Yacouba Sawadogo is a Burkinabe farmer who in the 1980s reintroduced Zai, a traditional African agricultural technique, which helps restore barren lands and which significantly increases soil fertility and crop yields.
Rainwater catching and management is key for survival in the desert lands of western Sahel region (Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali). With Zai (or Tassa), one digs holes in the soil across a field during preseason to catch water and concentrate nutrients for plants. The holes are usually 60-90 cm apart and each is 20-30 cm deep and wide, and one fills the holes with manure and other organic material. Seeds are sown in the holes, and a small dam is sometimes constructed around the field. When rain falls, the holes store the water and plants draw water as required.
Yacouba Sawadogo began experimenting in 1980s with ideas for tackling desertification in Burkina Faso. Sawadogo learned of the ancient Zai technique and experimented with it. It worked, and he continued to innovate and experiment with it. One of Sawadogo’s innovations was to ensure in the holes the presence of termites whose tunnels allow for deeper rainwater infiltration.
Since then, Sawadogo and colleagues have spread Zai best practices throughout the region. Across hundreds of thousands of hectares where Zai has been adopted, water has been better conserved, crop yields improved, forests grown, water table levels risen up by 5-17 meters, desertification halted and better food security achieved, with crops being produced even in years of drought. In one area of Burkina Faso, for example, Zai adoption increased millet yields from 300 kg of millet per hectare to 1,000-2,000 kg per hectare; in an area of Ethiopia, Zai increased potato yields by 500%-2000% and bean yields by 250%.
Nigerian activist Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu, reflecting on the rediscovery of Zai, says: “Africa’s advancement rests simply in the acknowledgment, validation and mainstreaming of Africa’s own traditional, authentic, original, indigenous knowledge in education, in research, in policy making and across sectors.”
By Rahim Mawji