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To combat the effects of desertification in her home country, Tunisia, Sarah Toumi came up with the innovative solution of planting acacia trees and employing sustainable farming practices. In the process, she is also empowering women in the region.
Born to a Tunisian father and French mother, Sarah Toumi had an interest in social work from an early age. When she was 11 years old, with her father’s help, she founded her first organization, in her home village of Bir Salah in Tunisia, to help the local children get access to education.
In 2011, following the Tunisian Revolution, Sarah gave up her comfortable life in Paris, and moved to Tunisia.
She noticed how desertification, an environmental problem, was having economic and social effects too. Shocked by the increasing levels of rural poverty caused by desertification, motivated her to act, and she set up her foundation, Acacias For All. “I wanted to stop the desert in its tracks,” she says.
She began with extensive market research, which helped her identify that her strategy should focus on changing farmer’s practices and ideas about farming, to make them more sustainable. She also realized that women, being more open to change, would be a stronger entry point. So she began working with female rural farmers.
A main part of the strategyis the planting of acacia trees as an alternative for the commonly cultivated crops of olives and almonds. Acacias easily grow in desert conditions. Additionally, when planted around a farm they create a green belt. This prevents sand and wind from getting into the farm, allowing for the growth of fruits and vegetables inside the farm. The ground becomes richer, more fertile and recovers its biodiversity.
She also trains farmers on sustainability practices like: building homogenous sustainable crops; use of safe irrigation water; new technologies for water treatment; and maximizing the use of natural products and fertilizers rather than pesticides.
She has also ensured, by forming a female farmer’s cooperative, that they are able to get economic returns for the produce from these farms. Not forgetting the young and urban population, Sarah has also developed a mobile app that incentivizes planting of trees.
As always, the path was filled with obstacles. The Tunisian Ministry of Environment rejected her original business plan and banks wouldn’t loan her the capital because she was a woman. Nevertheless, she persisted. A Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016, gave her further financial support, which she used to test irrigation systems and to buy seeds for moringa trees, a fast-growing, drought-resistant species.
In addition to fighting the desert, Sarah also fights the patriarchy. “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…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?” To empower women and to give them a safe space to share their ideas, she has set up an NGO which has a youth centre, a women’s centre and an entrepreneurship centre.
Sarah, who was a change maker from a young age, believes that future generations must be nurtured and supported. “For those who think that their children will become successful if they simply become a doctor or lawyer, they are wrong. Their children will be completely out of the game… But young people have the ability to dream without constraints. They are connected, have access to information, can travel and talk to people who are different, and talk across continents. What they need is support from my generation and older to gain the skills and motivation to believe in themselves, do things and try.”
In December 2013, Acacias for All was chosen by the French government as one of the 100 innovations that would shape the future of sustainable development in Africa. Sarah is an Ashoka Fellow, an Echoing Green 2015 Climate Fellow, and TedX Women speaker. She 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.
Desertification affects 168 countries across the world. More than 3.2 billion people, or two in every five, are affected. 70-90% of the Arabian Peninsula is under threat of desertification. This can have huge impacts on food security and socio-economic development and stability. There is a great need for novel solutions to the problem. Sarah Toumi, and Acacias for All, are making great contributions to this fight.
The theme of International Women’s Day, 2019, which falls on March 8th, is “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. #IWD2019
With women still a minority in science, technology & related innovation, it’s time to shine a spotlight on female innovation champions! Enjoy our Women Innovators Around The World series, where we profile 19 inspiring women innovators, from 19 countries, whose work has a big social impact.
Want to know what other innovations women around the world have pioneered? Read about Nga Tuyet Trang here.
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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a
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