Geographies in Depth

These 4 crops hold the potential to help restore African landscapes and livelihoods

A woman planting in Africa. Harvesting tree-crops in the Sahel region of Africa has the potential to create more jobs and increase incomes

Harvesting tree-crops in the Sahel region of Africa has the potential to create more jobs and increase incomes Image: Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Simon Read
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Some tree-crops being grown in the Sahel region of Africa have the potential to transform communities affected by climate change, poverty and extremist violence, a study shows.
  • These tree crops could capture some of the growing global $240 billion personal care market and the $150 billion superfoods sector.
  • These trees are already growing in the Sahel and some farmers are collecting their fruit and leaves, but with the right support, they could generate more jobs.
  • Developing value chains linked to these tree-crops would have far-reaching benefits, including helping to restore trees in the region and improving gender equality.
  • They are being grown in the Great Green Wall, one of the most ambitious land restoration projects in the world.

The Great Green Wall is a beacon of hope

Despite the Sahel’s many challenges, the region is rich in natural resources and the Great Green Wall, an African Union-led initiative that aims to plant millions of trees across the continent, remains a “beacon of hope”, according to a new study from the World Economic Forum’s Trillion Trees initiative (

The report analyzes the business models of the farmers who cultivate tree crops in the Great Green Wall and says there is the potential to develop value chains with far-reaching benefits – with the right support.

A chart showing the great green wall begins to rise.
These trees are grown within the ambitious Great Green Wall. Image: Statista.

Four of the most promising tree-crops

Great Green Wall products could grab a larger share of the global $240 billion personal care market and the $150 billion superfoods sector. The report highlights four of the most promising tree-crops:

1. Balanites – this spiny tree is known as the “desert date” and grows in the Great Green Wall area without needing irrigation or fertilizers. Balanites oil is used for cooking and skin, body and hair products due to its “emollient, regenerating and nourishing properties”. If these can be scientifically proven and regulatory hurdles overcome, balanites could be sold in personal care products and the international food sector.

2. Baobab – these trees can remain productive for over 1,000 years. Baobab fruit powder is seen as a superfood because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and other health benefits, although more peer-reviewed studies are needed to fully demonstrate these. Trade organizations have helped to get regulatory approval for baobab products to be exported into the European Union and North America, but consumer awareness of this superfood remains low.

3. Moringa – these trees have high carbon sequestration potential and are one of the most nutrient-rich plants in the world. Moringa oil has a reputation as a superfood and is known for its anti-ageing properties. Demand for moringa is growing, particularly in the US, where consumers are buying more dietary supplements and plant-based products.

4. Shea – these trees are best known for shea butter, the fat extracted from the tree’s nut. It is used in food and personal care products. The butter is used as a moisturizer with “strong potential” as a treatment for skin ailments. The shea industry is a big employer, particularly of women - with 16 million women living in rural parts of Africa work collecting fresh fruits and kernels for processing.


Great Green Wall tree crops can improve local incomes, food security and resilience

Farmers in the Sahel are growing these four crops which the study says have the potential to transform lives in the troubled African region and help tackle the climate crisis.

These value chains help the environment by promoting the cultivation of tree species that restore the landscape, capture carbon and support biodiversity.

Harvesting tree-crop products in the Great Green Wall also has the potential to create more jobs and increase incomes – if local farmers get the right support and investment, according to the study.

Those benefits can’t come soon enough to people in the Sahel, who face some of the most brutal consequences of the climate crisis, including severe droughts, hunger and desertification.

The economy is fragile too – up to 80% of the population live on less than $2 a day with very high levels of unemployment and living standards in decline, according to research from Brookings.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Tree-crop value chains could help improve gender equality

Partly as a result of these challenging conditions, parts of region face political instability and violent extremism. Fighting involving armed groups has slowed down efforts to improve the situation – including initiatives like the Great Green Wall.

However, promoting tree crops could help address some of the underlying challenges in the region. For example, the tree-crop value chains have economic and social benefits, such as improving income and food security in the Sahel, say the report’s authors. They could also contribute to improving gender equality in the region.

That is because more than 70% of the workers involved in harvesting, producing and distributing the region’s tree-crops are women.

“Increasing productivity within these value chains has the potential to improve livelihoods and food security, and could help encourage gender equality… provided projects are designed in such a way as to ensure revenues flow back to women”, the study says.

Public-private sector actions

Some companies are already harnessing the potential of these restorative products, including Gabbi Loedolff, African Sourcing Hub Manager at LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics.

She explains how at Lush, "it’s our goal to source ingredients from communities in a way that protects and enhances ecosystems, supporting environmental and social regeneration to ensure we are leaving the world lusher than we found it."

Creating lasting partnerships with local producers is a key part of our sourcing strategy for many of the natural ingredients we use, including shea and moringa.

Gabbi Loedolff, African Sourcing Hub Manager, LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics

The Great Green Wall is also being supported by the World Economic Forum’s Trillion Trees initiative ( which aims to conserve, restore and grow one trillion trees by 2030, addressing the causes of climate change and helping those – like the people of the Sahel – who are most affected by it.

Together with UpLink, has run two innovation challenges, one in 2021 and another in 2022, to source and scale ecopreneurs involved with developing and strengthening value chains in the Sahel. The first cohort of Trillion Trees: Sahel and Great Green Wall innovators is already at work in the region, and the second cohort will be announced at COP27 in November.

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Geographies in DepthClimate ActionFood and Water
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