Research that builds resilient livelihoods in the conflict affected Drylands of Africa Blog

22 March, 2021
Authored by: Mark Redwood and Taylor Martin
The Challenge

One in three people worldwide face malnutrition. Despite significant global progress in  increasing access to food, the number of people at risk of living in hunger could reach 841 million by 2030, a staggering figure that exceeds the proportions we faced in 2005.  60 percent of the world’s chronically hungry are women and girls and 20 percent are children under five. With women and girls being so disproportionally affected, we are still a long way from reaching the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger and with it, the goal to end extreme poverty. A major FAO review of food productivity in 91 countries published in 2019 found that the world is relying on an ever smaller number of foodstuffs to feed a growing population that’s expected to rise to around 10 billion people by 2050.

The spectre of on-going and protracted conflicts – particularly in fragile states – poses a serious threat to food security and livelihoods. Africa, for example, is the only continent where conflict is on the rise. Competition over resources is contributing to a rising number of conflicts between different groups of users, such as pastoralists and sedentary farmers. In the West African Sahel insurgencies that have been increasingly active over the past decade have morphed into a set of rebel groups whose existence is undermining the capacity of some governments to cope with security risks without significant outside military intervention. The lack of government services and the weak legitimacy of the state in rural areas is compounded by increasing conflict over natural resources – notably water and land.


Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises (SPARC) is a programme that aims to address the challenges of food security and economic opportunity in the drylands of Africa. Supported by UK Aid, and implemented by Cowater International, SPARC is being delivered in partnership with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and Mercy Corps. SPARC’s objectives are two-fold. First, it aims to provide research and technical assistance to understand the nature of major crises in the food system in countries facing conflict or the risk of political instability. Second, as one of the largest global research programmes on pastoralism and agriculture in fragile and conflict affected states, SPARC focuses on bringing new insights to development practitioners working to address some of the most pressing global humanitarian challenges.

SPARC works in the drylands of Africa, an area which comprises 55 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa. The drylands are an enduring feature of the Sahel, and a place where pastoralists and sedentary farmers coexist with varying degrees of comfort and conflict. Population growth, climate change, and environmental degradation are expected to have a major impact on competition over natural resources, and the existing capacity of pastoralists and farmers to withstand and recover from shocks or additional stresses.

SPARC’s research will cover two major areas. First, it will focus on “anticipatory action”. Simply put, anticipatory action is premised on providing critical support to at-risk communities before a crisis occurs, safeguarding lives and livelihoods, as opposed to dealing with them after the crisis has taken place. Together with ODI, SPARC is assessing the benefits of anticipatory action by working with the Anticipation Hub on forecast based financing to advocate for improving humanitarian assistance in advance of crises.

Second, SPARC will aim to better understand the interaction between states facing weak governance regimes and high levels of fragility, markets and livelihoods in protracted conflict in the face of food crises. In carrying out the research, SPARC will rely on local partners that have a deep contextual understanding of local realities and are well connected to pastoralist networks, to address the issues of remoteness, instability and insecurity.

The Solution

Despite the challenging context of Africa’s drylands, research can help find ways to innovate that takes the pressure off local natural resources, reduces conflict, improves livelihoods, boosts the effectiveness of development aid and builds on existing progress. For example, pastoralists, agro-pastoralists and farmers have demonstrated a strong capacity to adapt to adversity through new farming techniques and the use of digital technologies. The trend towards greater decentralization in the Sahel has empowered local communities to manage their natural resources. This has, in some cases, led to the greater participation of women in local decision making, consequently contributing to more effective, equitable and sustainable conflict management outcomes over natural resources.

Moreover, improvements in the effectiveness of market systems are helping support access to jobs, create new employment, and improve the flow of food from farmer to consumer. Improved crop, soil, and water management practices and the use of stress-tolerant or biofortified seed varieties are increasing productivity for farmers. Part of what SPARC – as well as other food security programmes – can do is help identify successes in one part of the continent that may reduce hunger and malnutrition in others.

Finally, the programme will have a strong focus on exploring the role of women in agriculture. Women are essential to transforming food systems to be more equitable, accessible, and sustainable. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women are estimated to comprise 48 percent of the agricultural workforce, yet they face persistent barriers in access to land, livestock, education, and financial services. Evidence shows that when women have the same access as men to productive resources, agricultural outputs can increase by 20–30 percent and could lift 100–150 million people out of hunger. Investments that increase women’s income earning opportunities, productive assets or skills are fundamental to reducing hunger, with gains attributed to fostering household food security and nutrition, as we;; as peacebuilding outcomes in post-conflict settings.

Conflict is unlikely to go away, but aid practitioners need new tools to support the livelihoods of those living in insecurity. SPARC aims to capitalize on the global pivot towards “food systems” to support job creation, sustainable livelihoods, and more efficient and inclusive markets in the drylands of Africa. Cowater International’s work to anticipate crises early and build more sustainable and accessible food systems are key ingredients to addressing some of the big picture challenges faced by fragile states.

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