With up to 40% of soils worldwide already degraded, there are multiple global targets and initiatives to halt or reverse further negative trends, such as SDG target 15.3 on Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) or the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
The fundamental question is: despite the wide availability of technical knowledge, demonstrated benefits at the farm and landscape levels, and ambitious commitments to restore degraded soils and land, why does progress remain so elusive?
Under the auspices of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit’s (GIZ) Global Programme, ‘Soil Protection and Rehabilitation for Food Security’ (ProSoil), TMG Research and partners from Benin, Burkina Faso, and Kenya, recently organized a digital forum exploring how to galvanize change from the ground up. The session highlighted insights from seven years of participatory research and community-based pilot projects co-implemented by TMG and its partners. ProSoil is part of the special initiative, ‘One World, No Hunger,’ launched in 2014 by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
“The recognition of soil as a unifier across the complex and interrelated related global challenges is something that we as a global community need to leverage for implementation at the national and sub-national level,” said Sasha Alexander, UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) addressing the forum.
Social innovation: creating an enabling environment from the bottom up
In an opening segment analyzing why people’s lives are not changing despite years of technical and financial investments, TMG Researchers stressed that predominant technocratic approaches to soil management neglect entrenched sociocultural, economic, and political constraints. This not only discourages smallholder farmers from applying promoted technologies but limits the scaling up of promising solutions. Hence, what is needed are not only technological improvements, but “social innovation,” which is tantamount to changing entrenched practices at the sociocultural and institutional levels to help strengthen the broader enabling environment for sustainable land management (SLM).
Three countries, three social innovations
Over the past seven years, TMG and GIZ, in collaboration with grassroots partners and local administrators in Benin, Burkina Faso, and Kenya, have jointly developed and piloted innovations to tackle challenges linked to land tenure security and inclusive access to extension services.
In Western Kenya, we worked with the women’s organization, Shibuye Community Health Workers, to address land tenure challenges faced by female-headed households and young farmers. The innovation involved developing a more robust approach to securing access to leased land, known as community-led land lease guidelines. A recent survey found that soil restorative measures promoted by the ProSoil project have more than doubled since the introduction of the guidelines, confirming that secure land contracting arrangements can provide assurance for land users to invest in land productivity.
Likewise, in Burkina Faso, our collaboration with the Ouagadougou-based NGO, Groupe de Recherche et d’Action sur le Foncier (GRAF), spearheaded a process to secure land use rights for women. Through a carefully managed process of awareness raising and consensus building at the community and household levels, male heads of household agree to formally transfer land use rights, often permanently, to their wives and other female family members. To date, more than 1,800 women in 16 ProSoil intervention villages have more secure access to land as a result.
In Benin, we worked with a local research institute, LRIDA at the University of Parakou, to develop the Tem Sesiabun Gorado (TSG) model, a farmer-to-farmer knowledge transfer mechanism. With a focus on strengthening trust and accountability at the community level, this approach empowers farmers to take agency in training their peers. GIZ has subsequently adopted and upscaled the TSG model beyond the initial project beneficiaries, reaching 450 villages and more than 90,000 farmers between 2019 and 2021.
“The new extension model […] has been subject to dialogue with the regional agricultural development agencies and as a result by now they are integrating it into their own extension approaches for different value chains,” said Anneke Trux, Head of Global Programme, ‘Soil Protection and Rehabilitation for Food Security,’ at GIZ.
Fostering social innovation across landscapes: some takeaway messages
The interplay of perspectives by local, national, and international changemakers at the digital forum provided a rare opportunity to jointly reflect on what it takes to galvanize multi-level partnerships to foster an enabling environment for change. The discussions reinforced three key lessons we have learned about how to design and promote social innovations that contribute towards national and global soil restoration targets.
First, social innovation is as much about the outcome as it is about the process. The social innovations in Western Kenya, Burkina Faso, and Benin highlighted above did not come about spontaneously. They emerged from a deliberate and systematic process of awareness raising and genuine involvement of all relevant stakeholders. The result, as the example of Burkina Faso shows, is a marked change in prevailing sociocultural attitudes. This has led to increased acceptance by men of “sharing” control over land with women, a crucial pre-condition for strengthening women’s tenure security in the long term.
“People accept much better this idea that women should have secure access to land because they’ve seen that this will be for the benefit of the families and communities,” said Saydou Koudougou, Executive Secretary, GRAF.
Second, social innovations prosper in genuinely inclusive partnerships. The importance of multi-stakeholder participation is routinely included in policy decisions and project documents, yet genuine engagement remains difficult to achieve in practice. The process of developing land lease guidelines in Kenya demonstrates that incorporating diverse perspectives, including from community-based organizations, technical service providers, local administrators, and external agencies such as TMG and GIZ, can lead to more sustainable results. Such an approach not only helps to reflect the complexity of land access challenges, but also increases the likelihood that implementation of the guidelines will continue once the externally funded project is phased out.
“What is very relevant is the buy-in of the local government into this process to the extent that they were actually driving this agenda to where now we have guidelines that have been accepted by the governor to be formally legalized and be not only implemented in parts but also in the entire county,” said Flora Ajwera, Agricultural Advisor, GIZ Kisumu, Kenya.
Third, social innovations share common characteristics that can be applied to other contexts. Social innovations often emerge where there is a convergence of interests to tackle entrenched barriers to change. As highlighted above, this requires a scale of intervention that is sufficiently small to address the specific social constraints faced on the ground. At the same time, many soil and land management challenges are also shared across agroecological or sociocultural boundaries. The fact that the TSG model in Benin has been disseminated to other parts of the country is a testament to the potential of social innovations to tackle entrenched issues at a broader scale.
“The scale of the challenge often leads to search for scalable approaches and scalable models, and often these models are understood as very specific technologies that run the risk of becoming blueprints or silver bullets. … What we have presented today is the slightly different model. It’s a model that truly builds on local knowledge and bottom-up initiatives,” said Jes Weigelt, Head of Programmes, TMG Research.
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By 2026, ProSoil aims to restore over 800,000 hectares of land, to enable enhanced food security and to improve the livelihoods of 3 million people across six African countries and in India. The programme has so far contributed to the rehabilitation of more than half a million hectares of land in the seven countries, with an estimated 40% rise in yields and improved livelihoods for 1.2 million people.
This article concludes our two-part reflection on how to effectively link global aspirations on land restoration to local action to achieve the SDGs. Read the first guest article here.