The Sahel, a 5,400km long and up to 1,000km wide semi-desert region spans across Africa from Senegal to Djibouti demarcating the bottom of the Sahara and the top of the green equatorial belt. It’s been widening its girth over the last decades, and mother nature is not to blame. Land degradation and overgrazing have caused this fertile belt to remain waterless. In spite of this, the Sahel remains inhabited by century-old tribes and peoples whose lifestyle, mostly nomadic, has relied on the sparse vegetation for sustenance and livelihood. And although the Sahel is notorious for decades of war and famine, the thirteen countries through which it passes have come together to create a “mosaic of sustainable development.“ 

The Great Green Wall of Africa is an FAO initiative to plant millions of trees and shrubs, aimed at “sustainable management and use of their forests, rangelands and other natural resources, thereby improving the food security and livelihood of the people,” says the FAO website. It is “a mosaic of sustainable development, rather than a barrier,” says Nora Seven Berrahmouni, responsible for the FAO of the Great Green Wall Initiative. The 7500km long and 15km wide wall will cut across the heart of the Sahel, supporting local communities in the management and use of forests and other natural resources in drylands, while contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

Community participation is key to this initiative and examples include the regions of Louga and Matam in Senegal. Hundreds of women combine the daily domestic care of their families with the conservation of newly planted acacia trees that will boost the already existing fruit trees that they rely on for subsistence. In a few years government nurseries have produced thousands of seedlings planted over 26,000 acres. Seven out of every ten acacia trees survive and provide shade for the surrounding fields, making them greener and wetter with time.

It’s a real program of economic development for the populations of the areas around the Sahara and will help to preserve their biodiversity, alleviate poverty and ensure food security in the entire region. It is estimated that 80% of the population sub-Saharan Africa depend on the fruits of the earth for their own survival, but 40% of that land is degraded. With the Great Wall initiative underway, this flagship programme will contribute to “the goal of the UN’s Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, of a land degradation neutral world,” according to the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN).

Jotham Muriu Njoroge has a Bachelors degree in Architecture from the University of Nairobi. He is currently studying an undergraduate degree at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome.