World Food Day: the return of El Niño and its effect on African agriculture

As a record breaking El Niño builds up in the Pacific, Southeast Asia has already been hit by drought. Africa will feel the weather effects next – and with it agriculture, the backbone of economies in many African countries as our latest fact sheets on Angola, Senegal and Zimbabwe highlight.

The global weather phenomenon El Niño has already brought a weak monsoon to India, threatening harvests there. The World Meteorological Organization also expects increased rainfall and flooding for the Horn of Africa and much drier conditions for the southern part of the continent. Agriculture will feel the impact of extreme weather if El Niño hits.

Lessons learned from the 1997 El Niño

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) the last strong El Niño in 1997 severely affected farming in Senegal, Algeria and Tunisia, while Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia and northern Tanzania experienced moderate drought in places. FAO country reports from the time reported havoc in many countries due to heavy rains which swept away harvests and also destroyed roads and infrastructure.

As our fact sheets on Africa show, agriculture is the most important pillar of the economy in all affected countries. It provides work for the large majority of citizens and cash products like cocoa are often the largest source of export income.

At the same time, the sector is one of the most vulnerable. The norm of insuring farmers' harvests against drought, flood or pests, as it is known in Europe, North America or many countries in Asia, is virtually unknown in Africa. A lack of insurance can be devastating for affected families. It can even mean giving up farming for good and moving to an uncertain future in the cities.

Closing the protection gap for the UN 2030 sustainable development goals

Protecting farmers against natural perils is key to making the agriculture industry in Africa viable. Swiss Re has joined forces with governments, NGOs and other insurers in several schemes across Africa and is protecting more than 2 million smallholder farmers against drought, flood and tropical cyclones.

We need to see more projects like these to reach the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture.

Banks, governments, insurers, NGOs and farmers must work together to make agriculture in Africa more resilient and productive. This means transferring know-how and facilitating credit among today's marginal farmers. Insurance will play a big part in this process: it gives banks the confidence that loans will be paid even if disaster strikes.

"Africa's population is forecast to grow to more than 2.4 billion by 2050," says Swiss Re's Lovemore Forichi. "To feed this growing population African agriculture must thrive to transform from subsistence to commercial farming" he continues.

Making this transition presents new risk management and risk transfer challenges that will call for innovation, data provision and synthesis, as well as cooperation from all stakeholders in the agriculture value chain. We'll put all of it to work to close the protection gap for African farmers.

Published 16 October 2015

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