By Mary Hearty

A new study led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and published in Nature Sustainability has revealed that apart from Africa’s Great Green Wall (GGW) initiative helping restore degraded ecosystems in the Sahel region, it poses a great opportunity for investment as well.

According to the study, for every US dollar put into the massive effort to halt land degradation across the African continent from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, investors can expect an average return of USD 1.2, with outcomes ranging between USD 1.1 and USD 4.4.

Moctar Sacande, International Projects Coordinator at FAO’s Forestry Division and one of the lead authors of the study said: “We need to change the rhetoric about the Sahel region  to reflect the fact that despite its harsh and dry environment, investors can get a viable return on their investment in efforts to restore the land.”

The authors said the analysis uses field and satellite data to track the land degradation over the period 2001-2018 and then compares the costs and benefits of restoring the land based on different scenarios adapted to the local contexts.

The results provide the final piece of economic transparency in a jigsaw, with the political will and technical know-how already in place and should encourage the private sector, which is showing increased interest, Sacande said.

The greening and land restoration along this belt stretching 8,000 km across the continent is already underway. The Sahel member states include Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and Chad.

Communities in this region are planting resilient and hardy tree species such as the Acacia senegal, providing gum arabic, widely used as an emulsifier in food and drinks and the Gao tree or Faidherbia albida, which helps to make the soil fertile for the cultivation of such staples as millet, and for animal fodder.

With technical support from FAO, more than 500 communities have seen improved food security and income generation opportunities. The total area the GGW programme encompasses remains limited, with only 4 million hectares out of a targeted 100 million, according to the study.

The authors further noted that at most, ten years are needed for land restoration activities to break even from the social perspective, accounting for both market-priced and non-market ecosystem benefits.

To fund all proposed land restoration activities, an investment of US$44 billion is needed under the base scenario (US$18–70 billion across scenarios).

A total of some 20 billion dollars has been pledged internationally to support the scaling up of the Great Green Wall programme, including USD 14.3 billion at a One Planet summit for biodiversity held in Paris in January this year and USD 1 billion from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at the just-concluded COP26 climate conference.

Concrete details of how these funds can be accessed are yet to be clearly mapped out, Sacande noted, adding that unless some of the funding is delivered urgently, it could be too late for planting to catch the limited rainfall expected in June and July.

With its potential for carbon sequestration and restoring biodiversity and its emphasis on the socio-economic benefits to the impoverished communities inhabiting the region, the GGW straddles the key areas of climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience.

It also addresses Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 1 (No poverty), 2 (No hunger), 13 (Climate action), 15 (Life on land) and 17 (Partnerships)) in the UN’s Agenda 2030.

The armed conflicts pervading the region have long made some wary about its potential. And the study finds that about 50% of the land area involved is currently inaccessible for security reasons.

Authors pointed out that those violent conflicts in the Sahel are estimated to reduce the accessibility to these degraded ecosystems from 27.9 million hectares to 14.1 million hectares.

But even taking this into account, land restoration interventions still represent a viable business proposition, the authors emphasized.