Investing in Local Communities and Entrepreneurs Offers New Hope for Africa’s Degraded Lands
Sadik Ibn Abdulai grew up in northern Ghana, where he watched his family’s land and those around it slowly turn from lush farmland to desert. Years of overgrazing and unsustainable agricultural methods robbed the soil of its nutrients. Crop yields dropped. Some farmers turned to other activities —like chopping down forest to make charcoal for cooking, or hunting and selling bush meat — to eke out a living. Sadik’s family eventually could no longer afford his school fees, and he dropped out.
Sadik’s story is a familiar one in Africa, where 65% of the continent’s farmland is unproductive, eroded or otherwise degraded. But today, the land Sadik works looks different from the barren farm of his childhood.
In 2015 he founded Tilaa Ltd., a company that helps women farmers in northern Ghana grow cashew trees adapted to the arid climate and keep beehives beneath their shady canopies. Tilaa trains farmers in cultivating cashews and honey, provides them with seedlings and other materials, buys participating growers’ harvests and sells them to neighboring markets.
Once-struggling rural farmers now have reliable incomes. Meanwhile, bright green cashew trees dot formerly sparse fields. Over time, their roots will replenish the soil with nutrients. Their leaves will cool the air and provide feed for animals. And they’ll hold moisture in the ground, creating more stable water supplies for farmers and communities.
Sadik has undoubtedly made his little corner of the world better. A nice story, you might think, but can it really make a continental impact?
In fact, Sadik and other locally led projects like his are exactly what’s needed to revitalize Africa’s landscapes and overcome the triple crises of climate change, ecosystem degradation and poverty.
Africa Faces Extensive Land Degradation
Africa’s once-vibrant landscapes are some of the most threatened on the planet. About 20% of the continent’s land is degraded. Most farms are underproductive due to years of overgrazing, monocropping and other harmful practices, producing a fraction of the food they once did. More than 270 million African people face chronic hunger — one-fifth of the population.
Meanwhile, climate change is exacerbating the situation. Irregular rainfall, prolonged droughts, extreme heat and other erratic weather threaten to upend agricultural systems. Of the 40 countries around the world most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, 27 of them are in Africa.
The Solution Is Local: Learning from the Green Belt Movement and Other Restoration Champions
One might think that Africa’s land and climate crisis demands large-scale solutions. A continent-wide tree-planting campaign led by international NGOs. Government regulation. UN intervention.
But these kinds of sweeping, top-down approaches have been tried in the past, with mixed results. The secret to restoring Africa isn’t big initiatives organized by even bigger organizations. The secret is in engaging, in meaningful ways, the 60% of the continent’s citizens who rely on land for their food and livelihoods.
Nearly 750 million hectares in Africa are ripe for restoration, an area of land the size of Australia. Small-scale farmers, entrepreneurs, cooperatives and community groups are some of the most effective actors in revitalizing it. Research shows that restoration projects that are locally led and managed are 6-20 times more likely to achieve long-term success and bring economic and environmental benefits to communities than those led by international NGOs or national governments.
Africa’s greatest restoration success story — the Green Belt Movement, founded by my mother and 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai — is testament to the power of local communities in revitalizing landscapes.
Back in the 1970s, rural Kenyan women faced shared hardships. Once-plentiful streams were drying up, while food and firewood were becoming scarce. The Green Belt Movement organized 4,000 community organizations throughout Kenya — small groups led mainly by women — to grow 50 million trees. Those trees reduced erosion by holding soil in place, stored rainwater, and provided food and fuel. They transformed not just landscapes, but lives.
The Green Belt Movement continues in Kenya today, more than four decades later. And we’re seeing similar local restoration champions emerge throughout the continent.
Take the Albertine Rift Conservation Society (ARCOS), founded by Dr. Sam Kanyamibwa: The organization works with thousands of smallholder farmers in Rwanda to restore eroded and degraded landscapes. The non-profit trains farmers in more sustainable practices — such as building terraces to avoid landslides in the country’s mountainous terrain — and planting trees on farms to hold soil in place. Since 1995, more than 40,000 farmers have planted 7 million trees while boosting crop yields and preventing dangerous mudslides.
There’s also Jane Maigua, Charity Ndegwa and Loice Maina, co-founders of Exotic EPZ. The small business works with 4,500 farmers in 12 Kenyan counties to plant 196,000 macadamia nut and native trees. Nut harvests provide steady income for farmers, while the trees themselves improve the land and soils and sequester greenhouse gases.
Restoration looks different depending on where you are in the continent. After all, Africa’s landscapes are as diverse as its communities. Sometimes restoration means adopting more environmentally friendly farming practices like growing a variety of crops and native plants instead of single crops to improve soil health. Other times it means growing trees on farms (agroforestry) to hold soil in place or on grazing land (silvopasture) to provide shade for animals. It could also mean reforesting deforested areas or helping them recover on their own.
Regardless of what it looks like, restoration is already happening throughout Africa, and it’s already boosting incomes, replenishing soils, and reducing vulnerability to climate change.
But it's not happening fast enough or on a large enough scale.
Local Farmers Can Save Africa’s Lands, but They Need Global Support
There are already inspiring restoration champions throughout Africa — like Sadik, Sam, Jane, Charity and Loice. But what we need are farmers in virtually every county, district or ward in every country restoring their land. We need a local restoration movement bolstered by global support.
Despite the demonstrable success of Africa’s local restoration champions, the world has yet to invest in them by providing the necessary finance, policies, capacity and monitoring systems. For example, from 2011 to 2020, less than 1% of overseas development aid reached local communities.
WRI’s Restore Local project aims to change that by accelerating the AFR100 movement, an initiative to bring 100 million hectares of Africa’s degraded lands under restoration by 2030. But the millions of smallholder farmers who will power this movement will need the support of governments, development banks, investors, NGOs and others to fully engage in restoration and reap its benefits.
Creating a continental restoration movement will require:
- Capacity-building: Africa’s small farmers need the knowledge, training and tools to adopt restoration techniques or create restoration-focused businesses. NGO-led programs like the Land Accelerator can help, but demand far outpaces supply.
- More Finance: Roughly 75% of small- and medium-sized agroforestry and restoration businesses can’t access traditional finance due to high interest rates or unrealistic repayment periods. Community organizations also struggle to attract consistent and flexible finance. Growing trees — and realizing their benefits — takes time, which is out of sync with conventional loans and other financing mechanisms. WRI has already funded 100 of these champions and is financing more through its TerraFund for AFR100 project, but thousands more need help.
- Supportive Policies: While 33 African nations have set restoration targets through the AFR100 initiative, there’s not yet enough government funding or supportive policies to encourage better land management practices. Connecting leaders through programs like the Landscape Policy Accelerator and Landscape Monitoring Accelerator can lead to the creation of new policies — and tweak existing laws — to help farmers.
- Monitoring Progress: Tracking the growth of trees and their socioeconomic impact informs what works in different locations, cultures and climates. Lack of access to monitoring tools like satellites, drones and standard techniques for collecting data from the field hinders the ability of local communities to verify impact and secure funding.
We know that local farmers, entrepreneurs and communities hold the potential to fully restore Africa’s degraded lands. But they can’t do it without the right tools, platforms and resources. All of us — from governments to investors to NGOs — have a role to play in empowering Africa’s restoration champions to get the job done.
Let’s get to work.