Efforts to hold back the Sahara Desert with a wall of vegetation are paying off in Senegal where communities harvest fresh fruits and vegetables from the dry desert sands. Providing a much-needed source of nutrition to areas where malnutrition is high, the project also helps communities cope with the rising threat of climate change.
Bent almost double in the searing afternoon heat, rows of women in brightly patterned dresses gather ripe tomatoes, and dark purple aubergines from plants rooted in the sandy soil of the village of Widou Thiengoli in northern Senegal.
The harvest they reap is the most tangible by-product of a visionary project to plant a wall of trees stretching across Africa from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East.
The aim in the 11 countries supporting this vision is to literally hold back the Sahara desert with a wall of greenery. The trees, it is said, will provide a barrier against desert winds and will help to hold moisture in the air and soil, allowing agriculture to flourish in areas where malnutrition levels are perilously high.
A wall of saplings
In Widou Thiengoli, the "Great Green Wall," is not yet particularly "great," or "green." It will take time for the saplings that have been planted to grow to their full height, and political commitment for the vision for this section of a 15 km band of greenery running 7,500 km across the middle of Africa to be realised. But communities living in these areas are already feeling the benefit.
Indigenous acacia saplings are thriving here, and space has been created for vegetable plots in sections of land fenced off from cows and goats. The harvest has been good this year and the produce will add vital nutrients to a local diet that is normally dominated by milk and meat. Any surplus produce is sold on local markets.
"When I was young, there was more water in the village and we produced our own crop of millet," says Khaira Haidara, vice president of the local women's organisation remembering the past when rainfall patterns were more regular. "This project has brought positive changes to our lives, giving us different things to eat, and now we worry less about food."
Like many rural communities in Senegal, the villagers from Widou Thiengoli have experienced dramatic changes in climate over the past twenty-five years. The frequency of droughts has increased, rainfall levels have fallen by more than one-third and when the rains do finally arrive, many areas are hit by devastating floods.
WFP supports the "Great Green Wall" project by providing food assistance for the community farming groups during the lean season before harvests arrive, helping to build resilience among these communities so that they are better equipped to cope with climate shocks .
"People used to go to towns to seek paid work during the lean season, but since the project started, that has changed," says Papa Sarr, Technical Director of the National Agency of the Great Green Wall. "With WFP's help, they have been able to settle and cultivate this land, and they realise that they can feed themselves and earn money at the same time."
This year, the communal farmers of Widou Thiengoli will harvest a wide variety of fruit including mango, oranges, lemons, tamarind, guava and apples, alongside vegetables such as cabbage, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and aubergines.
It is a step towards a more sustainable future and whether the grand vision of a continental wide "Great Green Wall" is realised or not, the impact on the lives of this community is already being felt in terms of better nutrition and increased resilience on the frontline of climate change.