Little grew in the Sahel region of North Africa, until the World Food Program helped people revive a traditional farming practice and resuscitate the land.

Resilience land rehabilitation site in Niger during the rainy season.

Resilience land rehabilitation site in Niger during the rainy season. Photo courtesy of the World Food Programme. (Credit: Evelyn Fey)

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Early into his tenure as executive director of the World Food Programme, David Beasley visited a site in Niger where a lack of water makes the soil harder than concrete. Little could grow there.

But Beasley’s eyes almost popped out of his head. He saw rich green lands transformed by introducing a long-abandoned traditional Sahel planting method called ‘half-moons.’ These effectively trap and filter water to refill drought-affected water tables and resuscitate soil where nothing has grown for years.

Home to millions, Niger is one of seven Sahel countries that mark the southern line of the Sahara Desert stretching across Africa. Poor adaptation to climate change has led to extreme vulnerability for these countries, among the least developed in the world.

Volli Carucci, an agronomist and the outgoing director of resilience and food systems for the World Food Programme (WFP), had talked to Beasely about the half-moon planting method and showed him how it worked in Niger where the Rome-based United Nations organization was leading a project funded initially by United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

In Niger, Carucci said, Beasely saw the land transformed by the reintroduction of half-moon planting. But Beasley didn’t see just the project site; he saw a vast green landscape stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, reversing the irreversible.

Ending a cycle of hunger

Trapped in a downward spiral of land degradation and poverty, hunger was a constant for the people of the Sahel.

Poverty and hunger bred conflict. Young boys and girls would join terrorist organizations that promised food and social empowerment. A lack of water was at the heart of these problems.

“Water is the Number One issue,” Beasley said.

WFP Executive Director David Beasley visits Food Assistance for Assets Project in the Sahel 


Unpredictable seasonal rains arrive sporadically now, and often in deluges of as much as 100 ml in one hour. Depleted by deforestation, over-cultivation and a changing climate, Sahel farmers had lost the capacity to capture the water needed to nourish the land. Now, Beasley understood that water offered hope for the Sahel countries.

As head of the WFP from 2018 to 2022, Beasley saw communities severely challenged year after year, endlessly dependent on emergency food aid from the WFP to dodge chronic and severe malnutrition.

He wanted to do better. He wanted the organization to stop the endless cycle of emergency humanitarian aid that kept people from starving.

He sought solutions that would see impoverished communities graduate from the cycle of protracted humanitarian crises.

Beasely saw that water had the power to transform landscapes and lives.

A wall of trees

WFP’s Niger program is called the Sahel Integrated Resilience Programme. It feeds into another program adopted by the African Union in 2007 called the “Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative.” The Great Green Wall aims to combat drought and land degradation by planting a wall of trees stretching across the entire Sahel from West to East on the African continent.

With a population on track to double by 2039, it is urgent to improve food production and protect the environment by restoring land and creating jobs.

Started as a small project in Niger and Burkina Faso funded by USAID, Beasley mobilized critical support from Germany to scale it up to include Chad, Mauritania and Mali.

The initiative has now reached four million people and restored over 290,000 hectares of agricultural land, an area roughly the size of Houston, Texas, the fourth-biggest city in the United States. In 2020, the WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts under Beasley.

Petra Bonometti, a resilience advisor for the WFP in West Africa, paints a powerful picture of the resulting soil rejuvenation. Half-moons are embankments which capture rainwater, she said, allowing farmers to cultivate sun-baked soil once again with hardy local crops for human and animal food.

Replenishing thirsty soil

As the half-moons replenish the soil, farmers plant trenches for pigeon peas, okra, moringa and more. Fruit trees such as guava and citrus are planted between the trenches. As the system grows, biomass accumulates to nourish the soil further.

“In its mature state, this will look like forest lines with horticulture,” Bonometti said.

Working with multiple local and international partners, including all levels of government, the communities are at the centre of the WFP initiative.

Bonometti attributes much of the success to community ownership. The communities decide which lands to target for rehabilitation. WFP and partners provide technical support to farmers and promote and build markets through cash transfers for households to purchase basic needs. Crops are purchased from the farmers to provide school meals, helping to combat malnutrition, and ensuring families send both boys and girls to school.

Rare in humanitarian and development programmes, this integrated approach with various parts and actors has well-defined exit strategies. With the community in the lead, the programme builds people’s capacity to learn and replicate the results. The community owns the successes, and people learn to replicate the results.

Empowering a community

Self-reliance is baked in. Widespread conflict and instability in the Sahel often prevent essential food and other supplies from reaching rural villages. This initiative ensures the community can meet their needs with food they grow themselves.

When conflict forces people to flee, they take their new skills with them. Bonometti describes WFP’s work in villages adjacent to conflict as stabilizing, reducing the risk of the conflict spilling over. Despite isolation and enormous problems nearby, rural communities involved in this initiative produce the food they need to keep going.

“The goal is to uncover African solutions for African challenges,” Carucci said. With the Livelihoods, Assets and Resilience Academy Initiative, the WFP has brought in 21 universities as partners.

“The Academy is recognizing the talents, innovations and capacities … to nurture the youth [so they can] grow into the baobabs of tomorrow.”

Despite the obvious success, donors pushed back against Beasley’s Sahel initiative. WFP addresses humanitarian emergencies. Official Development Assistance and global humanitarian assistance are considered different types of aid that is funded from separate donor budgets. Donors saw resilience work as a longer-term development that risked diverting badly needed humanitarian funds.

Yet he persisted.

Getting to the root of hunger

Beasley argued that if donors did not address the root causes of food insecurity, more sons would be lost to destabilizing organizations that recruit using food. Beasley argued that it is cheaper in the long run to fund programs like this.

“In Niger alone, when the Ukraine food crisis hit, 80% of the villages involved [in the WFP resilience initiative] did not need emergency food support,” Beasley said.

The tensions with donors persist, however, as the humanitarian funding gap soars. 2023 saw the WFP suffer the worst funding shortfall in its 60-year history, raising just $8.3 billion of the $22.8 billion budget needed.

Addressing complex and protracted crises, such as in the Sahel, requires a coordinated approach aligned across donors and all actors; reality shows few successful examples.

A paper published by the European Humanitarian Forum earlier this month called for better integrated responses across all the actors — NGOs, local communities, donors and governments. One need look no further than the Sahel initiative to understand how to achieve this.

Learning from missteps and with funding precarious, the WFP and the 70-plus partners have embarked on a second phase to be implemented up to 2028.

Pressures from protracted wars in Ukraine, Israel, Sudan and elsewhere, and from climate change-fueled droughts, wildfires, floods, earthquakes and other emergencies increase the pressures on the global humanitarian system. The need for significant change in humanitarian agencies’ actions and funding for their work is more pressing than ever.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What made it so difficult to grow food in the Sahel?
  2. Why is it important that communities are in control of their own food resources?
  3. What are some of the challenges of producing food in the area where you live?

Susanne Courtney is a freelance journalist and writer based in Canada. A former Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, her writing focuses primarily on international affairs, international development and development finance. Recently she authored the 2021 State of the Sector Report on Canada's Impact Investing in Emerging and Frontier Markets.

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