OPINION: Want to heal Africa’s degraded land? Go local


IN Kenya and Niger, the countries that we call home, the land is hurting. Across Africa, land degradation is threatening the health of 1 billion people, eroding opportunity just as it erodes the soil. That crisis is compounded by the impact of COVID-19, which could push a further 49 million people into extreme poverty.

But this is not the future that we foresee for Africa’s vital landscapes. We see thousands of communities healing forests, farms, and pasture across 100 million hectares of land, an area the size of Egypt, by 2030.

What makes us believe in this bright future? First, African countries have already made high-level political commitments to restore those 100 million hectares through the AFR100 Initiative. Some have even developed national plans for restoration.

Second, investors increasingly understand that restoring landscapes is a nature-based solution that pays off, providing $7-30 in benefits for every $1 invested. At the One Planet Summit in January, they committed over $14 billion USD to restore the Sahel through the Great Green Wall.

Political and financial mobilization is important. But the magic that can restore Africa’s degraded farms, forests, and pasture is in the millions of local champions across the continent, especially youth and women.

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We need to help them bring back water, food, income, and energy to their homes. That’s the lesson we can learn from Nobel Prize laureate Wangari Maathai: The only way to restore 100 million hectares of land is by empowering thousands of local communities. So how can we do it?

Invest in Local Leaders

As the desert creeps South, people across the dry Sahel have fought to stop it. In Niger and Burkina Faso, thousands of farmers have regreened more than 5 million hectares of farmland. Sometimes, those local leaders don’t speak English or French and work largely without help from foreign development assistance. But they need serious donor funding and private investment to create lasting change.

Who are they? Champion famers like Yacouba Sawadogo from Burkina Faso work with their neighbors to capture water in the soil, grow trees without harming the soil, and graze livestock without degrading grasslands. And government officials like Mary Mbenge In Kenya’s Makueni County have made restoration a major development priority.

Invest in Young People

In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of rural youth is expected to double by 2050. Many of them see agriculture as a profitable activity. But they need training, mentorship, and serious investment to turn their visions into real change. Entrepreneurs like South African entrepreneur Siyabulela Sokomani and his native tree nursery are creating jobs and opportunity.

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He and hundreds of others need connections with investors and tools to scale up locally-led action. Government programs also have a role to play. Malawi’s Youth Forest Landscape Restoration Programme is investing  $2 million USD to employ young people to restore 50,000 hectares. In its first 18 months, the program hired more than 11,000 people from nearly 500 youth groups.

Invest in Tracking Progress

What you can’t measure, you can’t manage. In the long-term, tracking restoration progress is a win-win. Governments and investors can show that they are fulfilling their restoration pledges. Quick progress reports also give local communities the recognition they deserve for their hard work: Recent research “found” over 1.8 billion trees growing across the dry Sahel, showing that where people live, trees thrive.

Researchers and funders can equip restoration leaders with the skills and tools that they need to create and manage their own data and prove their impact. Because they have personal knowledge of the surrounding areas, local people are in the best position to put raw data in the right context. Then, they can tweak their approach to restore more land.

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Hundreds of Healthy Landscapes

The legacy of Wangari Maathai lives on in the ambitious local leaders and young people that are leading Africa’s restoration movement. From mapping experts to entrepreneurs and youth activists, these leaders need support. Their vision may seem like a dream, but so did Wangari Maathai’s when she started her quest.  Let’s honor her legacy by dreaming big – and acting even more ambitiously.

By Wanjira Mathai, vice president and regional director for Africa at the World Resources Institute, and Salima Mahamoudou, research associate for Africa Forest team within the Food, Forest, and Water programme at the World Resources Institute

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