How to turn the desert green: Bringing soil back in Burkina Faso

December 5, 2019

Thirty-three per cent of the Earth’s soil is already degraded – and as much as 90 per cent could become degraded by 2050.

Salif Gonde

Soil. That happy place where seeds go to grow. But what if it’s not a happy place?

Climate change, drought, intense use of synthetic pesticides and feritilizers, decades of animal over-grazing, and deforestation mean 33 per cent of the Earth’s soil is already degraded – and as much as 90 per cent could become degraded by 2050. In Burkina Faso, this erosion of healthy soil has allowed desert to creep across once fertile farmland, taking away nutrients and seriously hampering farmers’ ability to grow food.

SeedChange works with farmers in Burkina Faso in a drought prone area called the Sahel, a swath of land south of the Sahara Desert that cuts across the continent from Senegal in the west to Eritrea in the east. Rehabilitating unhealthy farmland is a major part of the work we support with our local partner Association pour la Protection de la Nature au Sahel (APN Sahel), so farmers can grow food for their families and make a living.

In the last five years, farmers have revitalized 732 hectares of land. That’s more than 500 households with productive, healthy cropland that used to be dry and desert-like.

Here are some of the local techniques they used:


Farmers plant deep rooted grasses, like andropogon gayanus, that are able to thrive in nutrient depleted soil and drought conditions. But they don’t just grow. These grasses trap moisture in the soil, protecting it from wind and water erosion. The plants also capture nitrogen – essential for crop growth – from the atmosphere and restore it to the soil.

Beyond that, farmers can later harvest the grasses for animal feed, eventually returning to the soil from whence they came in the form of manure fertilizer. Circle of life.

Demi-lunes (half moons)

A simple, effective way to keep moisture from immediately flowing away or drying up, demi-lunes are shallow crescents farmers dig in the soil that needs fixing. With water able to accumulate in the crescents, grasses grow and help build the health of the soil.


Like demi-lunes, zaï are holes a farmer digs so water can seep into the ground instead of flowing over it and away. Farmers can then plant something in the whole and line it with compost, which absorbs water like a sponge.

Cordons pierreux (Stone barriers)

The ground can be so dry and impenetrable, that when rain does come, it flows downhill without absorbing into the farmers’ fields. So farmers build small stone bunds to stop the free flow of water. They scope out where their land changes level and trace that line with rocks about 50 centimetres tall. The barriers keep water on the farmers field.