Burkina Faso Farmer Wins Champion Of Earth Award For Fighting The Desert

Champion of The Earth 2020

The United Nations Champion of the Earth Award is an honor bestowed on individuals whose actions not only inspire us but proves we have what it takes to turn the tides of climate change in favor of humanity. On the 11th of December 2020, the UN announced six honorees of this award for the year 2020. Among these exemplary individuals is Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer from Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso is a country in West Africa that relies heavily on Agriculture, which accounts for 32% of its GDP. This is bad news for a country that is battling drought and desert encroachment, especially in its Northern region.

UNEP Tweet acknowledging Yacouba Sawadogo’s revolutionary farming technique that helped to curb desertification in his country.

Yacouba’s award is in honor of his inspiring work in transforming the deserted farmlands into arable lands. The farmer is a true champion, fighting back against nature after the terrible drought of 1980 swept through his village destroying farmlands and resulting in famine. Rather than run away, Yacouba used an ancient farming technique to regenerate the once barren land.

Who is Yacouba Sawadogo?

Champion of the Earth 2020
Yacouba Sawadogo (Photo credit: @rightlivelihood)

Yacouba Swadogo is a brave local farmer. Today, he is one of the most respected men in his community. However, his story did not start all glorious. When desert encroachment swept through the Sahel, it brought about farming and many people had to flee to the city. The champion of earth recipient refused to go. Rather, he chose to stay back and fight the desert. For this, many people thought he was mad.

Today, he has received international recognition for his fight against desertification in his home country, Burkina Faso. In 2018, he won the alternative Nobel prize. The award of 3 million Swedish crowns was shared with three Activists from Saudi Arabia and an Australian agronomist. In 2010, he told his story in a documentary titled “The Man Who Stopped The Desert“. Yacouba’s farming technique is called Zai. With his knowledge of Zai, Yacouba is pushing hard against the encroaching desert. The technique helps to restore the barren lands and makes them useful for cultivation.


What is Zai

Revolutionary Zai technique used by Yacouba Sawadogo, UNEP Champion of the Earth 2020
Picture of farmland showing the Zai technique used by YAcouba Sawadogo (Photo credit: agrinatura)

Zai is an unconventional farming technique that involves digging pits in hardened soil. The pits act as a source of water and nutrient for the plants. The nutrients are made available in the form of manure and other biodegradable materials.  The size of the pits varies depending on what the farmer intends to plant. Though laborious, Zai has proven to be effective in restoring farmlands and even increasing the water table. Over a period of four decades, Yacouba has successfully restored thousands of hectares of dry land using this technique. According to him, he hopes that this technique will be shared for the benefit of the youths of his country.

 Hope and Challenges


Zai being an unconventional farming technique was no longer in practice. However, Yacouba’s success in using this technique has led to its adoption and widespread recognition. This was not without some initial resistance from the locals. But, the tenacious farmer kept pressing on in the face of discouragement. 40 years later, he now teaches his technique to others.

He hopes to spread this knowledge around. To accomplish this, Yacouba began holding Zai markets. This is an event that takes place twice a year and involves representatives from more than 100 villages. Today, his impact is seen not only in Burkina Faso but in other countries where his techniques are in use.


“Yacouba Sawadogo vowed to stop the desert – and he made it. If local communities and international experts are ready to learn from his wisdom, it will be possible to regenerate large areas of degraded land, decrease forced migration and build peace in the Sahel.”

This is the view of Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation. It seems Yacouba is realizing his dreams as the government, NGOs, as well as other local farmers, now use the Zai technique. According to him,

“This project is for future generations. I don’t want to eat today and leave future generations with nothing to eat. The work I do is to create the seeds for wealth – not only for Burkina Faso but for many other countries.”

The UNEP Champion of the Earth award is befitting of this farmer who through sheer tenacity and brilliance has done so much for his country in the past four decades. Despite his best intentions, Yacouba’s achievement is under threat not by nature but by man. This is due to the ongoing expansion work in the nearby city of Ouahigouya. Since the land does not belong to him, Yacouba may lose his life’s work. Hopefully, the government will discourage further expansion and preserve the regenerated forest.

This year’s nomination for the UNEP Champion of the Earth award is now closed and we’re hoping to see the winners soon. Is there any African that desires similar recognition for their incredible work? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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