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A Women-Led Initiative is Growing Food Security and Climate Resilience Across Africa

The nonprofit Camfed teaches young women to spread climate-smart agriculture techniques in their communities to increase food security, climate resilience and even school attendance.
Camfed agricultural guides farming lettuce.

Camfed's guides practice climate-smart agriculture techniques and teach members of their communities to do the same. (Image courtesy of Camfed.) 

A grassroots organization is spreading the word about climate-smart agriculture while tackling food insecurity and increasing climate resilience. And women's leadership is the key to it all.

The pan-African nonprofit Camfed trains young women to become agricultural guides who teach their communities about climate-smart agriculture techniques, which help farmers increase crop yields by adapting to the effects of climate change while reducing their environmental impact.

As farmers increase their yields and improve their quality of life, the ripple effects spread across the community, evident in metrics like higher attendance and fewer dropouts at local schools. “More children actually complete school," said Esnath Divasoni, a sustainable agriculture expert at Camfed in Zimbabwe.

The connection goes beyond academic performance. Giving families the tools to produce enough food helps them afford school fees and ensure children are getting the proper nutrition so they are not struggling to make what’s typically at least a five-kilometer walk to school, Divasoni said.

Agricultural guides make sure no one is left behind

Camfed’s agricultural guides bridge a gap in services by working with smallholder farmers from marginalized communities who may otherwise be left behind. Extension workers from Zimbabwe's Ministry of Agriculture train farmers with larger plots, but Camfed’s guides reach those who are missed because of their age or the size of their land, which is often an acre or less, Divasoni said. The guides ensure that farmers have access to climate-smart agricultural techniques that enable them to grow enough food for their families and, potentially, extra food to sell.

“What we teach, or what we give to the community members, are techniques,” she said. “Basically, we are bringing the new and the old techniques together.” By creating a fusion of traditional and new practices, the guides help the farmers they work with produce at the same level, or higher, than those who are supported by extension workers. 

Climate-smart agriculture techniques include digging planting basins to conserve water, using recycled plastic water bottles for drip irrigation, cooking on cleaner-burning stoves instead of open fires, saving local seeds for the next planting season, improving soil conditions, and growing trees for wood, nuts and fruits.

“Most of the farmers that we work with can't afford to go and buy fertilizers,” Divasoni said. “So, we are teaching them to make their own compost. We are teaching them to use the available resources. We are also looking at diversification of crops for better nutrition. We used to have farmers who just plant one crop, but they now understand the importance of diversifying. We are also looking at water harvesting through the construction of dams and ponds. We are also looking at the adoption of small livestock.”

Increasing utilization of climate-smart agriculture has a big impact

Most farmers in the program were originally using one or two of the climate-smart techniques — now, many have added up to seven more, Divasoni said. That’s a huge uptick compared to the baseline, and it shows the value of Camfed’s work.

Giving women the opportunity to become agricultural guides also teaches them valuable techniques and leadership skills so they can further improve their communities, increase food security and improve environmental stewardship. That development helps support their education. In turn, more children — girls especially — can remain in school.

A variety of community improvements are made possible through the program’s knowledge sharing. “We have seen people who never used to plant trees. They are now taking the initiative to plant trees,” Divasoni said. “We have also introduced the use of clean cookstoves, which use less firewood and smaller firewood than an open fire. We've seen some communities coming in with the initiatives of actually advancing the technology.” 

After the organization provided the tools and knowledge to build stoves that were fixed in place, some communities made moveable stoves with materials like metal so they could be used for more tasks, she said.   

The guides operate under the same premise. Originally, 1,000 agricultural guides were trained on climate-smart techniques. Each of them has gone on to train at least 10 young women from their community who reach out to more community members and farmers. The program reached over 100,000 people by the end of 2022, according to Camfed

A Camfed agriculture guide teaching others about climate change.
Camfed's agricultural guides teach their neighbors about climate change, climate-smart agriculture and the benefits of using climate-smart techniques. (Image courtesy of Camfed.)

Perhaps the strongest proof of the effort’s success comes from the meal program, which feeds 27,000 students each day thanks to parent support groups. Additionally, gardens have been planted at many schools to provide fruits and vegetables for the students.

Camfed’s agricultural guides are up to the challenge

That’s not to say that the program hasn’t faced challenges. Naturally, there is pushback from some farmers who don’t see a reason to change what they are familiar with. As members of marginalized communities themselves, the guides are able to serve as role models and demonstrate why the new techniques are worth adopting.

Divasoni shared the story of Philomena, who was able to demonstrate the value of climate-smart agriculture to her community by planting side-by-side plots of maize grown conventionally and maize grown with climate-smart techniques for comparison. The climate-smart crops yielded greater output than the conventional plot. As a result, community members were eager to learn from Philomena, inviting her to teach them the new techniques. 

“And that was not only Philomena,” Divasoni said. “It also happened in many other parts of the country where they were experiencing resistance … The majority of the community members were not really listening to what we were doing until they saw the results. And the good thing is we are coming from those same communities. By being part of the community and showcasing that we are trusted, they now see the importance of what we are doing.”

Other challenges that farmers face include climate change and a rise in heatwaves, cyclones and hail storms. Scaling the program and increasing the number of guides can help more farmers become resilient to the impacts of climate change. Divasoni is confident that can be done thanks to the partnerships Camfed has developed and the trust it’s built in local communities.

Food security and secondary education completion for people from all economic backgrounds are inextricably intertwined. By bringing climate-smart agriculture to even the smallest landholders, Camfed’s guides are helping make these goals a reality. 

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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