The Sahara Desert, spanning over 9.2 million square kilometers across North Africa, is one of the largest and hottest deserts in the world. With an average temperature of 30°C that can exceed 50°C during the day, and sparse rainfall of only 1 inch per year, the Sahara is an extremely harsh environment where little can survive. However, the neighboring country of Burkina Faso has managed to turn swathes of desert into fertile farmland using an ancient and traditional farming technique called zai.
What is Zai Farming?
Zai is a traditional farming technique practiced in the Sahel region of Africa. It involves digging planting pits or small half-moon shaped basins in degraded, crusty soil during the dry season. These pits catch rainwater during wet months, concentrate compost and organic matter, and retain moisture for longer – creating a favorable microclimate for crops like millet, sorghum and maize.
Zai enables rainfall capture and infiltration in arid landscapes. The zai pits act as mini reservoirs that replenish the soil with nutrients and water. This boosts the soil’s permeability, reduces erosion and runoff, and rehabilitates degraded soils over time.
The Origins of Zai in Burkina Faso
In the 1970s, Burkina Faso was ravaged by severe drought and famine. Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer living in northern Burkina Faso, decided to revive the ancient zai technique to rehabilitate barren land around his village.
For decades, he toiled away digging zai pits and enriching them with manure and compost. Yacouba also planted native trees, shrubs and food crops together – creating a lush, biodiverse forest on land many deemed useless.
Despite being ridiculed at first, Yacouba’s forest grew to support over 60 tree species that provided food, fodder and fuel. The rejuvenated soil allowed him to grow cereals and vegetables amidst the semi-arid climate. Yacouba’s success demonstrated how traditional practices can turn desertification around sustainably.
Transforming Land at Scale
Inspired by Yacouba, zai farming has now spread across thousands of hectares in Burkina Faso – restoring degraded landscapes and boosting food security for millions.
The Delfino plough is a tractor-drawn implement designed specifically for zai. It efficiently digs planting pits across large areas, preparing up to 15-20 hectares a day compared to 1 hectare covered through manual zai.
With the Delfino plough, zai techniques can be scaled up across the Sahel. Agricultural production on rehabilitated land becomes viable for larger numbers of smallholder farmers.
The pits continue working their magic long after the first season. As organic matter accumulates and soil structure improves, pits eventually level out and the entire field is revitalized.
Benefits of Zai
- Restores Degraded Land
Decades of drought, overgrazing and unsustainable farming rendered millions of hectares useless in Burkina Faso and neighboring countries. By capturing and sink rainwater, zai rapidly improves soil structure and fertility on barren crusty soils in just 1-2 rainy seasons.
- Boosts Food Security
In Burkina Faso, zai has allowed farmers to grow crops like sorghum, millet and maize on degraded lands. Cereal yields can increase from 300kg/ha to 2500kg/ha. Zai restores livelihoods for subsistence farmers by ensuring a stable supply of food.
- Increases Resilience to Drought
Recurrent drought makes rainfall scarce and unpredictable in the Sahel. By retaining moisture in soil for 30-40 days longer, zai provides a buffer against dry spells during the rainy season. Crops sown in zai pits have a greater chance of surviving intermittent droughts.
- Sequesters Carbon
As vegetative cover and organic matter increases on regenerated land, zai farming sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in the long run. Although labor intensive initially, zai represents a scalable, low-cost way of restoring degraded landscapes while mitigating climate change.
The Future of Zai
Farmer-led initiatives to expand adaptable, eco-friendly practices like zai must be encouraged to reverse land degradation. With enabling government policies and global support, time-tested methods like zai can restore the livelihoods of millions vulnerable to drought, famine and poverty in arid regions worldwide.
The story of zai farming in Burkina Faso provides hope for regenerating degraded arid ecosystems across the planet. By working with nature and drawing on traditional wisdom, we can resurrect once-barren landscapes and feed communities. Truly sustainable agriculture emulates resilient natural systems – and techniques like zai serve as an inspiration.