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Restoring land in East Africa

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Dutch-based JustDiggit works with local communities mainly in Tanzania and Kenya to dig huge swathes of bunds, crescent shaped holes, to catch and sink rainwater. Image credit: JustDiggit.org

Restoring land in East Africa

Technology is one of the tools used in an extremely effective restoration campaign in East Africa.

By John Gaisford  

An estimated 65% of Africa’s land is degraded, and that number is expected to worsen thanks largely to climate change and associated desertification.

The resultant drylands in sub-Saharan Africa are now more susceptible to the infrequent yet heavy rains commonly experienced by the region, which wash away topsoil and leave behind little to support ecosystem function, or the farmers and pastoralists that depend on it.

However, one NGO is taking up the challenge by applying nature- based solutions on a local scale, with a view to regreening and cooling the land en masse.

Dutch-based JustDiggit works with local communities mainly in Tanzania and Kenya to dig huge swathes of bunds, crescent shaped holes, to catch and sink rainwater.

These bunds, or “Earth smiles”, are dug with hoe and shovel along contour and face upslope to trap and sink the heavy summer rains, locally increasing vegetation growth and therefore water retention.

At just 5m wide, the bunds may seem insignificant, but the scale of their work is impressive; so far 315,000 of these bunds have been dug and nearly 400,000ha of land are under active restoration.

Restoring land in East Africa

As well as the bunds, JustDiggit also promotes the practice of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, known as ‘Kisiki Hai’ in Tanzania (meaning ‘living stump’).

Originating in Niger, the method entails management of living tree stumps to facilitate their growth into mature trees.

Upon regrowth, these trees play a crucial role in preventing soil erosion and contributing to the natural regreening of degraded landscapes. Additionally, they serve as valuable sources of food, fuel, and firewood for local communities.

Denis Lemilya, a district coordinator for the project in Tanzania, sums up the combined impact of the bunds and Kisiki Hai. “The restoration of trees and soil conservation through bunds will lead to increased soil fertility in farm and in grassland. After all these benefits from the project, these communities will have more income for their livelihoods.”

Effective campaigning model

All this is made possible thanks to a simple yet effective campaigning model, which relies on euros and dollars from abroad to fund large scale advertising for the grassroots restoration programmes. JustDiggit’s green billboards are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in Tanzanian towns and cities, as are broadcasts on Swahili radio. A mobile cinema caravan also travels between villages, screening educational documentaries to inspire the local communities to join forces for the benefit of their land and livelihoods.

Unsurprisingly in today’s times, smartphone technology is crucial to the whole system. The recent surge in their use and ever-improving network coverage in the region means that technology supports and extends the reach of staff members on the ground like Denis Lemilya.

Anyone who hears about JustDiggit’s work and is interested in earning money by digging bunds or rehabilitating trees simply downloads an app to get access to the Digital Regreening Platform.

Here, individuals are instructed and guided on the regreening techniques, can upload results by way of photos, and thereafter receive direct payment for completed work. Thus, the app increases the scope and potential of the work while reducing on the ground costs.

Technology is one of the tools used in an extremely effective restoration campaign in East Africa.
The restoration of land in East Africa. Image credit: JustDiggit.org

Positive storytelling

Meanwhile, JustDiggit’s punchy brand image and positive storytelling brings in millions of euros of private donations (buying a single bund starts at eight euros), as well as attracting environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) spending from the likes of Amazon, Ikea and DHL.

According to their 2022 report, JustDiggit received over 11 million euros in income in that year alone, spending nearly eight million directly on the regreening projects and two million on awareness campaigns.

Relationship with groundwater

JustDiggit’s work also lines up with the East Africa Hydrological Corridor – a collaborative idea aimed at improving land, water, vegetation, and climate conditions in the region.

The regreening work along with real time data collection provides a better understanding of the relationship between groundcover and climate change, helping to model monsoon climates under the ever-changing climactic conditions.

Along with data collected on the ground such as surface temperature and vegetation diversity, remote sensing imagery guides the team in choosing suitable areas for project sites, as well as providing quantitative data as they go.

“By leveraging the high-temporal resolution of satellite imagery, we are able to monitor and visualise the impact in near-real time, for example we create time lapses about the regreening impact and show the differences inside versus outside the project area,” says JustDiggit’s Chief Technical Officer, Sander de Haas.

Technology is one of the tools used in an extremely effective restoration campaign in East Africa.
Before and after active restoration of a landscape in East Africa. Image credit: JustDiggit.org

Expanding to West Africa

The successes so far are attracting the attention of other countries suffering the same degradation too. JustDiggit’s work has recently expanded to Uganda and Ethiopia, while Morocco, Burkina Faso and Benin have also expressed interest in their methods.

According to the World Resources Institute, globally about two billion hectares of degraded land is considered restorable, an area twice the size of China. Based on the success of their projects to date, the JustDiggit team believes the potential is there to re-green on a scale large enough to reverse the effects of climate change globally.

“The bird’s eye perspective of the high-resolution satellite images helps in creating further awareness around the impact and scale of nature based regreening. All we need now is to come together and do it and change the narrative from climate talk to climate action,” says de Haas.

John Gaisford is a dynamic writer, geologist and eco-entrepreneur who uses his skills to champion and promote sustainability initiatives across various fields in Africa.

WhyAfrica will visit parts of East Africa during our 2024 Road Trip through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania.

Restoring land in East Africa

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Restoring land in East Africa

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