The New Face of Africa: Yacouba Sawadogo

The Man Who Stopped the Desert

This remarkable documentary chronicles the kind of story coming out of Africa that we don’t hear on any major news network. It is a story of how everyday people make a difference in their community. Yacouba Sawadogo  is a farmer from the west African nation of Burkina Faso who has been successfully using traditional farming techniques from the region to restore soils damaged by desertification and drought. Together with Mathieu Ouédraogo, another local farm innovator, Yacouba Sawadogo began experimenting with techniques for rehabilitating damaged soil in about 1980. He relies on simple approaches traditional to the region: cordons pierreux and zaï holes. Both Sawadogo and Ouédraogo have engaged in extension and outreach efforts to spread their techniques throughout the region.


As early as the 1970’s the word ‘ Sahel ‘, a word that describes that bleak land between the Sahara desert and the wet forest of tropical Africa , had become synonymous with famine and poverty.
Year by year desert conditions continued to creep southwards, extending ever further into the once agriculturally productive lands of the Sahel . People began to abandon their traditional homelands, turning their backs on once thriving villages and moving towards a new life in the cities. By the 1980’s the region, which then had a population of some 30 million, suffered from regular droughts and starvation. Many villages became deserted, yet Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer living in northern Burkina Faso , right at the heart of this crisis, decided he would remain steadfast against the creeping desert.
Yacouba’s family is large, with three wives and thirty-one children; he has many mouths to feed. But by reviving and adapting an ancient farming technique known as Zai Yacouba began to grow crops successfully on previously abandoned land. Rejoicing in his own triumph against the desert, Yacouba used the traditional communication hub -the market, to spread word of his innovative agricultural techniques.
But Yacouba Sawadogo’s twenty year struggle is not simply an agricultural story, it is pure drama. Yacouba’s hardest battle was not with the elements, but with the people around him. On every side he faced opposition to his new techniques. Many thought his ideas were crazy:

“At the beginning, people thought Yacouba to be a madman. I heard a lot of people saying Yacouba was mad. But today we have proof that even if it is a madness, it’s a madness that suits a lot of people.”

Prime Minister of Yatenga Region

Over cinematic reconstruction Yacouba narrates his incredible life story. We learn how, as a young man, he fought the accepted wisdom of the traditional land chiefs who opposed his new farming techniques. But Yacouba was undaunted. He perfects his technique, and today his name is synonymous with reversing the process of desertification. So much so that in November 2009 he was invited to Washington D C to share his story with policy makers on Capitol Hill.
Central to the film is the realisation that if the poorest people of the world can’t afford to live in their own countries then the reality of mass migration and food conflicts will impact on us all. (Courtesy of 1080 Films)


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