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Why accelerating ecosystem restoration in the Sahel must be a priority this decade

Parched land is pictured around the Lake Wegnia, in Sahel region of Koulikoro, Mali November 22, 2019. Picture taken November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Arouna Sissoko - RC2IJD9CY3FT

Agroforestry and regenerative approaches are critical to realising sustainable development in the Sahel region. Image: REUTERS/Arouna Sissoko

Nicole Schwab
Co-Head, Nature Positive Pillar; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
Florian Reber
Head of Partnerships, Chloris Geospatial Inc.
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Future of the Environment

  • More, faster action is needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals in the Sahel.
  • Scaling agroforestry and regeneration approaches are key.
  • Unlocking private sector investment and support for restoration are necessary for the region to realise environmental and economic opportunities.

Why must accelerating ecosystem restoration in the Sahel be a priority?

The short answer: because it is a critical part of the actions needed for realising ample sustainable development opportunities in the Sahel, benefitting the growing Sahelian population and creating new markets for urgently needed regenerative businesses that are climate- and nature-positive.

Have you read?

    The slightly longer answer goes like this:

    The Sahel is a paradox of sustainable development challenges and opportunities.

    On the one hand, about 30% of the Sahelian population is in need of urgent humanitarian aid as the region is struggling with a challenging security and conflict situation. The region is also grappling with significant social and ecological vulnerability to climate change and an expected doubling of the population by 2050.

    In that context, meeting the Sustainable Development Goals – including food and nutritional security, poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods – is as challenging as it is necessary.

    On the other hand, the Sahel is a region of enormous opportunities. The region is blessed with immense solar power potential – both utility scale and off-grid solar – and has a rich endowment of natural resources. With 64.5% of the population below age 25, the region is also one of the most youthful in the world, which means that investment in education and training can yield an important demographic dividend for the Sahel.

    One of the Sahel’s biggest opportunities, however, lies in the restoration of degraded lands and the development of climate-smart agriculture and pastoral systems. That is why leading initiatives such as the Africa Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative and the Great Green Wall Initiative have set the goal of restoring 100m hectares of land by 2030.

    Today, 13 years after the Great Green Wall Initiative was launched in 2007, only 20% of 100m hectares goal has been realised. (Counting more strictly, some say the number is only 4%.) Clearly, the next 10 years need to be a decade of much faster action, implemented at bigger scale.

    Scaling agroforestry and regeneration approaches across the Sahel will be a central part of that action agenda.

    Agroforestry is the technical umbrella term for a variety of such practices. Mimicking the diversity of natural ecosystems, agroforestry is the smart combination of crops, trees, plants and livestock to form a holistic, diverse and self-sustaining production system. It puts agriculture back into the landscape, is regenerative and reduces farmers dependence on expensive chemical inputs, while boosting soil health and crop productivity by storing more carbon in the ground.

    Innovative ecopreneurs started to harness that opportunity decades ago, re-introducing ancient techniques at a larger scale, blending with insights from new science and working closely with local communities. Their success is proving how such nature-based solutions not only restore and re-green the Sahelian parklands, but also contribute to improving food, nutritional and income security, and diversity for farmers, reducing vulnerability to climate shocks, increasing fuel wood supply and developing markets for local products.

    The role of Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR)

    One of the most effective agroforestry solutions compels by its simplicity and low-cost nature: Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). It consists of pruning seemingly dead tree stumps and carefully managing their re-growth into trees (rather than planting new trees). Initially developed in Niger – where over 5m hectares were successfully restored with FMNR – the method is now spreading in at least 24 countries in Africa and South East Asia.

    The financial investment needed to bring such ecosystem restoration projects to full scale across the Sahel are estimated to be in the range of $36-43 billion for the period from 2021-2030, excluding costs for capacity building, training and policy change. This is 17-20x more than the funding allocated to the Great Green Wall Initiative during its first decade.

    Unlocking private sector investment and support for restoration has been historically challenging. Market-creation enabling public policies, decentralized governance structure guaranteeing local community ownership, efficient and effective monitoring and clear land tenure rights arguably all play a critical role of favouring investments into products of the Sahel.

    Private-sector players can harness three opportunities now to increase both the supply and demand for investable projects:

    1. Investment through carbon finance. The Great Green Wall has a soil carbon sequestration potential of 250 million tonnes by 2030. With companies around the world stepping up their climate commitments, demand for high-integrity carbon offsetting, particularly for nature-based solutions such as agroforestry, are surging. New standards for measuring soil carbon are allowing the carbon certification of improved agricultural land management, which can contribute to scaling up the current flow of carbon finance into climate-smart agriculture in the Sahel.

    2. Scale innovative investment funds and accelerator programs for agroforestry SMEs. Small and medium-sized businesses often fall in the “missing middle”, where access to growth finance is constrained. The challenge is even higher for ecopreneurs seeking to deliver social and environmental returns alongside financial returns, operating in an often poorly understood region such as the Sahel.

    Over the past decade, a number of funds have emerged that seek to fill that gap faced by ecopreneurs in the Sahel. Examples include the Moringa Fund, the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, Sahel Capital, CDC and XSML Impact Investing. Further scaling such vehicles will allow for pooling of various types of private sector finance and help overcome transaction costs linked to investment in individual projects.

    3. Support and empower an ecopreneurship movement. For such new investment vehicles to be able to deploy funds at scale into the Sahel, the region needs many more investable restoration projects to emerge. While traditional project-based technical assistance plays a key role, so does the inspiration and empowerment of a whole generation of youth leaders to become ecopreneurs and join the restoration movement. Practitioners platforms such as the Global Landscapes Forum, novel accelerator programs such as WRI’s Land Accelerator or GrowthAfrica, and youth networks such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Network, Youth4Nature and others are examples of network actors that are supporting such a movement ecopreneurs globally, including in the Sahel.


    What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

    With the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, the world has an opportunity to further the restoration movement and inspire more regenerative ecopreneurship globally.

    To support the goals of the UN Decade, including the implementation of the Sahel’s ecopreneurship potential, the World Economic Forum has launched, a multi-stakeholder platform to help conserve, restore and grow 1 trillion trees by 2030.

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