Photograph shows shallow pockets in the ground which collect rainwater and also decaying organic matter which acts as fertiliser.Yacouba Sawadogo & community

The Innovation:

In the 1980s in Burkina Faso, Yacouba Sawadogo developed Zai pits, or planting pockets, that increase drought resistance during dry seasons. The farming method works by digging holes that are 20 x 15 centimeters deep and filling them with organic matter. This creates a microenvironment that leads to increased termite activity which, in turn, increases the rate of water infiltration when the rains come. Through the digging of Zai pits, degraded, hardpan soils impossible to plow can still be productive rather than abandoned. The technique is traditionally used in western Sahel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. A documentary called The Man Who Stopped the Desert (2010) portrays the life of the farmer-innovator Yacouba Sawadogo.

You can read more about this farmer innovation here.

The Impact:

The impacts of Zai pits are numerous and far-reaching. First and foremost are the environmental impacts. By restoring degraded drylands and increasing soil fertility, this innovation has effectively stopped desertification in the sub-Saharan regions in which it is used. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Desertification, which turns usable desert lands into uninhabitable wastelands, is a self-perpetuating process that, left unchecked, currently consumes 12 million hectares of land each year. Reversing this process is essential for the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity.

These pits also prevent rainwater from being lost as runoff. Instead, the water is trapped in the holes close to the roots of the crops. Combined, these impacts enable farming communities to increase crop yields, growing enough food to feed themselves as well as providing a source of income.