Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The agricultural sector accounted for 9%, 15% and 9% of GDP in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia respectively as of 2012. It employs 40% of the population in Morocco, 11% in Algeria, and 16% in Tunisia. However, the availability of arable land per capita represents just 3.2% of Algeria, 17.8% of Morocco, and 18% of Tunisia as of 2011. The most commonly cultivated crops are olives and almonds, which consume large amounts of fresh water to grow. Fruit and vegetables are also commonly produced, but in smaller quantities. Farmers in the Arab Maghreb sub-region have been planting these crops for hundreds of years. The main source of irrigation has always been rain water, which used to be plentiful in the region.
However, recent global climate changes and disruption of the environmental ecosystem, predominantly from deforestation, has led to rain water becoming very scarce, especially in desert areas like North Africa. The average annual rainfall, as of 2014, is below 300 mm in vast areas of the Arab Maghreb sub region, creating an arid to semi-arid climate. Water scarcity has reached a critical point in the region, and severe drought is expected in the future. The agricultural sector is considered the largest consumer of water in the Maghreb sub region, as the annual freshwater usage in agriculture represents an average of 76% of total freshwater usage in the region. The Maghreb region depends primarily on rainfall and groundwater as sources of fresh water. The dependence on rainfall makes this region very vulnerable to climate change, which can have a strong impact on crop production. The recent environmental changes require an accompanying shift in farming practices to preserve the rural lands and compensate for the depleting water resources.
Due to the absence of understanding, a concentration of short term gains, and a lack of focus on sustainability among farmers, rural communities in the Maghreb region continue to intensively cultivate the same crops inherited from their parents. Farmers continue to plant olives and almonds, irrigating them with ground water, 80% of which in Tunisia is salty consisting of 4 - 6 grams of salt per 1 liter of water. This amount of salt damages commonly cultivated crops (sea water has 12 grams of salt per l liter of water). Irrigating land with salty water increases the salt content within the soil, rendering it acidic and infertile after three crop cycles of this practice. This allows desert sands to invade the infertile soil, and then desertification occurs. It is expected that by 2020, 80% of the land will have become infertile and there will not be enough water for daily consumption in the region.
The effects of desertification not only disrupt the environmental ecosystem but studies have shown there is a link between desertification, hunger and poverty. It affects poverty levels and food security, resulting in decline per capita food yields in the affected areas as well as negatively impacts the economic returns of the agricultural sector.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Sarah is changing the agricultural industry in the Arab Maghreb sub-region, starting with Tunisia. In this region, desertification and dwindling water resources are major environmental concerns that negatively impact agricultural communities and lead to increased levels of rural poverty. Sarah is combating these environmental and economic challenges by creating a movement that shifts the focus from commonly cultivated crops to alternative seeds that are more sustainable for the environment, creating greater opportunities for income generation.
Further, Sarah is introducing farmers to sustainable farming practices through training and education that shifts their attitudes surrounding their land. To complement this approach, Sarah offers farmers new opportunities through alternative crops—mainly Acacia trees, which have a positive environmental and economic impact. They revitalize the land, create a greenbelt to prevent desertification and consume much less water than the traditionally cultivated crops, olives and almonds. Acacia trees additionally produce Arabic gum and Moringa oil which provide large economic returns when sold. Sarah couples the introduction of new crops with empirical research and studies on new potential opportunities that can be used by farmers to fight soil erosion, desertification and water scarcity.
To complement this, Sarah is creating a movement throughout the Arab Maghreb sub-region in which farmers are not only practicing sustainable farming techniques and using alternative crops, but are also taking ownership over sustaining their practices and thinking long-term about the land. Farmers are empowered to become self-sufficient economically and access the market. Sarah is enabling the farmers by organizing them into agricultural cooperatives which then extract and sell Arabic gum from the Acacia trees in international markets. These practices provide new economic opportunities that shape the future of the agriculture industry and lift farmers and their families out of rural poverty.
Sarah’s idea is applicable to all arable lands of North Africa and countries with a desert region. Starting in Tunisia, she plans to expand geographically in order to combat desertification, a major environmental concern throughout the entire Arab world.