Desertification is an increasing problem due to climate change. 250 million people are directly affected by the degradation of fertile land.
Reclaiming arid lands and converting them back to agricultural fields may be the key to feeding the world's population.
Sand to Green, a Moroccan startup, can turn a desert patch into a profitable and sustainable plantation within five years. Wissal Bin Moussa is its co-founder.
She says that 'Desertification' is the future for many countries. Our solution is to use agroforestry in order to create a sustainable agriculture that can be resilient against climate change.
The system is able to be installed anywhere, near a source that produces brackish water. Sand to Green uses solar technology to desalinate the water. The system then intercrops a range of fruit-producing plants and herbs on the same area, a technique known as drip irrigation. This minimizes evaporation.
Ben Moussa says that the soil is rejuvenated using a mixture called 'green manure', which includes biochar, compost and microorganisms to help the soil "wake up". Biochar, a type of charcoal, can help arid land retain water.
Some herbs can be harvested after only two years.
Sand to Green, a company that has been operating a five-hectare test in southern Morocco since 2017, has tested a wide range of plants to find the most efficient ones. Ben Moussa's top three trees are the carob, the fig, and the pomegranate. They are native to the areas where we are looking to plant, and they have a high added-value in terms of the products. But, they are also extremely resilient.
Ben Moussa says that intercropping herbs like rosemary, geranium and vetiver have proven to be a very low-maintenance, high-margin option.
In a 2018 report by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, it was found that land degradation would cause the global economy to lose $23 trillion dollars by 2050. However, urgent action could cost just 4.6 trillion dollars. Land degradation and drought are a problem in 169 countries. Asia and Africa are the worst-affected.
The efforts to grow crops in the desert are increasing. The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture grows salt-tolerant superfoods in the sandy soils of Dubai. In Tanzania, non profit organizations are using bunds, or earth mounds, to trap water and allow it to penetrate parched land, allowing grasses return.
Sand to Green has now scaled up to a commercial proof-of concept site of 20 hectares, also in the southern Moroccan region. The company says that a 20-hectare commercial proof-of concept site would cost EUR450,000 (US$475,000) and start to generate financial returns within five years.
Ben Moussa explains that 'with this system, we create biodiversity which means healthier crops, better soil and a higher yield'. Our plantation is capable of producing 1.5 times the yield, and therefore more revenue, than a monoculture in the same region.
Ben Moussa, Sand to Green's CEO, says that when each plot of land is commercialized, it will be divided up into plantations, which will be offered as a "green investment". Sand to green will handle every step, from conception to completion. The investors will share the revenues with Sand to Green.
Earlier this year, the companyraised $1 millionin seed funding, and there are plans for an additional,500-hectare project, again in Morocco.
Sand to Green claims that its techniques can be used in Mauritania and Senegal as well as Namibia, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, certain parts of the United States and along Mexico's coast. Ben Moussa says that he can travel anywhere as long as he has access to brackish waters. The good news is there's a lot along the coast.