

Politics and Society

Climate change and the challenges in the Sahel

Effective climate action can turn challenges in the Sahel into opportunities, say Dr Richard Munang and Robert Mgendi



An effective response to climate change in the Sahel is long overdue. The vulnerability of this region cannot be overstated, with temperature increases here projected to be 1,5 times higher than for the rest of the globe. The increase will exacerbate the effects of climate change, which is projected to deplete the Sahelian GDP by up to 10%. This will compound an already precarious socioeconomic scenario, with food and nutritional insecurity affecting 30 million people and poverty affecting 50% of the population. In addition, young people make up 75% of the population but they lack income and job opportunities – job seekers exceed the available opportunities by an estimated 10 to 1. The unlucky ones become part of the familiar story of the Mediterranean Sea: Nearly 50% of migrants who died on the central Mediterranean route from Africa to Europe in 2015 were from the Sahel region. The region’s response to climate change must therefore accelerate socioeconomic transformation that will ultimately ensure food security, creating income and wealth opportunities and expand macroeconomic growth.

Sustainable agriculture-led industrialisation as the strategic thrust for climate action

The UN Environment Facilitated Ecosystems Based Adaptation for Food Security Assembly (EBAFOSA) policy implementation framework provides a paradigm shift that could see climate action act as an accelerator of socioeconomic transformation in Africa. It is of central importance that the productivity of Africa’s catalytic sectors – which the Sahel shares in plenty – is maximised. These are the sectors in which the Sahel holds a comparative advantage in resources. Such sectors are economically inclusive and accessible to create income for most of the people, and they can create these socioeconomic opportunities at the same time as ensuring climate resilience. Accordingly, sustainable, ecosystems based adaptation (EBA)-driven agriculture and clean energy stand out. To maximise productivity, developments in these sectors should be amalgamated – as opposed to them being developed in sectorial silos, as has historically been done. We must generate synergy to build sustainable industries around these two sectors (agriculture and clean energy), ensuring that returns go beyond the environment to include social, economic and financial benefits. The focus on these sectors has been endorsed at the highest policy level on the continent, namely the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN). These sectors also feature prominently in the AU Agenda 2063. They also constitute up to 80% of Africa’s commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement – officially referred to as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

The Sahel region in Africa: a belt up to 1,000 km (620 mi) wide that spans the 5,400 km (3,360 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Photo-map CC BY-SA 3.0

The Sahelian countries are not only part of the AU and AMCEN but also of the Paris Agreement: 85% of them have ratified it. As is the case with the rest of the continent, prioritising clean energy developments, such as solar, in which the Sahel is bountifully resourced, is one of the leading commitments. The other is sustainable, nature-based agriculture, which is compatible with the approaches used by smallholder farmers, who produce nearly all the food in the region.

Proof of the efficacy of focusing on EBA and clean energy as the drivers of climate action can already be found in the Sahel.

Proof of the efficacy of focusing on EBA and clean energy as the drivers of climate action can already be found in the Sahel. Niger rehabilitated 300 000 hectares of crusted and barren land by promoting simple soil and water conservation techniques, such as zai traditional planting pits, contour stone bunds, half-moons and stone bunding. The Word Bank acknowledges that zai, a native, cheap and accessible EBA technology widely used by countries in the Sahel, enhances soil structure, water retention capacity and organic content. Zai reverses degradation and can increase yields by up to 500%, with minimal fertiliser use, hence reducing fertilizer-related emissions and costs.


Read: Why clashes are on the rise between farmers and herdsmen in the Sahel

A group of women farmers using solar-powered micro-irrigation in Benin has increased their socioeconomic standard of living by 80%. Yields have increased by 100% and water savings by 40% to 80% relative to conventional irrigation systems. This means that socioeconomic and climate benefits have been achieved simultaneously. In the northern part of Kenya, which shares climate and environmental context with the Sahel, processing enterprises that target the aloe plant, an indigenous, drought-resistant crop, is not only restoring degraded land to ensure climate adaptation but is resulting in viable enterprises, recording a net present value of up to US$4 000. Through such sustainable industry, the Sahel will not only restore its degraded lands but ensure food security and create income and job opportunities.

Market-driven incentives

Production and processing alone is not enough. What is produced needs to be competitive in today’s market-driven economies to ensure that such sustainable agro-industry can weather market forces. The recent signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) represents the most robust market enabler so far. It is set to consolidate a market of 1,2 billion people, with a combined GDP of over US$3,4 trillion. Turning this deal into a market pull factor for sustainable agro-industry in the Sahel is an urgent imperative. 

African leaders meet in Kigali to sign the continent’s free trade agreement.
Paul Kagame/Flickr

Already, the UN Environment, through EBAFOSA, is supporting countries to establish market quality standards that will regularise processes, products and services along the EBA-driven, agriculture-led, clean-energy powered agro-industrialisation continuum. This is being achieved through the “EBAFOSA compliance standard”, a quality standard that will be applied in all 40 countries across Africa. The efficacy of this standard is that it builds on already existing approved standards within countries and across Africa by merging them into one consolidated standard. Through this standard, certified agro-produce in the Sahel will compete on a quality par for the local consumer market. This standard will also open a US$ 150 billion consolidated continental market for Sahelian produce. As the AfCFTA takes root, this standard provides a practical mechanism by which the AfCFTA market benefits can be domesticated to fuel the growth of such sustainable industry in the Sahel.

Read: Climate action is everyone’s business


Financial innovation to drive the catalytic area

Annual remittances from the Diaspora to the Sahel exceed US$20 billion. How the remittances can be leveraged to finance investment in sustainable agro-industry in the Sahel is critical. The answer lies in risk-sharing facilities, where some of this money is invested to de-risk enterprises engaged in the sustainable agro-industrialisation continuum and attract private sector financing for these enterprises. Such risk-sharing facilities build on the concept behind the Nigeria Incentive Based Risk Sharing Facility for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL). Through NIRSAL, an investment of Naira 45 billion in public sources unlocked 10 times that amount – up to Naira 450 billion – in private finance. Channeling just 50% of these Diaspora remittances could unlock up to US$100 billion in market-driven financing for these sustainable agro-industrialisation enterprises. The monies could be targeted at incentivising farmer cooperatives to finance the acquisition of clean energy systems by members so that they can add value to what they produce, earn more and repay their debt to the cooperative. This would create a virtuous cycle of sustainable financing of transformative climate action at community level in the Sahel.

File picture: Feed the Future Kenya AVCD Regional County Launch and County field tours Photo Credit Flickr

Policy innovations that would boost catalytic sectors

Driving transformative climate action through sustainable, clean energy-powered industrialisation will require that policies across relevant ministries be implemented in a complementary manner. For example, energy policies on the decentralisation of clean energy will need to be implemented in tandem with agriculture policies on climate-smart agriculture approaches to ensure that these energy infrastructure investments target the areas where climate-smart agriculture is practiced to power such farms. Agriculture needs to work with transport infrastructure to ensure that what is produced can be efficiently linked to markets to maximise incomes. Agriculture needs to work with trade to secure markets for what is produced. The resultant sustainable agro-industrialisation will mean not only food security and restored degraded lands but also enterprises, income savings and job opportunities to enhance the quality of life for ordinary citizens. It will position climate action as a solution to illegal immigration, which is a global challenge. Countries in the Sahel are already on track to bring about this coherence in policy implementation through the EBAFOSA interagency policy taskforces.


Given the multiplicity of socioeconomic and climate challenges that need to be solved, the region needs to be strategic. It will take a divestment from socially driven development financing to a new paradigm of market-driven investment financing. It will, in fact, be an investment in the people of the Sahel and the diversity of the skills, talents and ongoing work they represent.


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