By May Muthuri


Land restoration targets and commitments have been set at global, regional, national and local levels. The UN General Assembly in New York declared on 1 March 2019 that 2021–2030 was to be the decade of land restoration. Funds have been disbursed to major restoration initiatives in Africa and other parts of the developing world. There are reports of billions of trees being planted by hands and drones. But for whom and why?

We need to take a step back and reflect on the land-restoration technologies and approaches we are promoting and for whom we are promoting them. Great ideas are in place, yes, but are these what farmers want and need? Will these help us realize multiple objectives that help us heal degraded lands, sequester carbon and bring benefits to millions of poor farmers who are largely dependent on such natural resources? Or are we too focused on the end game of meeting donors’ expectations and targets, offsetting the carbon footprint from industrialized countries, while forgetting that it’s as much about these issues as it is about farmers’ livelihoods, social justice and equity today and years to come? Being complacent should never be an option as long as a majority of farmers in developing countries are still battling food insecurity and inadequate nutrition, lack of access to water, clean and sustainable energy and inadequate incomes to meet their needs.

The Regreening Africa programme, funded by the European Union, has ambitious targets yet is determined to circumvent the cycle of past interventions in a bid to ensure the envisioned impacts are realized, equitable and sustainable.

‘Someone once said you cannot do the same thing over and over again and expect different results’, said Susan Chomba, Regreening Africa’s manager. ‘It is time to do research and development differently. Research needs to be informed by real development needs and development interventions need to be informed by evidence. We are not doing our communities, who are the subjects of research and development, any justice by operating in silos’.

With just a year and half gone by, the Regreening Africa team decided to pause and assess what the project had achieved in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Rwanda and Senegal, and provide coordinated technical support to implementing partners through a joint reflection and learning process. These visits formed part of a five-day learning and sharing event intended to ensure effective expansion of the scale of regreening practices at both community and individual levels.

‘A main feature was to identify interventions that work to promote contextually relevant regreening practices and once evidenced, encourage others to take those up’, said Karl Hughes, head of the programme’s Monitoring Evaluation and Learning component. ‘Regreening Africa should be supporting the implementing partners to develop, refine and evidence these interventions, which are as much, if not more, social and institutional as they are biophysical’.

So, what still works? For whom? Where? When? And how? What about that which doesn’t work? Is it too late to propose alternative pathways? These and more difficult questions guided interactions with leading farmers, community members and district officials, spearheaded by World Agroforestry (ICRAF) and implementing partners World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Care, Oxfam and Sahel Eco.

Different settings, coupled with rough or smooth terrain, scorching sun or blessings from above in the form of rain, shade under the trees or in offices, provided opportunities to gain different perspectives to successes, barriers, gaps and opportunities, from the old and young, educated or not, that will fuel regreening.

Throughout the process, an ‘options by context’ approach has been applied to ensure proposed changes and solutions suit the intended beneficiaries and were fit for the social and ecological contexts within which they were being applied. Across seven countries, it was evident that farmers knew the benefits and importance of trees but they still cut them down for household use and commercial purposes.

‘The practice has always been to cut down trees to have a farm’, said Mohamed Haji, European Union Delegate to Somalia. ‘This is what we need to undo if we are to achieve restoration targets. There is an urgent need to create awareness for a change in mindsets’.

It was palpable that sustainable value chains needed to be integrated and strengthened if the efforts to expand the scale of restoration were to bear fruit. Value chains offered economic incentives by matching farmers’ needs to markets for fruitful outcomes in years to come. Moreover, short-term interventions by diversifying household income generation would help address the need for firewood and charcoal and bridge the void created when the gospel of delayed gratification is spread, as trees may take long to mature before benefits are enjoyed.

‘Value chains based on regreening activities must include farmers as partners so as to promote re-investment and wealth creation for land restoration’, said Sammy Carsan, head of the programme’s Value Chains component.

Farmers were extremely keen to integrate diverse tree species on their farms especially those that bear real as well as economic fruit.

‘Interactions with the Regreening Africa team and World Agroforestry as a whole has inspired us as an organisation to expand our interventions to include fruit trees, indigenous tree species, as well as agroforestry species such as Faidherbia through on-farm tree planting or enrichment planting under farmer-managed natural regeneration’, said Raphael Kinoti of Farming Systems Kenya.

Gender integration at all levels of the project was discussed at length as issues pertaining to land and tree tenure and value chains will have an overall differentiated effect on men, women and youth and therefore affect equity outcomes in the ambitions to restore degraded landscapes.

‘For women to have a voice, they need to seat at discussion tables’, said Ibrahim Warab of Care Somalia. ‘Money has a role in this, and through village savings and loans associations, women can easily be empowered. This way, gender equity can be enhanced at the local level. Gender integration must start at project level. If recruited staff are mainly male, it will be difficult to get female farmers on board for discussions and implementation processes. Gender balance must start with us to ensure regreening impacts across the board’.


The need to strengthen co-learning between partners and other stakeholders, and taking up indigenous knowledge by farmers, will help expand the scale of regreening interventions beyond the project’s sites and influence changes in policies and governments’ budgetary allocations.

‘Working across sectors, organisations and people and incorporating evidence both into planning and the way we communicate will support massive and sustainable scaling’, said Mieke Bourne, Stakeholder Approach to Risk-informed and Evidence-based Decision-making (SHARED) facilitator at ICRAF.

‘Land restoration is not going to happen in conferences and workshops’, said Alexander Mueller, managing director of Think Thank for Sustainability. ‘It is going to happen on smallholders’ farms and other degraded land’.

Chomba concluded by stating that Regreening Africa is part of a movement to restore degraded land and should be mainstreamed into other projects on crops and livestock. She encouraged county governments to channel resources towards tree nurseries, farmer-managed natural restoration and other restoration activities.



About Regreening Africa

Regreening Africa is an ambitious five-year project funded by the European Union that seeks to reverse land degradation among 500,000 households, and across 1 million hectares in eight countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. By incorporating trees into croplands, communal lands and pastoral areas, regreening efforts make it possible to reclaim Africa’s degraded landscapes.

This story was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Regreening Africa and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.