The land breathes life into African economies and their people. Where farms and forests thrive, prosperity reigns. When mangroves and pastures collapse into dust, poverty and hunger follow.

The accumulation of decades of damage is difficult to comprehend: 65% of the continent’s farmland struggles to yield crops; more than 270 million people face chronic hunger; and many countries have lost more than 90% of their forests. This devastation is only accelerating: In 2022, Africa lost 3.46 million hectares of tree cover, the most recorded since 2000 according to Global Forest Watch. But there is hope. Restoring that land can bring prosperity to communities and nature. Every $1 spent can bring $7 to $30 in economic benefits.

Still, only 3% of global finance for biodiversity goes to Africa, despite impressive pledges from governments and the private sector to invest. When organizations do receive funding, it’s often either too small to make a difference or comes in only after years of failure. The system privileges the largest organizations, those with an established international presence and past funders that can vouch for them. That leaves little for local groups led by farmers, herders, and their neighbors – even though they are 6 to 20 times more effective at managing land than large organizations that swoop in and out of their communities.

In 2021, that changed, when six funders led by the Bezos Earth Fund made a deliberate choice to fund local groups and capitalized TerraFund for AFR100, a coalition of WRI, One Tree PlantedRealize Impact and Barka Fund. We would launch an open call for proposals across the continent, vet every single applicant according to standard criteria, fund the 100 best with $50,000 to $500,000, learn with them, and show what it would look like to build a support system around what we call, “restoration champions.”

Two years, 27 countries, and $15 million in investment later, the cohort has grown 12.5 million trees, paid 36,000 people to work and benefitted 202,000 more people. Here is what we learned.

1) Build A Large, Diverse Project Pipeline

Most nature investors take a cautious approach, funding one large, multimillion-dollar project at a time. But this model doesn’t work in an early-stage industry where organizations are still testing the best models. That approach won’t make a sizeable dent in the climate change challenge or restore once bountiful land to productivity.  

All projects should adhere to industry standards that protect people, nature and the climate. But within those guiding principles is a diverse array of solutions specific to each landscape. Two projects in East Africa provide a helpful contrast. Exotic EPZ in Kenya is a macadamia nut processing company, working with 9,000 farmers to grow these exotic trees in sustainable agroforestry systems, collecting the nutritious nuts, packaging them and then exporting them to Europe and the Middle East, where they fetch a high price.

With a low-interest loan from TerraFund, Exotic EPZ expanded their processing capacity and sourcing network, putting more money directly into farmers’ pockets. Meanwhile, the dry landscape and the climate benefit as the drought-resistant Macadamia trees help preserve water and soil and act as a large carbon sink.

Jane Maigua and her colleagues use trees to put money in farmers’ pockets at Exotic EPZ.

Further south in Malawi, Wells for Zoë is working with thousands of community members to expand their community-run nurseries, stocked with millions of trees native to the fragile Miombo woodland. Skyrocketing demand for charcoal devastated this once vibrant ecosystem. But when communities cut down the trees, erosion, landslides and deadly floods followed. By reforesting entire mountains with the native species, Wells for Zoë is protecting the region’s biodiversity — and communities that live in the foothills.

Aerial view of plots at Wells for Zoe.
Wells for Zoë is in the business of growing indigenous trees at a massive scale. Credit: Kevin Dalferth/ Wells for Zoë

To meet the multiple goals within each landscape, every commodity-focused export company like Exotic EPZ should be complemented with biodiversity-loving community-based organizations like Wells for Zoë.

2) Invest in Local Leaders

Identifying visionary entrepreneurs and community leaders who found and nurture these organizations are what make small organizations capable of real investment.

For example, take Nicholas Syano the executive director of Drylands Natural Resources Centre (DNRC), an organization rooted in the people and culture of Makueni County, Kenya. Syano started the Centre in 2007 with a vision of restoring a sense of cultural pride among his people and restoring the damaged ecosystems at the center of their traditions. DNRC provides farmers with training on agroforestry and financial support in the form of long-term credit so that they can better manage their natural resources.

Tending to saplings at Drylands Natural Resources Center.
Drylands Natural Resources Center is building a restoration movement in Kenya’s Makueni County, farmer by farmer. Credit: DNRC/TerraFund for AFR100

Syano started by engaging the farmers immediately neighboring the Centre’s modest headquarters, teaching and learning from each of them about their challenges — lowering crop yields, uncertain water supplies and a desire for more training — and built a program that has planted more than 100,000 drought-resistant trees. When the Centre brings a new farmer on board, they start with the neighbor of the last farmer they engaged, building a tight-knit community consensus around restoration — and making it more likely that the planted trees stay in the ground.

Syano’s clear vision of an ecologically, economically and culturally vibrant community, and his willingness to learn new techniques and then share his experience with others, made his TerraFund application stand out.

Identifying leaders like Syano is important for establishing long-term restoration efforts. However, the system isn’t foolproof: Five out of 100 projects are no longer active. One champion has gone bankrupt, and four more operate in countries where political unrest has halted operations. Some failure is inevitable when investing in an asset class as dynamic as African forests and agriculture. But, to put it into context, only 7% of early-stage companies that graduate from the Silicon Valley tech accelerator Y Combinator succeed —in a market flush with funding and technical assistance.

TerraFund’s multistage vetting process mitigates the risk of failure and identifies the champions most likely to succeed. When every organization receives three independent reviews from restoration and financial experts, an additional screening from the local government, a virtual interview and a check on their proposed project area, the likelihood of success rises.

3) Creative Finance Benefits Restoration Organizations

Roughly 75% of small- and medium-sized agricultural businesses across Africa can’t access traditional finance. High interest rates on loans of 20% or more, unreasonable demands for collateral when the loans are issued and low valuations for equity investments make accessing finance costly. While most enterprises have a history of receiving grants, the market makes it almost impossible for them to access the significant capital available from private investors.

Community non-profits also struggle to attract consistent and flexible finance. The grantmaking requirements of government donors and institutional investors are prohibitive for local organizations like DNRC that do great work but still need time to grow. The catch: They need upfront finance to build stronger organizations. And even when they do jump through the hoops of investment, the years-long process of negotiation, contracting and fund disbursement processes delay planting and monitoring.

TerraFund closes this gap by funding dozens of organizations at once, giving the ambitious but less experienced organizations a real shot at finance — and purposefully coming in as the first investor. In Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, many organizations struggle to attract funding as ongoing political instability and violence scare off investment. But champions like Climate Change Africa Opportunities (CCAO) need support. CCAO and its founder Trésor Badisungu have mobilized communities to grow 185,000 trees in 8 years with almost no outside investment. After receiving a grant through TerraFund and inspiring the community to restore more land, TerraFund was able to provide CCAO a second grant to plant another 100,000 trees in the critical Congo Basin ecosystem.

Woman with vegetation at Climate Change Africa Opportunities.
In Eastern DRC, local organizations like Climate Change Africa Opportunities build community in struggling landscapes. Credit: Climate Change Africa Opportunities/TerraFund for AFR100

For for-profit organizations that restore land and make a profit, funding is even more customized. These businesses receive low-interest loans, paying TerraFund back a small amount of interest from the first month. To date, TerraFund has recuperated $600,000 of its $3 million in loan capital, only slightly behind schedule, thanks to close partnerships with its borrowers. Then, it revolves 99% of that capital back to those same champions when they are ready to expand.

Recently, TerraFund extended a second loan to Shekina Enterprise, a Rwandan company that processes cassava leaves into powered isombe, a nutritious staple food in the local cuisine. After the company filed their impact reports and kept up their loan repayments, founder Pierre Damien Mbatezimana requested another loan to purchase machinery that can boost their processing capacity. After a simple financial analysis showed the company could take on the new loan and successfully pay it back, a new contract for funding was signed. The best part: Not a single additional dollar needed to be raised.

Shekina Enterprise hires local young people to work in its isombe factory.

This commitment to create the right investment terms has led to an adjustable approach to lending. While 8% loans (in U.S. dollars) were attractive, many borrowers struggled to pay on time every month, as market prices for their crops fluctuated. So, TerraFund renegotiated the terms of several loans, extending the length of repayment, agreeing to a temporary pause during downturns or covering the cost of rising inflation. Loans can now also be taken in local currency in countries where inflation is manageable, a rarity in the impact investing space.

The financial innovations continue apace. TerraFund now purchases shares of promising companies through equity investments, establishing their market value, and closely advising them as they grow.

There’s still significant progress to make on helping enterprises and non-profits access market-oriented finance, such as guaranteed offtake contracts and responsible carbon credits, to ensure that they can continue to work as grants dry up. But by customizing offers to each champion (and demonstrating their impact), conventional investors, local financial institutions and corporate donors will be able to see the potential for restoration investments.

4) The Importance of Monitoring and Verification

Once the project is funded and the trees start to grow, monitoring and verifying  outcomes are important. Not all tree-planting campaigns succeed, and the news media has highlighted several prominent examples of failing projects. But there is little publicly available information that shows which projects are working and why; this crucial information is either hidden in 100-page donor reports or squirreled away in spreadsheets on business owners’ hard drives.

By investing in a standard framework for regularly collecting information, checking its accuracy and then communicating insights and trends,  businesses and organizations will be equipped with verified data to show their impact to additional funders – and ensure that failing projects can rectify their mistakes. Measuring progress can also spotlight farmers and others who have restored their land with little external help. 

TerraFund: How we monitor, report and verify.
TerraFund’s monitoring process follows a set of steps to collect and check data.

The real challenge comes with operationalizing it across hundreds of  enterprises, working across ecosystems from agroforests to mangroves. The organization’s willingness to learn by working with TerraFund has led to dozens of monitoring improvements, rooting it directly in the experience and feedback of communities (while maintaining independence). The secret to this collaboration and honesty is simple: Each organization is paid to actively monitor their sites for six years.

Janvier Hitimana is a case in point. As a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager with the Albertine Rift Conservation Society (ARCOS), a leading organization in Africa’s restoration movement that has grown 7.2 million trees across 30,000 hectares in the last 14 years, he creates detailed boundaries of each of ARCOS’s dozens of planting sites in Rwanda. He has partnered with the TerraFund monitoring team to refine its techniques for collecting this data and presented his recommendations to hundreds of the world’s leading geospatial data experts.

Aerial map of geospatial polygons (left) and farmers doing local restoration.
Collecting geospatial polygons isn’t easy. Some projects, like the Albertine Rift Conservation Society, have dozens of sites. Credit: Serrah Galos/WRI (left) and ARCOS/TerraFund for AFR100 (right)

But for every Janvier, there are dozens of organizations that have no experience with monitoring and verification. That is why we need to empower leaders like Janvier, who is now training TerraFund champions in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to pass on his knowledge and build a community of practice.

The next step is to improve independent verification techniques to more accurately assess TerraFund champions’ outcomes —and then communicate the good and the bad to the world.

Funding Hundreds of Champions in Target Landscapes

TerraFund for AFR100 is showing that local champions can reverse Africa’s decades of degradation. They can take funding, turn it into trees and report on their progress. Through Restore Local, WRI will help champions rebuild Africa’s economies around the principles  of restoration, concentrating our resources to invest in and train local organizations in three landscapes: Kenya’s Greater Rift Valley of Kenya, the Lake Kivu and Rusizi River Basin of Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Ghana Cocoa Belt.

Greater Rift Valley of Kenya

Lake Kivu & Rusizi River Basin​

Ghana Cocoa Belt​

And we’re starting with a new TerraFund cohort. Through a rigorous, six-month process, we evaluated more than 600 funding applications. We are now investing $17.8 million in the 92 most promising organizations, which will start growing trees this month.

This is just the start: We will invest in hundreds more projects in these landscapes and the adjoining areas through 2026, connecting these organizations with trainers, with each other, and with government agencies to unlock billions of dollars in finance for communities. With enough support, Africa’s restoration champions can break the cycle of degradation and bring prosperity to millions of people. It’s our duty to believe in their work – and track its impact.

If you are interested in supporting TerraFund for AFR100, reach out to us at

TerraFund for AFR100’s financial partners include the Bezos Earth Fund, The Audacious Project, DOEN Foundation, Good Energies Foundation, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, AKO Foundation, Caterpillar Foundation, and Meta.