Can the Great Green Wall save the Sahel?

Two-thirds of the way into a hugely ambitious project to green the Sahel, even its staunchest proponents admit that far too little progress has been made, with just 4% planted so far. Can countries turn the tide?


Image : Sevgart / Wikimedia Commons

In the desert scrub of northern Senegal, seven hours’ drive from the capital Dakar, a quiet transformation is underway. In a fenced-off 1,000-hectare nature reserve, oryx, tortoises, monkeys and migratory birds have returned after a long absence, to the delight of Senegalese and French researchers. So too has a dizzying array of insects not seen in the dusty Ferlo desert in decades.

A few miles away is a string of community gardens, where women are paid to grow an array of vegetables, including lettuces, aubergines and tomatoes. Come harvest time, they can take them home to feed their families or to the market to turn a profit. That makes a big difference here, where most households subsist on millet and milk.

“It works well, everyone has work here,” says Samba Sall, agriculture officer at one garden in Koyli Alpha, a tiny village on the edge of Senegal’s Sahel region. Stretching across the width of Africa under the blistering Sahara desert, the Sahel is one of the world’s harshest places.

Local pastoralists from the Peul ethnic group get some benefit too; in especially hot and arid years, when their herds of goats and cows are in danger of starving, the gardens hand over grass stockpiled during more temperate years. Without that olive branch, experts say, some herders would tear down garden fences and send their livestock in.

Around Widou, another low-slung dusty village that elders say was once surrounded by tall trees, saplings planted by volunteers in 2008 now are now 10-feet high trees.

Cattle grazing in arid landscape.
Cattle belonging to Peul nomads graze in the arid conditions of northern Senegal. (Photo: frank boyer / Adobe Stock)

These relatively successful, small-scale projects do not stand alone. Rather they are part of Senegal’s contribution to perhaps the most audacious environmental project the world has ever seen: a 4,831-mile belt of vegetation, stretching the breadth of Africa from Senegal on the Atlantic Ocean to Djibouti on the Red Sea by 2030. This vast project is intended to fight climate change, boost food security, reduce conflict and migration and create millions of local jobs. Its name: the Great Green Wall.

Two-thirds of the way into the project, though, even its staunchest proponents admit that far too little progress has been made, with just 4% of a targeted 100m hectares planted so far. In northern Senegal, the projects offer hyper-local solutions rather than a silver bullet. Nevertheless, advocates insist it could still revamp the Sahel’s ailing economies and put food on millions of tables.

The struggle to halt desertification

But with the region now beset by major economic shocks, including the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the worsening impacts of climate change, is their optimism misguided? Fifteen years into the audacious programme, many are starting to wonder whether Africa will ever see its Great Green Wall.

The wall was originally conceived in 2007 by the African Union and regional governments as an ambitious plan to beat back the advance of the Sahara’s desert sands – amid fears of widespread desertification in the once-verdant Sahel. But the idea dates all the way back to the 1970s, when successive droughts fuelled calls for a bold solution from newly independent nations, particularly in West Africa.

Although the project has secured backing from the European Union, the African Union, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, it remains an African-led initiative, with each of the participating countries – Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti – coordinating their own planting projects with the help of NGOs. The first seeds, hardy and drought resistant acacias in Senegal, were sown in Widou in 2008.

If things were bad in the 1970s, they are even more perilous today. In recent decades overgrazing, poor farming practices and climate change have degraded much of the Sahel’s arable land, turning it to miles of red scrubland. In broad swaths the fertile topsoil has disappeared, perhaps for good. Cattle herders go after the few remaining trees to feed their large herds, degrading the landscape even further and threatening agricultural productivity, food security and fragile livelihoods. Indeed, across the region around 80% of land is believed to have been seriously degraded in recent decades.

In sub-Saharan Africa today, an estimated 500m people live on land undergoing desertification. It is particularly rough in the Sahel, where millions in dusty villages are short of food and economic opportunity. In northern Senegal, which is less desperate than hard-to-reach areas in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, young men are forced to travel many miles by donkey cart in search of water.

A bold vision

That is where the Great Green Wall comes in. Originally conceived as a solid belt of vegetation running through 11 countries, but since transformed into a “mosaic” of interlocking agricultural, wildlife and reforestation programmes, the Great Green Wall project hopes to restore 250m acres of degraded land across the impoverished region. If completed, such a network could sequester some 250m tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, meaningfully fighting climate change in Africa, which is bearing the brunt of a warming globe. It would also create an impressive 10m green jobs, according to its founders.

“The Great Green Wall programme is the key response to the climate crisis,” says Georges Bazongo, director of programmes at the NGO Tree Aid, which is involved in Great Green Wall projects across the region.

The secondary effects could be even more transformational, advocates say. By lifting millions out of poverty and guaranteeing food security, the project could ease conflict and violence in the Sahel, which has become a locus in the war on terror. It could also stop tens of thousands of men – mostly young – from attempting dangerous crossings to Europe.

Millions of trees would create new microclimates, encouraging rainfall, which could reinvent agriculture in the region. The scheme could boost biodiversity in the Sahel, making the region a hub for scientific research in fields from soil microbiology and anthropology to botany.

And, by curbing terrorism, creating jobs, increasing food supply and alleviating poverty, the Great Green Wall could be a shot in the arm for weary Sahelian economies, which have seen their growth hit by violent insurgencies, commodity price hikes and global economic shocks. Today the countries of the region, particularly the so-called G5 countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, are seeing poverty worsen – but lack the economic growth and political stability to turn the tide.

Furthermore, Chad, Niger and Mali rank among the world’s seven countries most vulnerable to climate change. With the Sahel’s population expected to double to 160m people over the next 20 years, countries will need to accelerate growth and prioritise climate adaptation, economists say.

Faltering progress

Everything seems to be in place for the Great Green Wall to succeed: political will from 11 African governments; billions pledged in funding; rising levels of local support; and hundreds of NGOs and volunteers eager to put their names to the world’s most ambitious climate project. And yet the programme’s progress since 2008 makes for grim reading.

According to a 2021 progress update, just 4% of the Great Green Wall has been completed. In countries riven with conflict and violence, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, where vast swaths are overrun with militants, the work has not really started. Chad has planted 1.1m saplings, despite reportedly being among the largest recipients of project funding. Senegal, a frontrunner since the start, has reforested more than 90,000 acres, planting an estimated 12m saplings, according to official statistics, but there are concerns about how many of them have survived in their harsh desert surroundings since 2008, particularly those in areas frequented by nomadic herders.

There are some signs of genuine progress. Migratory birds and mammals are coming back to long-abandoned regions. French and African researchers talk up the potential for tangible scientific advances as a direct result of the Great Green Wall.

Some of the trees being planted offer a lifeline to poor local populations. The Acacia Senegal tree, for instance, can be harvested for gum arabic, a stabiliser used in fizzy drinks, sweets and drugs. The desert date, Balanites Aegyptiaca, has many uses, including cooking oil, traditional medicine and cosmetics.

A local farmer sits below a tree in Niger.
A farmer sits in the shade of a tree in the Great Green Wall site in Simiri, about 100km north of Niamey, Niger. (Photo: BOUREIMA HAMA / AFP)

Mauritania has emerged as another leading light in the programme, experts say, while Ethiopia, which started reforestation efforts before many of its peers, had reportedly planted an impressive 5.5bn seedlings in 151,000 hectares of new forest by 2021.

But serious challenges remain, chief among them access to project financing. French President Emmanuel Macron might two years ago have pledged an additional €14bn in multilateral funding, adding to the billions already promised, but NGOs and researchers say that, to date, the money has not arrived.

Without proper funding, the project will be all talk, says Haidar El Ali, the former director of Senegal’s Great Green Wall agency. He is exasperated at the project’s lack of progress. “The Great Green Wall can’t be fast or good because the big organisations don’t really help. They do a study, they do a conference, but nothing on the land,” he says. “Big organisations are not the solution. The solution is local.”

Meanwhile, since each participating nation has its own closely-guarded Great Green Wall budget, overseen by a specialised agency, it is not clear how much has been spent and on what since 2008. According to a 2021 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, countries claimed to have spent just $200m on the Great Green Wall since the project began, a pittance given the scale of its ambition and the billions pledged towards it.

In Senegal’s Ferlo desert, poor access to water and scant rainfall mean some projects never get off the ground. Around Widou, Great Green Wall projects use groundwater pumping stations built by the French in the 1950s, before Senegal won independence from France. They are desperately in need of an update. When African Business visited, frustrated women sat under the shade of trees, surrounded by parched ground and unable to plant without any water.

Time to step up

Two years ago, in a progress update, ministers and UN officials claimed that the project was responsible for 350,000 new jobs and $90m in revenue. Overall, countries claimed to have planted 4m hectares between 2011 and 2021. But to achieve the 2030 target more than twice that area will need to be restored every year, at an estimated cost of $4.3bn annually.

Fierce proponents of the project say any progress on re-greening the Sahel is cause for celebration. Yet if the project is to meaningfully tackle terrorism, climate change, poverty, hunger and dangerous migration in the coming decade, progress must be stepped up, and fast.

There is also an economic imperative, with fragile economies across the region in the doldrums having suffered the dual economic hammer blows of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, both of which sent the price of imported food and fuel skyrocketing. The stresses came as the region was already contending with political instability, economic fragility and extreme weather, further impacting some of the world’s poorest households.

“Africa’s high incidence of food insecurity is rooted in a combination of structural challenges such as fragility, climate change, environmental degradation, high levels of poverty and low agricultural productivity,” Ellysar Baroudy, lead natural resources management specialist for the Africa region at the World Bank, told African Business in a statement. “The Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war have added to the vulnerabilities, leading to dire consequences on Africa’s food security.”

She added: “In some countries, the prices of oil, rice, sugar, wheat, and other processed imports have already risen between 20 to 50%. An increase in the price of fertilisers triggered by the war also threatens the lingering food security crisis. Over 32m people are already in acute food and nutrition insecurity in West Africa and more will be added if no action is taken.”

A glance at the state of the Sahelian economies underscores that need. Burkina Faso’s economy is largely based on agriculture, although gold exports have proven a useful counterweight. Still, more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. That puts the West African country, which has endured two coups since last January, 184th out of 191 countries in the Human Development Index compiled by the United Nations.

Even as the economy started to rebound from the pandemic in 2021, low rainfall led to a 4.1% decline in the all-important agriculture sector. And the World Bank predicts that falling investment in mining, chronic insecurity and the Russia-Ukraine war will continue to slow real GDP growth.

Mali, run by a military junta and under sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is faring even worse than its troubled neighbour. Covid-19, poor agricultural performance and political crisis pushed the Malian economy into a recession in 2020. While GDP growth rebounded slightly to 3.1% in 2021, it is expected to have fallen to a disappointing 2.1% in 2022 due to the effects of sanctions. Cotton, cereal and gold output could lift growth in 2023 with strong commodity prices, according to economists, but high food and energy prices could wipe out those gains.

Even Senegal, a bastion of stability in the region, is seeing its economic recovery undermined by the conflict in Ukraine, which is set to hit consumption and investment because of high energy and food prices. Discoveries of impressive oil and gas reserves could offer a boon, but energy projects are not expected to contribute to state coffers until 2035.

A perfect storm?

With climate change gathering pace, the embattled Sahel is heading towards a perfect storm. The region has barely contributed to the climate crisis, but it is feeling the effects. In fact the Sahel is thought to have warmed by 1°C since 1970, nearly twice the global average.

A track on the edge of the desert in northwestern Senegal. (Image: Erwin Barbé / Adobe Stock)

So could the Great Green Wall, despite its lack of progress, help the region’s hard-up economies ease the effects of climate change and drag millions out of poverty?

Baroudy is bullish. “We need transformative interventions that build the resilience of ecosystems, empower people, and contribute to sustainable economies. The Great Green Wall provides these solutions and that is why the World Bank has committed to invest $5.6bn between 2020 and 2025,” she says.

“Through this commitment, around 60 projects will be implemented in a diversity of sectors that together, promote sustainable development: agriculture productivity, climate resilient infrastructure, land restoration, and value-chain and local markets, and empowerment to equip farmers, women, and youth with the right skills.”

The projects, they claimed, “will create corridors of growth where jobs are created, activities diversified, and revenue generated.”

Visits by African Business to farms, reserves and planting zones in northern Senegal support the notion that the Great Green Wall can be transformative at the very local level. But if it is to drag regional economies out of the doldrums, that will not be enough. Instead, meaningful action must be taken on a vast scale to revive the flatlining programme, including the delivery of pledged funds and greater oversight of how the money is spent.

Despite the scant progress to date, the project’s proponents, inspired above all by its audacity, retain the optimism that has characterised the project from its onset. “We need to break the poverty cycle,” says Bazongo. “So let us start somewhere and keep this ambition and I am sure that by 2030, maybe we will not reach the targets, but we will start to change things.”

Want to continue reading? Subscribe today.

You've read all your free articles for this month! Subscribe now to enjoy full access to our content.

Digital Monthly

£8.00 / month

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Digital Yearly

£70.00 / year

Our best value offer - save £26 and gain access to all of our digital content for an entire year!

Charlie Mitchell

Award-winning journalist covering West Africa for African Business, The Sunday Times and others.