Jameel Observatory partner principals George Richards (Director of Community Jameel) and Appolinaire Djikeng (Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute) just published an op-ed in Farmers Review Africa calling for unified responses to anticipate and respond to future climate and environmental shocks.

George Richards, Director of Community Jameel

A quiet, deadly crisis is unfolding in Africa’s drylands, where a barrage of shocks brought on by climate change threatens the resilience of the region’s food systems. The recent East African drought, the worst in four decades, serves as a stark reminder of this grim reality.

A report issued in May 2022 fall by a consortium of humanitarian groups, titled “Dangerous Delay 2“, revealed that one person was dying of acute hunger every 48 seconds in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Rains have returned to the region, but it is imperative that we rally to support dryland communities in adapting to the challenges that lie ahead—before the next crisis hits.

In fact, the growing, insidious impact of climate change makes a unified response all the more necessary. We must marshal our resources, expertise, and humanity to support the dryland communities of Africa. They face not only the challenge of surviving the present crisis but also the daunting task of adapting to a future where such calamities may become all too common. The time to act is now; the lives of millions depend on it.

Appolinaire Djikeng, Director General of ILRI

That said, we must be cautious not to perpetuate an antiquated stereotype of pastoralist systems as inherently vulnerable and in need of protection. Historically, drylands and pastoralist communities have displayed remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. Their profound knowledge and resilient cultural systems have acted as bulwarks against the harsh conditions of their environment. They have survived—and even flourished—in some of the world’s most unforgiving landscapes.

Furthermore, pastoralists are indispensable to the region’s food security and economies. In Kenya alone, the pastoralist sector is valued at over $800 million and supplies more than 80 percent of the country’s meat consumption. Shocks to the food system in drylands have far-reaching repercussions.

For too long, our approach to addressing these crises has been reactive: As one pastoralist in Ethiopia said, ‘First, the vultures come, then the aid trucks come.’ It is time to shift our strategy. We must anticipate shocks and take proactive measures before they escalate into crises. This approach can provide drylands communities and the entire region with the tools to navigate the upheaval in the food system.

Implementing this new approach entails improving and expanding early warning systems that are both effective and inclusive. These systems must be based on sound data, established research, and—most importantly—the traditional knowledge of pastoralists. To grow these systems effectively, we need to put money into building and improving infrastructure and skills. This will make sure they meet the needs of the communities.

Promisingly, efforts in this direction have already commenced and are gaining momentum. The Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action, hosted at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, is poised to launch the Academy of the Drylands, inspired by the Jameel Observatory’s dedication to creating food security solutions together with local communities to equip them with the skills and methods to manage a food system under threat. Beginning in Kenya as “Kujenga Uwezo Pamoja” (which translates to ‘building capacity together’), the Academy will establish hubs in partner universities and institutions throughout the region.

The Jameel Observatory’s Academy of the Drylands represents just one facet of a broader response aimed at helping drylands adapt to climate change and navigate food system shocks. There’s a pressing need for research and action led by communities, along with new collaborations across food security, climate change, aid, and data. Both local and international groups are starting to support these efforts.

As the year 2023 came to an end, major talks at the Global Food Security Summit in London and COP28 in Dubai focused on the critical need to expand early warning systems and proactive measures to improve worldwide food security. More than 150 countries backed the COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, highlighting a worldwide agreement on the importance of effective early warning systems in creating strong food systems. With 2024 upon us, we call on governments to quickly turn these promises into real actions and investments, with a special focus on setting up and enhancing efficient early warning systems. This is a key move in developing strong food systems and securing food for everyone around the globe.

In the face of climate change and its impacts, the time to act is now, not only for the sake of Africa’s drylands but for the future of our global food security.