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Sarah Toumi: battling to keep the Sahara at bay

The Tunisian environmentalist is committed to fighting desertification, poverty and gender inequality

A visit to her grandfather, who lived on the fringes of the ever-expanding Sahara, gave the French-Tunisian environmentalist and entrepreneur Sarah Toumi an ambitious new purpose in life: “I wanted to stop the desert in its tracks,” she says.

Since then the 30-year-old has been working to undo the damage wrought by climate change, modern agriculture and soil erosion. In 2012, she founded the social enterprise project Acacias for All and set about carpeting the Tunisian landscape with soil-trapping trees - a barrier against the encroaching desert.

Toumi has been invited to speak about her work to world leaders at the United Nations, featured on Forbes magazine’s list of 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs in Europe and been appointed to France’s Presidential Council for Africa by President Emmanuel Macron.

Growing up in Paris, Toumi was passionate about social issues and the environment, inspired by her Tunisian father, who worked in the non-profit sector. At the age of nine, she visited his family in the small Tunisian village of Bir Salah, a three-hour drive from the capital, Tunis. It was here, over the course of several summer holidays, that Toumi saw the devastating effects of desertification on her paternal home. “I discovered a new reality, different from the Parisian reality I knew,” she says. “I could see the social and economic impact on my family. And I thought, what can we do?”

With high levels of unemployment and poverty, agriculture offers Tunisians in rural communities a vital means of survival. The sector accounts for 14% of the country’s GDP and employs a fifth of its workforce, but farms across the country are under threat from the encroaching desert. Ninety-five per cent of the arable land is in the process of desertification and there is less than 1% of fertile organic material left in the soil, according to Toumi. If nothing is done, the whole of Tunisia will be a desert by 2030, she warns.

Alarmed by rising levels of rural poverty resulting from land desertification, Toumi set up Acacias for All, an ambitious project to stop the Sahara in its tracks and restore the quality of the soils with sustainable agriculture techniques. Central to the programme is the planting of acacia trees, which are highly effective at improving biodiversity and protecting against desertification.

“We plant trees every three metres around the edges of crops,” Toumi explains. “When they grow they create compact hedges which stop sand and wind from passing through. We can then plant more trees. The ground will be richer, more fertile, and recover its biodiversity.”

The project, funded by the Belgian King Baudouin Foundation, encourages farmers to become economically self-sufficient by providing them with sustainable farming techniques and training. The acacia trees also produce gum arabic, a valuable resource used in the food and pharmaceutical industries, which gives farmers additional income. Acacias for All has contracts with all its growers, guaranteeing that everything produced will be sold on at a fair price.  

“I liked the innovative approach of Acacias for All and the idea of introducing new crops that don’t need a lot of water,” said Neija Ben Zeid, president of the organisation’s local cooperative in the northern town of Zaghouan “The idea of a contract was also appealing. I liked the idea that I would get a fixed price for whatever I grew. This is true for everyone in the cooperative,” she told The Guardian.

©Rolex/Reto Albertalli

The results of Toumi’s social enterprise speak from themselves. In farms where these techniques have been used, yields are three times higher than neighbouring crops. Her goal for 2018 is to plant one million Acacia trees in Tunisia, and spread the programme to Morocco and Algeria.  “By 2050, we want to have resolved the problem of desertification and create prosperity for people in North Africa,” she says.

But the path to success hasn’t been easy. The Tunisian Ministry of Environment rejected the entrepreneur’s original business plan and banks wouldn’t loan her the capital because she was a woman.

However, in 2016 Toumi received a Rolex Award for Enterprise. As a Young Laureate, she received financial backing to extend her work, which she used to set up a training centre for farmers, to test irrigation systems and to buy seeds for moringa trees, a fast-growing, drought-resistant species.

But it also delivered something less tangible. “Rolex philanthropy offers more than money,” she said. “They offer trust to people like me, fighting to make the impossible possible for a better world. They open their network to us and strongly believe and support us.”

Toumi praised the global reach and impact of the Rolex programme. “This award is important because it offers the opportunity for pioneers around the world to get lifelong support for their ideas,” she said, “to be promoted within their community and across the world, in order to change the status quo.”

She notes that many Tunisian girls and women, particularly those living in rural communities, don’t have the kind of economic independence and freedom the Rolex programme provides.

“If you are a young boy, you can easily take local transportation to the nearest village and sit in a cafe all day without raising any eyebrows,” Toumi told the Middle East Eye. “If you are a woman, on the other hand, regardless of your age, every step outside of the house will be questioned: What are you doing in the city? Where are you going? Why?”

Frustrated with the limits placed on the lives of women, she set up Dream in Tunisia, which provides a safe space for women to share ideas and develop their potential. Today the NGO incorporates a youth centre, a women’s centre and an entrepreneurship centre. “Here people will listen and pull you up and not push you down,” she says.

Discover more on Rolex.com

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