A farmer in West Africa has done something short of miraculous. He halted the desert with only a shovel! That and a firm belief to make everything better for his fellow countrymen in the dry and arid region of Burkina Faso where the tropical savanna, plagued by hot winds from the Sahara meant the flat country often experienced extreme drought, causing its people to starve more often than not.
Yacouba Sawadogo, a traditional farmer whose family has farmed the land for generations, was adamant about ensuring his three wives and 31 children had enough to eat. The land he farmed belonged to his grandfather, and the grandfather before him, and the grandfather that came even before.
Yacouba’s family were farmers for hundreds of generations.
During the early 1980’s, other farmers in the Sahel region agonized over the damaging drought that destroyed all of the region’s crops and greenery, turning farmlands into desert. A lot of Burkina Faso farmers migrated to other places to escape the ensuing hunger and poverty, but not Yacouba.
He wasn’t about to give up hope, despite the desert slowly creeping up on his crops, and he decided to use his people’s ancient soil conservation and reforestation methods to ensure his plants survived and thrived.
Based on his observations after 30 years of traveling the Sahel region, Yacouba implemented the traditional Zai technique, which involved digging holes thousands of feet deep in his fields. He filled the pits with manure, then planted seeds at a shallower depth.
Planting crops over his Zai manure holes
The manure attracted termites which consumed the organic material and excreted nutrient-rich matter that effectively fertilized plants. The channels dug by termites also helped water from the rare rains to circulate around Yacouba’s millet and sorghum plants, making them thrive better around each Zai he dug.
Two decades worth of “slowly but surely”…
Eventually, Yacouba branched out into planting trees that effectively enriched the ground water levels by holding more moisture for the surrounding soil, and with every Zai he dug, he eventually rehabilitated his 50 acres of land into rich crops and forests, conquering the desert by hundreds of miles in a matter of 20 years.
Yacouba’s rich crops
Yacouba, who couldn’t read or write, and who knew nothing of advanced farming techniques or modern gadgets, slowly reclaimed his farmlands back from the desert with nothing but his shovel, and faith that the situation could be made better.
Yacouba’s progress as seen from space.
Yacouba’s success story resonated around the world, and he was featured in the 2010 documentary, “The Man Who Stopped the Desert.”
The Zai technique is currently being taught extensively in Burkina Faso and the Sahel region, where other farmers are now maintaining a steady food supply through better crop yields, while coping well with the encroaching climate change.