Expanding Africa’s Great Green Wall for the resilience of small scale farmers by Action Against Desertification
This land restoration approach puts plant science at the service of local communities. It is ready for massive upscaling in Africa.
Action Against Desertification is an initiative of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) implemented by FAO and partners with funding from the European Union and Turkey, working in 10 African countries – Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan – as well as in Fiji and Haiti.
The project has developed a land restoration method that offers a blueprint for large-scale restoration of drylands in Africa and beyond. In five years, Action Against Desertification has brought 53 000 hectares of degraded land under restoration, planting 25 million trees and fodder species for food and feed, developing five value chains of non-timber forest products for communities income generation and reaching 700 000 people. Its innovative monitoring and evaluation system allows to continuously assess progress on the ground using high-resolution imagery. Changes in greening, land cover and vegetation index are tracked for every hectare from the start of land preparation and initial planting.
Its approach, which puts low-income rural communities at the heart of restoration, is delivering multiple ecological and socio-economic benefits contributing to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. It is highly adaptable to varying ecological and socio-economic conditions and therefore very suitable for replication and scaling up.
Is this proposal for a practice or a project?
What actions do you propose?
The underlying theory of change is that the project will create effective opportunities through transformative large scale restoration interventions to allow and benefit rural communities’ sustainable development and to adapt to climate change as part of Africa’s Great Green Wall programme.
The proposal will bring an approach and technologies to increase climate-resilient agro-sylvo-pastoral systems to non-resilient/fragile dryland ecosystems within which rural communities and their sustainable development are affected and already compromised. It will strengthen the resilience of both the Sahelian/dryland communities and its agro-sylvo-pastoral ecosystems critically affected by climate variability and change around the Sahara through large scale and scope of activities that have the potential to create a truly transformative change in countries across this dryland region of Africa. The scale of the core area of Africa’s drylands encompasses 1 billion hectares and contains 287 million people. There are 221 million hectares of restorable lands with inadequate vegetation cover, including croplands, forests, wetlands and settlements. The plant-based solution in response to these climate change threats, the use of a proven and scalable approach that was tested, these restoration interventions are needed to sustain agro-sylvo-pastpral production systems and enable sustainable growth of the sector in a manner that reduces poverty, increases resilience and achieves food, feed and nutrition security. It also provides more cost-effective ways for regional and national institutions to assess progress and impact of land management investments through innovative biophysical and socio-economic evaluations.
Bringing dryland restoration to scale
The ambition of this restoration programme is to enable a big leap in dryland restoration and make a substantial contribution to halting land degradation in Africa, where an estimated 221 million hectares offer opportunities for restoration.
For the next ten years, the programme envisages to plant 1 million hectares of degraded land for restoration per year, which will benefit an estimated 2 million rural households in 22 African countries. 13 of those countries are located in the Sahel-Sahara regions and 9 countries are situated in the Kalahari-Namib semi-arid areas of Southern Africa.
The programme is based on and will scale up a successful restoration approach tested for five years in the Sahel. Different restoration interventions will be used in agro-sylvo-pastoral ecosystems with varying degrees of aridity and landscapes with diverse land uses and production systems.
In the region, successful practices from past experiences include e.g. traditional rainwater harvesting method of land preparation. The so-called ‘zai’ or half-moon micro-catchments to harvest rainwater in the Sahel has inspired the invention of the Delfino plough to mechanize land preparation and its use for larger scale, more rainwater collection and soil permeability. This preparation retains humidity in the soil, which remains longer after the rains and allows seedlings establishment, their growth and resilience.
Large-scale land preparation, using tractors equipped with the specialized Delfino plough for rainwater catchment and soil permeability, is foreseen in areas where degradation is so severe that natural vegetation will not regenerate on its own, predominantly in arid and semi-arid zones. Such interventions could cover 100 000 hectares per year if one tractor and a plough are made available for each of the 22 countries. It is estimated that 4 000 tons of seeds of high performing native woody and herbaceous fodder species – 3-4 kg per hectare - will need to be mobilized per year.
Other interventions related to more, or less, degraded areas will cover the remaining 900 000 hectares. Those include the fighting of sand encroachment by establishing and protecting native woody and grassy vegetation adapted to sandy and arid environments. This is most likely to be required in hyper-arid zones. In dry sub-humid and semi-arid zones, enrichment planting and natural regeneration, in which farmers protect and manage the natural regeneration of native species, is likely to be the most effective approach.
Traditional fallow systems are used successfully to encourage natural regeneration and fertilization of farmlands in the Sahel, though with shorter rotations of 3 instead of usual 5-6 years. These are considered in the proposal but will be improved to increase outcomes and impact through enrichment planting with selected well-adapted native and useful species that improve land productivity. Those systems and other types of interventions related to more, or less, degraded areas will cover the remaining 900 000 hectares. Those include the fighting of sand encroachment by establishing and protecting native woody and grassy vegetation adapted to sandy and arid environments. This is most likely to be required in hyper-arid zones. In dry sub-humid and semi-arid zones, enrichment planting and natural regeneration, in which farmers protect and manage the natural regeneration of native species, is likely to be the most effective approach.
Non-timber forest products to stimulate economic growth
Most of the traditional uses of plants (food, feed, medicinal, veterinarian, social, cultural, etc.) and of plant products and by-products are supported in the proposal and will be enhanced through proposed value chains and value addition of marketable non-timber forest products for income generation for these low-cash rural communities in the Great Green Wall.
We believe that solving land degradation hinges on economic development. Trees provide a wealth of products and services that are essential to people living in or around forest areas. Action Against Desertification helps rural communities to earn a decent income by developing value chains of non-timber forest products, including gum Arabic, honey, fodder, seeds and seedlings for restoration, and tree oils.
To achieve the programme’s goals and to bring about transformative change, a multi-layered approach to restoration will be used resting on five pillars: enabling environment, capacity development, research and operations on the ground, monitoring and evaluation, knowledge sharing and outreach.
Restoration efforts can only be sustainable if they are embedded in relevant development processes and frameworks, at local, national, regional and global level. Similarly, coordination and collaboration across sectors and stakeholders is vital to achieve diversified agro-ecological systems that support sustainable livelihoods and generate gender-balanced socio-economic benefits in line with the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.
Capacity development will be at the heart of the new restoration programme. Strengthening the technical and functional capacities of individuals, communities and organizations in restoration and sustainable land management is the best way to help communities become self-supporting.
Operations on the ground
Planting the right species in the right place and in the right period are huge technical and research challenges that often define success or failure of restoration operations on the ground. Plant knowledge will be used to prioritise well-adapted species useful to communities and the environment. The road-tested methodologies that were successfully tested in the Sahel, will be used for this programme to support and bring plant knowledge to communities. Efficient land preparation techniques through ploughing for rainwater harvesting (often 400 mm in three months per annum) and soil permeability will be applied at the right time of the seasons to maximize the chance of success for plant survival and growth.
Monitoring and evaluation
The programme will engage in continued monitoring and assessment of its activities in order to plan and assess restoration work and to measure its bio-physical and socio-economic impact. High-resolution imagery will be used to follow restoration interventions on the ground. At the same time, collected data provide a wealth of information for decision-makers and can guide others involved in similar activities.
Action Against Desertification is spearheading a revolution in data gathering. For the first time, it has become possible to get a clear picture of the extent of land degradation in Africa and to measure progress towards land degradation neutrality. In collaboration with a wide array of partners and using ever-improving satellite imagery, ground-breaking analyses of the world’s drylands have taken place, showing, for example, that 221 million hectares of drylands in Africa offer opportunities for restoration.
Knowledge sharing and outreach
Communication will be a core activity of the programme. It aims to raise awareness among target audiences and stakeholders regarding the causes of desertification and land degradation and the measures to combat them, improve resilience to climate change and promote sustainable livelihoods.
Communication also aims to contribute to the long-term sustainability of efforts to combat land degradation and desertification by enhancing political commitment, supporting resource mobilization and fostering the involvement of local communities in AAD activities.
Who will take these actions?
The programme will be developed and implemented by Action Against Desertification in close collaboration with a consortium of key partners and stakeholders, including:
- African Union Commission (AUC) and its member states, working with the Great Green Wall National institutions and agencies – role: co-leading the Great Green Wall initiative;
- Pan-African Agency for the Great Green Wall (PAGGW) – role: co-leading the Great Green Wall initiative and implementation;
- International organizations, including Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), European Union (EU), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), World Bank – role: technical and financial support;
- Research institutes, such as Institut National des Recherches Agricoles (INERA), Burkina Faso, Institut d’Économie Rural, Mali, Forestry Research Institute Nigeria, Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), University of Bonn, University of Gent and national forest seed and tree centres – role: training and plant research support, quality seed supply;
- Community-based and non-governmental organizations, including World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Network for Natural Gum and Resins in Africa (NGARA), l’Observatoire du Sahara et du Sahel (OSS) and World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT) - role: technical advice and support, on the ground implementation.
Where will these actions be taken?
The actions will take place in Africa’s drylands. For the purposes of this project, targeted dryland areas are those that receive around 400 mm of rainfall per year. We focus on two distinct zones of the African continent.
Firstly, actions take place on Action Against Desertification’s ‘ground zero’: arid and semi-arid zones around the Sahara that are part of the Great Green Wall initiative, where 13 countries are targeted: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.
Secondly, our aim is to expand the Great Green Wall initiative to southern Africa, where 9 countries are targeted in the Kalahari-Namib drylands: Angola, Botswana, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South-Africa, Eswatini, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In addition, specify the country or countries where these actions will be taken.
What impact will these actions have on greenhouse gas emissions and/or adapting to climate change?
The programme’s goal of planting 1 million hectares of degraded land for restoration per year for ten years, or 10 million hectares in total, would imply CO2 sequestration of 71.5 million tons. These figures are based on estimates of CO2 equivalent sequestration on sites under restoration by Action Against Desertification in the north of Burkina Faso, three years after planting.
What are other key benefits?
Aiming to restore 1 million hectares of degraded drylands per year and benefit 2 million rural households in 22 African countries, the programme will deliver multiple ecological, economic and social benefits contributing to the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.
Green drylands are good for the environment. They help preserve ecosystems on which life on earth depends. They also generate biomass, which helps to mitigate climate change.
Green drylands tackle hunger and malnutrition. Restoration makes degraded land fertile again. People can grow food there for themselves and for their families. Green drylands are vast expanses of land with the potential to increase food production. This is needed to feed a growing world population.
Green drylands are good for the economy. They have an enormous untapped potential. The economic benefits of restoration, the UN estimates, are ten times higher than the cost. Economic opportunity also means more work, for women and youth for example, who might otherwise be tempted by the perils of migration.
Results of our activities in Burkina Faso show the benefits of developing non-timber forest products. An average of 1 200 kg of herbaceous fodder was harvested on restored plots just one year after planting, generating revenues of USD 40 per hectare, equivalent to half of Burkina’s monthly minimum wage. Honey producers reported additional annual incomes of an average of USD 73, while women making soap from Balanites oil saw their incomes double
Village communities in Senegal generated USD 80 000 with a token system for fodder harvesting on the 4 000 hectares of land they have brought under restoration with Action Against Desertification. Women groups in the same communities are transforming balanites fruits into different products, including edible oil, sold at USD 4 per litre, soap, sold at USD 1.5 per 100g and jam, sold at USD 2 per litre.
Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) activities will contribute to expand the body of knowledge on the world’s dryland. Data gathered under Against Desertification have produced groundbreaking insights into Africa’s drylands and made it possible to get a picture of land degradation and restoration opportunities in Africa for the first time.
As Action Against Desertification is a project of the UN’s FAO, its action will be part of FAO’s efforts to assist the target countries in meeting their international commitments relating to restoration, such as the land degradation neutrality targets of the Sustainable Development Agenda, or the nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement on climate change.
What are the proposal’s projected costs?
Three major barriers have slowed the implementation of the Great Green Wall, including:
(a) Limited technical capacity: work on the ground started with tree plantations with non-adequate species, while land restoration was needed on degraded lands and at agro-sylvo-pastoral landscape. Plant knowledge (flora, biology and propagation techniques) was also limited.
(b) Because no undertaking at such scale has ever existed, it was challenging to set up an appropriate management administration. Countries have different coordination entities (agency or unit) or mainstreamed the programme within 2-3 ministries.
(c) Inadequate investment, often only small part of national budgets are made available.
This proposal will strengthen institutional and technical capacities by making the approach, technologies and plant knowlegde available to communities and administrations, so that the right species are planted in the right place. Support will be also provided to countries and partners to mobilize resources through climate financing.
Restoring 1 000 000 hectares of degraded land at an average of USD 400 per hectare (including land preparation, planting of a mix of trees, shrubs and grasses and maintenance for five years) = USD 400 million over 10 years, or USD 40 million per annum for 22 countries = USD 1.8 million per country, on average per year.
Interventions do not include fencing (due to cost and scale 50-200 ha). However, local households organize themselves for protection of sites. This is a clear demonstration of their interest in restoration. They have created village management committees around the restored plots, which they manage, maintain and where they agree on the use of products.
Negative side effects
There are hardly any negative side effects of restoring degraded drylands. With the right investments, this harsh environment could be turned into a prosperous one, thriving on multiple ecosystem services. Restoration is a viable nature-based solution to several major biophysical and socio-economic challenges facing the drylands. Without action, these challenges will only grow. Severe climatic and social shocks and poor rural infrastructure can constrain the adoption of best practices, raising awareness about the drivers of land degradation among practitioners and policy makers at national, regional and global level.
The major risk for the success of the proposed restoration programme is lack of funding, and particularly the discontinuation of funding at a given moment in time. Other risk factors include poor performance by implementing organizations, lack of ownership at community level, a failure to maintain leadership in key areas of relevant technical operations and ineffective communication, data collection and exchange. Although political instability could be a limiting factor, this programme should live up to such risk as there would not be any reliable alternative for the majority of people living directly from the land.
For the next ten years, the programme envisages to plant 1 million hectares of degraded land for restoration per year, benefitting an estimated 2 million rural households in 22 countries. Thirteen of these countries are located in the Sahel and around the Sahara and nine countries are situated in the Miombo-Mopane landscape of the Kalahari-Namib semi-arid areas of southern Africa.
The short-term impact (1-15 years): will be (i) to catalyse action, support sustainable management and restoration to improve vegetation cover of dryland forests and agro-sylvo-pastoral systems in the countries concerned; and to (ii) stimulate knowledge sharing and south-south cooperation in Africa’s and across dryland regions worldwide. The restoration interventions by 2030 will reach up to 10 million hectares of dryland forests and landscapes, using a community-based approach that will benefit 2 million rural households, strengthening national capacities for implementation and monitoring progress, and establishing networks of village, regional and national level practitioners. The proposal will reinforce value chains of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) for resilient, community-based green businesses, benefiting smallholder farmers.
In the medium-term (15-50 years): as a continuum of the shorter term, the project impact will contribute to the increased productivity of agro-sylvo-pastoral systems through large-scale restoration of degraded lands for smallholder farmers. It will contribute to an improved food security and nutrition and income generation within the frameworks of SDG 1 (i.e. reducing poverty through the provision of a stable source of income for vulnerable smallholder farmers), SDG 2 (i.e. contribution to the eradication of hunger and increasing food security for the project rural beneficiaries - agro-sylvo-pastoral farmers/producers) and SDG 15 (in particular 15.3; by 2030, combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world).
About the author(s)
Dr Moctar Sacande is FAO’s International Project Coordinator for Action Against Desertification, leading and managing the programme in support of the implementation of Africa’s Great Green Wall. He is a plant biologist and senior expert in forest seed and dryland restoration. He has worked on dryland issues related to plant and people for most of his career in both the targeted dryland areas of this restoration proposal in the Kalahari and the Sahel regions. He has devised a resilient land restoration approach, which places communities and plant knowledge at the heart of the interventions, providing technical backing in large scale restoration of degraded lands for small scale farming. He is the Focal person for Africa’s Great Green Wall programme at FAO Headquarters.
Maarten Roest is a writer and international communications expert, author of the communication chapter of the Great Green Wall strategy and dealing with Action Against Desertification’s communications. He has worked extensively and internationally on the Great Green Wall communication material, publications, outreach and knowledge sharing.
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