• Kees Kibinda

The Great Green Wall of Africa and Ancient Farming

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

In Africa's Sahel region, a group of countries has decided to combat desertification of the land and even win back arable land successfully using old farming techniques.




In 2016 Africa had to come to terms with El Niño. El Niño caused severe droughts in sub Saharan Africa, which destroyed the livelihoods of farmers as their crops yielded a bad result because of it. This got me thinking; I mean there is a region from the West to the East of Africa called the Sahel region which has been dealing with droughts from as far back as the 1980s. I was pretty sure that the people in this region were finding ways of feeding their population by adapting their farming methods, so I decided to have a closer look.


The Sahel region is a massive piece of land which is 1000 kilometers wide and has a span of 5400 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean reaching the Red Sea. It covers the following countries: Senegal, Mauritania, Central Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Ethiopia.


Now in the 1980s, around the same time that these droughts started happening, a president rose in one of these Sahel regions that was enigmatic, charismatic and had a vision. Normally when there is a coup, it brings a leader that is sort of imposed on the people. That leader is usually not well loved or liked. But this was not the case as this leader was loved by the people and in fact the coup was supported by the common folk.


This Coup leader changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso which loosely translates to Land of the Upright men in Dyula. This leader that I am talking about is none other than Thomas Sankara. If you ask me, this country’s name symbolises the ideology that Thomas Sankara lived by.


Sadly, his reign was short lived because he was assassinated 4 years into his rule by his closest confidant and best friend Blaise Compaoré. But during those 4 years he made sure that he made a very big impact on his country. You see, he refused aid from countries and worked hard at making the country self-sustainable. To be able to do that he had to make sure that they were able to produce their own food. Sounds simple right?


Well it was not that easy as there were a lot of feuding warlords at the time that owned most of the land in Burkina Faso and they were not really taking care of, or utilising the land. Thomas Sankara took that land from them and redistributed it amongst the locals and set up a wheat growing scheme. Wheat production doubled within a space of no time; enabling the country to become self-sufficient indeed.


That is not the only environmental thing that he did. He also managed to halt further desertification of land in his country by planting more than 10 million trees. Don’t forget, he only ruled for 4 years which means that he foresaw the planting of 2.5 million trees per year. But that is not where is vision ended because he wanted to halt further desertification for the whole Sahel region and this plan became known as The Great Green Wall Initiative.

This initiative was first suggested in the 1980s and the idea of it sort of petered out and seemed to be taken from this earth in a fashion similar to Thomas Sankara’s death until it suddenly re-emerged in 2005 by a man that is currently enjoying his second spell as President of Nigeria; namely Mr Buhari.


The Great Green Wall Initiative simply makes sure that the land is arable again to allow people to grow their crops, as well as ensuring that there is a forest etc. 11 countries are in on this initiative, namely Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Sudan and Chad.


Fighting desertification is all well and good, but how is it done? There was not really any explanation provided on that in the articles that I had read on this topic. To get an idea of how it is done, I decided to read how Burkina Faso had tackled desertification under Thomas Sankara’s rule.


The method they used is an approach called Zai. Basically, what is done in this method is that people use a shovel or axe to break open the ground and dig a hole. They will proceed to fill that freshly dug hole with compost as well as tree seeds or millet and sorghum seeds. During the rainy season that hole gets filled up with water and for the rest of the year there is enough moisture + nutrients to grow whatever is in there.


I was certain that this could not be the only method to help make land fertile again. Sure enough, when I dug a little deeper (pun intended), I found out about this other ancient method that was being used in Liberia and Ghana. With this method they use waste from the kitchen and mix it with charcoal, which they proceed to throw onto the soil. It becomes carbon rich and very dark. This soil that comes out of this process is dubbed African Dark Earths.


Nicholas Ings found another way to make land fertile again. His tactic involves using earth worms to fix the soil. The earth worms eat the soil and their excretion is called vermicast. This process takes about 3 months depending on the temperature, humidity and amount of earth worms. Nicholas Ings’ customers mainly grow macadamia trees, but of course vermicast can be used for all kinds of crops. The company sells the vermicast in 40 liter bags and sells them for about $7,50 per bag with one bag servicing about 20 trees.


Today’s main message is that modern farming has been focusing too much on growing the plant; forgetting that it is the soil that brings the needed nutrients and therefore the soil needs to be treated and nurtured as well. Luckily enough, there are ancient methods that replenish the soil to the extend that we have the tools to fight climate change, but it is up to us to make sure that this can indeed happen. Don’t let drought stop you from farming; get up, go out there and plant your seeds. Just dig in first.




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