The Sahel - A Land of Opportunity

A Land of Opportunity

by Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim

Africa’s Sahel. Grinding poverty, lack of opportunity, growing instability and insecurity. Its countries seemingly condemned to bring up the rear of the Human Development Index. All indicators flashing red for a future marked by a serious breakdown of economic, social and environmental systems.

The Sahel is a 1,000 km wide grassland between the Sahara desert on the North and rain forest to the South.

The Sahel is a 1,000 km wide grassland between the Sahara desert on the North and rain forest to the South.

That’s the general international perception. But is accurate?

In fact, the Sahel is a vast, diverse belt across the continent, as much as 1,000 km wide and stretching more than 5,000 km from Sudan to Senegal. It is a region rich in natural resources, extensive agricultural land, a generous mineral endowment and substantial water resources. It boasts of an ancient history and a strong culture, with a high degree of continuity and an overlap in local traditions that provide a surprising amount of homogeneity across its many peoples. Regional institutions designed to promote integration are strong.

In short, the Sahel is a land of opportunity.  Much of that opportunity is just waiting to be unlocked and to serve as the engine that will restore a vibrant, stable and prosperous Sahel.

A New Initiative for a Brighter Future

I recently participated in a United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) policy dialogue in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation at the stunning Bellagio Centre in Italy. Our discussion theme was “A Land of Opportunities: Framing Contextual and Practical Solutions for Lasting Peace and Prosperity in the Sahel.’’ We introduced an exciting initiative aimed at reversing present trends in the Sahel, and restoring its economic, social and environmental capital.  The initiative focuses on the large-scale mobilization of communities, social groups and networks to accelerate installation of clean energy, restore degraded lands and catalyse the development of rural enterprise across the Sahel belt, with a special focus on youth and women.  

“The Sahel is a land of opportunity… waiting to be unlocked.”

- Hindou Omarou Ibrahim

Ms. Ibrahim (5th from the left) at the Rockefeller Bellagio Centre in Italy for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification themed “A Land of Opportunities: Framing Contextual and Practical Solutions for Lasting Peace and Prosperity in the Sahel.”

Photograph from one of Ms. Ibrahim’s recent trips to the Sahel.

This is far from the first international initiative on the Sahel. No fewer than 18 roadmaps, strategies and action plans set out what the Sahelian countries should do to overcome their predicament.  The problem has been a lack of supporting action at the scale needed to slow and reverse the current downward trends.  This is in large part because the plans’ implementation relies both on funding from outside and on public sector institutions that are wholly inadequate to the task.

Women in the Sahel “planting the wall.” Credit: UNCCD

Women in the Sahel “planting the wall.” Credit: UNCCD

The new initiative aims to generate action by creating a dynamic platform that will inspire, motivate and mobilize youth, women, civil society, communities and professional networks across the Sahel to act at a massive scale to improve their lives and ensure a stable and prosperous future for the region.  This action will be in response to a new, positive and mobilizing narrative focused on the untapped opportunity that the Sahel represents, and underlining the potential to act, immediately and at scale, to reverse current trends.

The platform will connect and seek to inspire target communities across the region, promoting new ideas, sharing information, enabling coordination and reporting stories and results.  In an increasingly connected Sahel, use of the social media has become a feasible too for mobilizing action. It will build on a rich culture and tradition of story-telling.

Ecology, Energy, Enterprise

The initiative will focus on three principal axes of activity that have the power to transform the Sahel – restoration of degraded lands and sustainable agricultural practices; provision of clean energy, and development of small- and medium-scale rural enterprise.

Women in the Sahel working together to restore their land. Credit: UNCCD

Women in the Sahel working together to restore their land. Credit: UNCCD

There is a vast potential for ecological restoration to return land to productivity and to biological diversity across the Sahel, both through the recovery of degraded lands and through the spread of sustainable agricultural and livestock management practices. This process is actually already underway; millions of hectares of land have restored and regained their green cover, and, contrary to popular belief, tree cover in the Sahel has increased in recent years. The potential for spreading beneficial ecological practices on a very large scale clearly exists. 

This central pillar of the initiative aims to make information and know-how about what is already working widely available across the region, and apply it to millions of square kilometres, reinforcing and expanding the Sahel’s Great Green Wall holding back the advance of the Sahara.

“The initiative will ride on a wave of communication.”

- Hindou Omarou Ibrahim

Sustaining ecological progress while supporting economic development will require clean energy. Fortunately, the Sahel is blessed with an inexhaustible energy source. The region receives sunlight more consistently and with greater intensity than almost anywhere else on earth. In fact, the solar energy falling on the Sahel would be enough to meet the energy needs of the entire planet.  And yet a high percentage of the Sahel’s rural communities have no access to modern energy at all.

Off-grid solar in the Sahel to reduce reliance on wood fuel in rural populations. Credit: United Nations Climate Change

With the cost of renewable energy dropping dramatically, with mini-grids and off-grid solutions now reliable and easily available, bringing reliable energy access to the rural areas of the Sahel should just be a matter of mobilizing the will and resources to get it done. That energy would go a long way toward unlocking the potential of the Sahel and transforming the lives of its people.

Unlocking that potential and the enterprise development that will come with it cannot happen soon enough. With hundreds of millions of African youth coming onto the job market in the coming decades, job creation, especially in the rural areas, is an urgent priority.  Without it, the future for the Sahel is bleak.  Sahelian youth are energetic and innovative – all they need is the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do.

The initiative will seek to enable small enterprise creation on a large scale. This will focus on rural areas that are also the targets of the energy development and re-greening efforts, thus creating a positive synergy and giving a massive boost to the economies of the Sahel’s rural areas.

Building Support

Action on the scale envisaged under the initiative can only be achieved in partnership with many actors – local, national, regional and international – who share a commitment to its goals.  The platform will allow for many to contribute, to propose ideas and to add strength to the social mobilization that underpins the initiative.

The initiative will also, of course, need money. Funding on a large scale will need to be generated, from development finance, private investment, public-private funding and blended finance, and from domestic resource mobilization.  The initiative will underscore the potential for new, crowd-sourced and fintech-based funding vehicles.

Finally, the initiative will ride on a wave of communication – positive stories aimed at promoting the new narrative and changing the public perception of the Sahel as a place in control of its own destiny.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is a UN SDG Advocate,  Conservation International’s Senior Indigenous Fellow and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is also a former co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change. She is a member of the Mbororo pastoralist community of Chad.