Sarah Toumi

2016 Young Laureate, Environment
France, Tunisia, Born 1987

Project Goal

Combat desertification and reduce poverty among farmers in Tunisia 

Location: Tunisia

Holding back the Sahara

As a girl Sarah Toumi dreamed of changing the world: today she is working towards it, by driving back the Sahara Desert with a sustainable army of hardy trees. Visiting her father’s homeland, Tunisia, Toumi quickly realized that farming methods had to change. In 2012, she founded Acacias for All, to spread the adoption of these tough but valuable trees as a barrier against the encroaching desert and salinization. Today, her botanical army consists of 20 kinds of trees, plus vegetables and medicinal plants, which are putting new income into poor farmers’ pockets, as well as reclaiming the “sandscape”. She plans to plant a million trees by 2018, regreen 50,000 hectares of lost land, and spread her message to Algeria and Morocco.

As a young girl growing up in France, Sarah Toumi dreamed of becoming a leader who could make the world a better place. Her passion to help others was kindled when, from the age of nine, she accompanied her Tunisian father to his birthplace in the east of the country during holidays. There she organized homework clubs and activities for children.

Toumi witnessed first-hand the destructive effect of desertification. “Within 10 years rich farmers became worse off, and in 10 years from now they will be poor. I wanted to stop the desert in its tracks.” A decrease in average rainfall and an increase in the severity of droughts has led to an estimated 75 per cent of Tunisia’s agricultural lands being threatened by desertification.

Toumi recognized that farming practices needed to change. She is confident that small land areas can yield large returns if farmers are able to adapt by planting sustainable crops, using new technologies for water treatment and focusing on natural products and fertilizers rather than pesticides.

In 2012, Toumi consolidated her dream to fight the desert. “My father died and I realized I had to choose between my fears and my expectations. I decided to dedicate my life to the lives of others,” she recalls. That year, she moved to Tunisia, and set up Acacias for All. “I want to show young people in rural areas that they can create opportunities where they are. Nobody is better able to understand the impact of desertification and climate change than somebody who is living with no access to water. I am reminded daily of the consequences of inaction.”

With low rainfall, Tunisia has been depleting its aquifers at such a high rate

that it is feared there will be no water left in 50 years. The groundwater has a high salt content, which is ill-suited for irrigating the traditional local crops of olives and almonds. Toumi’s approach is to advise farmers to choose crops that are better suited to the new environment. To this end, acacia trees spearhead Toumi’s sustainable farming philosophy, as their long roots not only bring to the surface essential nitrogen but also fresh water, reducing the salt density of the soil, revitalizing the land, and creating a greenbelt to prevent further erosion. To supply income, the Acacia raddiana produces Arabic gum within four years, while Moringa powder is produced from the leaves of another plant, Moringa oleiferaafter only two months, offering quick returns.

Acacias for All encourages farmers to become economically self-sufficient,

organizing them into cooperatives to manage the new farming cycle, from

planting to selling. “These practices provide new economic opportunities,” Toumi explains. If farmers plant 20 different species of tree on a single hectare of land (including acacia, aloe vera, olive, almond, date palm, carob, as well as vegetables and medicinal plants), they can expect to earn US$20,000–$30,000 annually.

By September 2016, more than 130,000 acacia trees had been planted on 20

pilot farms, with farmers recording a 60 per cent survival rate. Toumi estimates that some 3 million acacia trees are needed to protect Tunisia’s arable spaces. She expects to plant 1 million trees by 2018, restoring 50,000 hectares of land to fertility. In the next couple of years Toumi hopes to extend the programme to Algeria and Morocco.

Other 2016 Young Laureates