Improving lives through
sustainable bioinnovations

Research collaboration on carbon farming in East Africa

Ms. Friederike Schilling conducting field work with one of carbon farming stakeholders in Nyanza region of Kenya.

Research collaboration on carbon farming in East Africa

icipe BioInnovate Africa and the University of Bonn, Germany, are collaborating to research the economics of carbon sequestration in African agriculture. The research is being conducted by Ms. Friederike Schilling, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bonn. Between February and August 2023, Ms. Schilling conducted field work in Kenya and was hosted at icipe BioInnovate Africa. She carried out interviews with different carbon farming stakeholders in different regions of Kenya. Ms. Schilling explains below her research and preliminary findings.

What is your research about?

My research is on “the economics of carbon sequestration in African agriculture”. This research topic simply means that I am exploring the opportunities and challenges of involving smallholders farmers in East Africa in emerging agricultural carbon markets to contribute to climate change mitigation through the adoption of sustainable land management practices, also referred to as carbon farming.

The main focus of the research is to evaluate the potential of sustainable land management practices as a natural climate solution by examining two questions: how much carbon can smallholder farmers store in soils and plants through the implementation of carbon farming practices? Who is most likely to benefit from carbon farming?

The research also evaluates how carbon farming projects can be operationalized by examining institutional arrangements that can be used to tap potentials for carbon credits to promote sustainable agricultural practices.

What problem does your research seek to address?

The research seeks to address the pressing global challenge of achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Specifically, it focuses on unlocking the potential of natural climate solutions in the pursuit of net-zero emissions. One promising avenue for achieving this goal is through the adoption of carbon farming practices, which involve increasing carbon sequestration in soils and plants while reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in agricultural production.

However, a significant hurdle exists in the form of a mis-alignment between individual costs and societal benefits of adopting carbon farming. This discrepancy arises from the failure of existing markets to account for environmental externalities. Moreover, smallholder farmers, particularly in Africa, face additional challenges, including limited financial resources, restricted access to markets, and inadequate support from local and national governments. These obstacles hinder their ability to adopt carbon farming practices, resulting in a missed opportunity for both climate change mitigation and improving their livelihoods.

To address these issues, the research explores the potential of payment schemes linked to the implementation of carbon farming practices. These schemes aim to incentivize investment in carbon sequestration and GHG emissions reduction, thereby reducing financial barriers to adoption. By using emerging agricultural carbon markets as a potential source of funds that leverage private capital, the transformation of the agricultural food system towards more climate-friendly trajectories may be supported.

Are there exciting preliminary findings or analyses you could share with our community?

Yes. According to the preliminary findings of the research, smallholder farmers in East Africa can benefit from carbon markets by participating in carbon credit projects such as activity- or results-based payments linked to carbon sequestration, and access to trainings or co-benefits from the adoption of sustainable land management practices that improve yield or increased resilience to extreme weather events.

The findings further shows that it is difficult for individual farmers to directly engage in the carbon market. Therefore, intermediary institutions or project developers that aggregate farmers into larger projects are required. They take on a diverse range of tasks and require specialized knowledge alongside strong ties to smallholder farmers. This results in agricultural carbon credit projects usually involving a multi-stakeholder cooperation structure.

Additionally, uncertainty related to the permanence as well as the measurement and monitoring of soil carbon sequestration, and the associated costs, may lead smallholder carbon projects to focus on above-ground carbon storage through tree planting rather than soil carbon sequestration.

The findings also shows that smallholder carbon farming projects face a multitude of challenges such as complex land-use dynamics, limited knowledge among stakeholders about carbon farming, and high costs associated with an accurate monitoring system for tracking changes in carbon sequestration. These are potential barriers to the integration of smallholder farmers in agricultural carbon projects.

Pictured left: Ms. Friederike Schilling. Pictured Centre and right: Ms. Schilling conducting field work with some of carbon farming stakeholders in Nyanza region of Kenya.