sowing hope

Sahel’s Great Green Wall: It’s not just about planting trees

By Ibrahim Thiaw

Posted on September 7, 2020 14:48

Great Green Wall
Photo by Great Green Wall initiative Twitter/@GreenWallAfrica

The Great Green Wall of the Sahel is an ambitious programme aimed to combat the natural challenges the region is facing. It demonstrates the will and commitment of both the people and the regional states to reject its geographic and climatic fate.

The scale of ambition is high.

Indeed, how, and above all what is the rationale behind a programme aiming to re-green an 8000 kilometres long stretch from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea? One that crosses 11 countries as diverse as Djibouti and Eritrea in the East or runs from Nigeria through Senegal and Mauritania to the West? What are the sources of funding? What level of political will and determination exist to achieve these goals?

Long time coming

The vision for this green wall has been brewing for some time. It then moved over to the front burner of the African Union’s policy in 2007. The hope was to see 100 million hectares of barren land producing once again.

Additionally, the Great Green Wall would create millions of jobs, especially in rural areas. Jobs that could meet the basic needs of young people and deter their temptation to engage in dangerous activities, such as illegal immigration, terrorism or illicit trafficking.

READ MORE Role of climate change in Central Sahel’s conflicts: not so clear

It also meant millions of women, who are essential producers in these rural areas, could add value to their products, thanks to improved access to electricity, in particular solar energy. The added value of coupling technology and energy would be to increase access to markets by stemming the enormous loss of agricultural produce caused by inadequate infrastructure at the processing and conserving stages.

‘More about planting trees’

While trees are essential, the Great Green Wall is more than just planting trees. Such an ambitious ecological restoration initiative can only succeed when communities find it beneficial, for instance, improving agricultural and pastoral production, transforming the rural economy and making it more economically attractive or creating the conditions for sustainability of production.

Continued access to renewable energies has been out of reach for most rural people. But thanks to a substantial reduction in the unit cost of energy and improved productivity, more people can now access it. National policies have also evolved favourably despite a lingering prioritisation of urban investment, often to the detriment of the transformation of rural economies.

READ MORE Local governments must lead the fightback against climate change

Investing in the Great Green Wall has the potential to change these conditions. It would make it possible to create and tap into value chains, transform and add value to local products (rather than export raw products) and create green and sustainable jobs (rather than have the youth fending for themselves).

This is a model of integrated response to development issues faced in rural areas all over the world, where over 80% of the population in many countries is concentrated.


The provisional results from the first twelve years of the Great Green Wall are encouraging, with nearly 20 million hectares of land restored. But, to borrow from the Olympic motto, we need to go faster, higher, stronger to meet the 2030 goals.

To achieve the objectives of the Great Green Wall, we must, of course, mobilise funding (national and international) to match the challenges. And if we are to be efficient, a paradigm shift from the almost exclusive implementation of the programme by the forestry services is necessary.

This ‘silo’ approach does not work. A paradigm shift calls for a review of the architecture and governance of the programme. A new, more inclusive business-model that integrates other institutions is needed. Stronger involvement of the private sector is fundamental.

But above all else, better involvement of the locally elected officials is critical.

Bottom line

“It is up to us to make this dream come true,” says Malian singer and artist Inna Modja, the main character in a new film titled, ‘The Great Green Wall, produced by the renown Fernando Meirelles, author of the famous film titled, ‘City of God’. I agree.

Ultimately, the Great Green Wall will become the largest living structure on earth grown by humans. A new wonder of the world benefiting present and future generations. And as the French poet and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, once said: “We do not inherit the land from our parents, we borrow it from our children.”

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