The Great Green Wall

2 March 2021 - // Interviews
Dr. Elvis Paul N. Tangem
Coordinator of GGWSSI for the Africa Union

In the aftermath of the multi-billion euro commitment from France and others to support the expansion and completion of the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI), REVOLVE talked with Dr. Elvis Paul N. Tangem who helped shed light on the magnitude of this initiative.

Officially launched in 2007, the Great Green Wall concept envisioned a tree-shrub-plant vegetation barrier or band across Africa. In the last 14 years the project has evolved, taking on an integrated ecosystem management approach, striving for a mosaic of different land use and production systems. How did this evolution come about? What are the opportunities and challenges associated with this evolution?

The Great Green Wall is a symbol of hope in the face of one of the biggest challenges of our time – desertification. Launched in 2007 by the African Union, the initiative aims to restore Africa’s degraded landscapes and promotes sustainable land management and ecosystem restoration of Africa’s drylands, transforming the lives of over 250 million people in the Sahel, Sahara, Horn of Africa and other drylands. Once complete, the Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet – 8,000 km (long) x 17 km (wide), stretching across the entire continent. The Great Green Wall is now being implemented in more than 21 countries across Africa and more than 100 billion dollars have been mobilized and pledged for its support. The initiative brings together African countries, institutions, and international partners, under the leadership of the African Union Commission. In 2015, the Africa Union Commission initiated the extension of the initiative to the drylands of the southern African region, including the Kalahari and Namib deserts as well as the Miombo Region.

Take a virtual reality trip to Africa to see a part of the Great Green Wall. Source: UN Convention to Combat Desertification / GGW
From the Director of “City of God”, watch the trailer of The Great Green Wall. Source: UN Convention to Combat Desertification / GGW

The initiative was launched to combat the advancement of the Sahara Desert sands, to curb increasing land degradation, desertification, drought, sand and dust storms that were putting into jeopardy the lives, livelihood and biodiversity of the Sahel countries. Despite the efforts made by many of the Sahel countries very little achievements were recorded, thus it became imperative to develop an overarching pan-African initiative to tackle the problem holistically and provide the required political momentum to enable for the larger mobilization of resources.

Initially 11 countries, GGW now includes 21 countries involved in the effort. As we enter the final decade of the project – also the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, what are the challenges facing the GGW’s completion?

As in other mega multi-country and multi-partner projects, implementation and progress differs from country to country due to the diversity of landscapes, approaches and priorities; it’s not a one-size fits-all solution. For example, while Ethiopia, Senegal and Niger are far advanced in agroforestry and afforestation (having already grown millions of trees), Burkina Faso is advanced in tree-based value chains like Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) with the collection, processing, packaging and marketing of products from shea tree, balanites aegyptiaca, zezuphus, tamarindus, dawadawa, baobab and others. Nigeria is advanced in national policy, and innovative implementation activities like multi-purpose gardening, fire corridors, and integrating solar energy.

Planting seeds to build the Great Green Wall of Africa. Photo: GGW.

The initiative has made tremendous progress since it started in 2007, particularly with regards to continental and national policies. Unlike other similar initiatives that face challenges at the level of policy and societal acceptance, the initiative has been deeply rooted at all levels. However, some challenges persist, including the cynicism and bad press the project got from the beginning, as well as insufficient financing for the implementation of programs and projects, synergies and coordination, diverse interpretation and insufficient data and lack of quality planting seeds. Other emerging challenges like insecurity due to natural resources-related conflicts, terrorism and inter-communal conflicts hinders the implementation of the initiative in several vulnerable areas. It is worth pointing out that the Initiative is part of Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want. Launched in 2013, Agenda 2063 is Africa’s 50-year strategic development master plan for transforming the continent into the global powerhouse of the future.

As we are now in the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, what are the lessons learned – the key takeaways – from the GGW experience for other large-scale multi-national restoration projects?

The GGWSSI is a global pioneer for large-scale multi-national restoration projects and is recognized by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration as a best practice. The five key lessons that can be taken from the initiative are:

  • The importance of policy-makers in development programs. The success of the initiative is due to the fact that it was initiated and is being coordinated by the policy-makers, as such, buy-in from regional and national actors as well as from development partners is easier.
  • The importance of linking to stakeholder priorities, including their involvement in the development of the implementation strategy (harmonized strategy) was based on national priority sectors and strategies to combat desertification. This process of discussion has ensured alignment, easy up-take and in the long- term greater sustainability for the ongoing achievements.
  • The importance of local ownership and recognition of indigenous knowledge and best practices on the ground. This is not about importing a solution.
  • The importance of global partnerships: the GGWSSI is built on the notion of open, global partnerships, thus many international development partners can easily align their strategies to that of the initiative. This is win-win for everyone.
  • The importance of broad-based communication and solid knowledge management is worth mentioning and worth emulating for other such large-scale initiatives.

At the One Planet Summit (OPS) in January 2021, the GGW received an additional $14 billion in funds from the World Bank and France, a little over a third of the $33 billion of investment required to complete the Great Green Wall. The OPS also saw the announcement of the GGW Accelerator, with the objective to release an initial contribution over the period of 2021-2025. What does this mean in practice?

Beyond the much-appreciated amounts committed, the outcome of the OPS shows that there is international endorsement of the GGWSSI approach and vision. This financial support demonstrates global confidence in the soundness of this African Union solution to our shared climate challenges. In practice, the pledges and the establishing of the GGW Accelerator means the world is serious about providing the necessary resources to ensure that the vision is attained. The pledges were based on clear objectives and five pillars (water and biodiversity, climate change and green economy, resilient economic development and security, capacity building, communication, and advocacy) portraying clearly how the funds will be allocated. The GGW Accelerator aims to release an initial contribution over the period 2021-2025 to give effect to the commitments of the financial partners in a coordinated framework and will leverage on the current pledges to raise more resources to attain the 2030 goal in order to fill remaining financial gaps.

Dr. Elvis Paul N. Tangem
Coordinator of GGWSSI for the Africa Union

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