These 4 crops hold the potential to help restore African landscapes and livelihoods

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Simon Read, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Some tree-crops being grown in the Sahel region of Africa have the potential to transform communities affected by climate change, poverty and extremist violence, a study shows.
  • Farmers are already growing the crops in the Sahel, but with the right support, they could generate more jobs.
  • Developing value chains linked to the tree-crops would have far-reaching benefits, including helping to improve gender equality in the region.
  • They are being grown in the Great Green Wall, one of the most ambitious land restoration projects in the world.

Farmers in the Sahel are growing four crops which researchers say have the potential to transform lives in the troubled African region and help tackle the climate crisis.

The crops are cultivated within the Great Green Wall (GGW) – an African Union initiative that aims to plant millions of trees in the Sahel.

The forest could stop the Sahara desert from expanding to the south while capturing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and restoring the landscape.

Harvesting tree-crops in the GGW also has the potential to create more jobs and increase incomes – if local farmers get the right support and investment, according to a new study from the World Economic Forum’s Trillion Trees initiative (

Those benefits can’t come soon enough to people in the Sahel, who face some of the most brutal consequences of the climate crisis, including severe droughts, hunger and desertification.

The economy is fragile too – up to 80% of the population live on less than $2 a day with very high levels of unemployment and living standards in decline, according to research from Brookings.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

The Great Green Wall is a beacon of hope

Fighting involving armed groups has slowed down efforts to improve matters – including initiatives like the GGW.

Despite the Sahel’s many challenges, the region is rich in natural resources and the GGW is a “beacon of hope”, says the study.

The report analyzes the business models of the farmers who cultivate tree crops in the GGW and says there is the potential to develop value chains with far-reaching benefits – with the right support.

Tree-crop value chains can improve gender equality

These value chains help the environment by promoting the cultivation of tree species that restore the landscape, capture carbon and support biodiversity.

The tree-crop value chains also have economic and social benefits, such as improving gender equality in the Sahel, say the report’s authors.

That is because more than 70% of the workers involved in harvesting, producing and distributing the region’s tree-crops are women.

“Increasing productivity within these value chains has the potential to improve livelihoods and food security, and could help encourage gender equality… provided projects are designed in such a way as to ensure revenues flow back to women”, the study says.

Four of the most promising tree-crops

GGW products could grab a larger share of the global $240 billion personal care market and the $150 billion superfoods sector. The report highlights four of the most promising tree-crops:

1. Balanites – this spiny tree is known as the “desert date” and grows in the GGW area without needing irrigation or fertilizers. Balanites oil is used for cooking and skin, body and hair products due to its “emollient, regenerating and nourishing properties”. If these can be scientifically proven and regulatory hurdles overcome, balanites could be sold in personal care products and the international food sector.

2. Baobab – these trees can remain productive for over 1,000 years. Baobab fruit powder is seen as a superfood because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and other health benefits, although more peer-reviewed studies are needed to fully demonstrate these. Trade organizations have managed to get regulatory approval for baobab products to be exported into the European Union and North America.

3. Moringa – these trees have high carbon sequestration potential and are one of the most nutrient-rich plants in the world. Moringa oil has a reputation as a superfood and is known for anti-ageing properties. Demand for moringa is growing, particularly in the US, where consumers are buying more dietary supplements and plant-based products.

4. Shea – these trees are best known for shea butter, the fat extracted from the tree’s nut. It is used in food and personal care products. The butter is used as a moisturizer with “strong potential” as a treatment for skin ailments. The shea industry is a big employer, particularly of women – 16 million women living in rural parts of Africa work collecting fresh fruits and kernels for processing.

The GGW is being supported by the World Economic Forum’s Trillion Trees initiative ( which aims to conserve, restore and grow 1 trillion trees by 2030, addressing the causes of climate change and helping those – like the people of the Sahel – who are most affected by it.

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