What is Acacias for all?
Acacias for All is a social enterprise founded in 2012 by Sarah Toumi, Ashoka and Echoing Green Fellow.
Acacias for All is changing the agricultural sector in the Arab Maghreb sub-region by introducing a new holistic farming approach to fight desertification. Its approach shifts the focus of the sector towards alternative, natural, plant based irrigation complemented by crops that fit the local context; in addition, it creates a change movement through which farmers adopt new and sustainable farming techniques and organize themselves into cooperatives, in order to manage the entire new farming cycle.
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.
In 2008, during her university studies, Sarah presented her idea to the Ministry of Environment in Tunisia, who refused to create any sort of collaboration. Initially, Sarah wanted to cooperate with the ministry to plant Acacia trees within desert areas in order to create a green belt to protect rural lands from the sand and wind. Despite being rejected by the government, Sarah’s entrepreneurial spirit pushed her to find a more strategic entry point.
Continuing to work on her idea, just a few months later Sarah was nominated as a young changemaker by Ashoka’s Youth Venture, who worked with her to create a professional business plan for her idea “Acacias for All.” From her time working with Ashoka, Sarah learned how working to create change through citizens and farmers would be more strategic and scalable for implementing her vision. She won the Youth Venture prize in 2009.
Following extensive market research, Sarah decided that her strategy would focus on changing farmer’s practices and ideas when it comes to the sustainability of their land. She wanted to offer new alternative seeds to replace commonly cultivated crops, open new channels for farmers through research on desertification, and enable them to think sustainably and create higher economic returns by organizing them into cooperatives.
To change the farmers’ production practices, Sarah began working with female rural farmers in the village of Bir-Salah in Tunisia in 2011. She recognized that women represent a strong entry point into the agricultural sector, as they are more receptive to change. Additionally, most women own small pieces of land and have no adequate access to education or markets. Sarah regularly met with the women, discussed their problems, and offered her solutions. Not only did Sarah do field visits and talked with the women, she also built a demonstration center in Bir-Salah in 2012. The demonstration center contained a seed nursery where sustainable farming practices were used by Sarah and her team.
Having studied possible solutions to desertification, Sarah introduced the Acacias plants into the farming communities of Tunisia as an alternative for the commonly cultivated crops of olives and almonds, which cannot withstand salty water. The Acacia is a tree characterized by very long roots that extend up to100 meters underground, providing the soil with nitrogen and bringing fresh water to the surface. Thus, the roots keep the soil salt free while also re-fertilizing it. Acacias can be irrigated with water that has 8 grams or less of salt per liter, as opposed to other traditional crops that cannot be cultivated with water that has more than 3 grams of salt per liter. Additionally, Acacias are adaptable to desert conditions and when planted around a farm they create a green belt, preventing the invasion of sand and wind. This allows for the growth of fruits and vegetables inside the farm. Moreover, after 3 years, Acacia trees produce Arabic gum and Moringa oil, which have an economic value. Arabic gum is incorporated into many global industrial processes, like manufacturing yogurt, cosmetics, fizzy drinks, medical products and agro-products. Moringa oil is used for massages and relaxation.
In her demonstration center’s seed nursery, Sarah planted 1500 Acacia trees to showcase them to the community. When the first batch produces Arabic gum, the money will be re-invested in Sarah’s operations as a revenue stream. To secure the funds for the demonstration seed nursery, Sarah carried out a crowdfunding campaign through which she raised 3,000 Euros.
Sarah has now built a second seed nursery where she plants and grows Acacia trees until they are ready for cultivation in rural farms. Sarah has been able to impact the lives of 483 women by giving them Acacia trees for their farms—each woman receiving 10 trees. Through a grant from the Orange Foundation in 2013, Sarah was able to plant 5000 Acacia seeds in her new seed nursery. Additionally, she hired three people to further the work of her organization.
It was not only important that farmers were receptive to the idea of changing their traditional crops to Acacias, but also that they adopt an approach to agricultural practices that focused more on the long term sustainability of their land. To achieve this, Sarah trains farmers on permaculture and sustainable farming techniques.
Partnering with several research institutions and organizations, trainings detail the process by which small land spaces can be used to yield large financial returns by employing sustainability practices. Examples of sustainability practices that farmers receive training on are: building homogenous sustainable crops; use of safe irrigation water; new technologies for water treatment; and maximizing the use of natural products and fertilizers rather than pesticides.
To document and measure her impact on the land, Sarah has partnered with the Observatory of Sahel and Sahara – OSS, an international observatory based in Tunisia for scientific studies on desertification and salty water. This partnership will not only allow her to produce evidence on the impact of her idea, it will also allow Sarah to continually work with the OSS and Tunisian engineers’ to research and experiment, in order to find new opportunities and techniques that can be used by farmers to fight climate change and desertification.
A major contributing factor to Sarah’s success in convincing farmers to change their practices is that her solution to fight desertification is coupled with economic returns that will help to save the farmers from rural poverty. To achieve this, Sarah established a cooperative for rural women who are planting Acacia trees. A woman has to pay $6 as a one-time joining fee. The cooperative acts as the organization front through which women can sell their Arabic gum and Moringa oil. Sarah further empowers the women through trainings on entrepreneurship and business skills with the help of university students. Additionally, Sarah links the women to international and regional markets that seek to purchase Arabic gum. Profits from the cooperative go to the rural female entrepreneurs, with a small percentage taken to cover the costs of Sarah’s organization and seeds nursery.
Additionally, for financial sustainability, Sarah has a payment system on her organization’s website where individuals and companies can compensate for their carbon footprints by sponsoring the plantation of new Acacia trees.
Long-term plans include spreading to Morocco and Algeria as both countries are facing the same environmental problems. The cultural and agricultural context is also favorable for her idea in these regions. This work would impact the lives of over 10 million farmers who would be working through over 100,000 cooperatives. Sarah plans to put her model and techniques online to open source information and make the information available for everyone to use, thereby changing the face of the Agriculture sector.