Interview with a great man, Yacouba Sawadogo the ‘man who wanted to stop the desert’

Achille Sawadogo
7 min readNov 13, 2018
From right to left: Achille, Yacouba, community members


On October 5, 2018, exactly 2 weeks after he returned from his trip to Stockholm, Sweden where he received alternative Nobel Prize for his work against the advancing desert, Yacouba Sawadogo, 80 years old, ‘the man who wanted to stop the desert’ accepted to give me an interview.

After the traditional ‘father and son’ welcome and greetings as its common in the Burkinabe culture, we had a 20 minutes exchange. This was about Yacouba biography, his experiences, achievements and his plans. Then I went for a round walking away, accompanied by few young men that Yacouba put at my disposal, for one hour and half to see what was done effectively.

Biography of Yacouba SAWADOGO

Photo credit: Afrique connection

Achille: Can you please introduce yourself and your work?

Yacouba : My name is Mr. Yacouba Sawadogo. I am from the village of Gourga, Yatenga province, Burkina Faso. My work is farming and environnent protection.

Achille : Could you briefly talk about your experiences to present?

Yacouba : First I was a local business man. Then I moved to farming.

Achille : Why did you decide to move from business to farming?

Yacouba : By considering our community and the natural environment, we experienced good and bad in the past. So we noticed that if nothing is done today, it will be a big loss in the future as a lot of things could disappear. We decided to invest ourselves into farming so that the soil would regenerate, to benefit people and plants.

Achille : How are the reforestation activities structured organisationally?

Yacouba : I used to work alone in the past, in the 1970s. Then I created the « Zaï association » which has progressively attracted many members. We show the Zaï technic to members sot hey could spread it elsewhere.

Achille: How many members are there in your association?

Yacouba: Our association is very big. We have members and representatives across the country. And we carry out farming and environment protection activities.

The Zaï technique explained!

Credit photo: afrik21

Achille : What means ‘Zaï’ ?

Yacouba : Zaï is a word in the local language Moore. It stands for ‘take maximum advantage of’ or ‘anticipate’ in farming activities. In practice, we dig holes and we fill them with droppings and other organic debris to retain the maximum of water, so the seeds and new shoots can survive during the dry season.

Achille: Why has reforestation been a priority to you?

Yacouba: It started in the 1960s, 1980s where we experienced a long period of famine here. It was nearly impossible to get a handful of cereals to buy in the market of Ouahigouya. Even some big farmers who used to have 40–50 granaries were running out of supplies. This was a big issue for all of us, so we decided to do something to overcome it.

Achille : What are the types of trees that you reforest and why?

Yacouba : We reforest medicinal plants; we prefer them even if they don’t produce a lot of fruits. So we do not plant feeding trees like mangoes, guavas.

Achille: What do medicinal plants mean to you?

Yacouba : Those were used to treat human being and many other things.

Achille: In which locations did you reforest so far?

Yacouba: We did reforestation in many places across Burkina Faso but most in the province of Yatenga. We are also here to recommend some reforestation place to anyone who may be interested. We do also move to share our reforestation knowledge in different places if needed.

Achille : What are the difficulties that you encounter in reforestation?

Yacouba : Farming has always been difficult. The only attention needed to take protect a tree is a great effort.

The dream of Yacouba…

Achille: What are your plans now?

Yacouba: We have a lot of ambitions for the future. First, we need a support from the Burkina government to delimit a listed reforestation area around our plants and to issue the official property documents. Here in the village of Gourga, around 20 hectares are concerned.

We also call our friends, partisans and partners worldwide for help to build a river for humans, animals and plants. There is a handmade river that we built but it is very small. We also need a medical centre that should value medicinal plants. This would benefit from our past achievements in terms of diversity of the plants that we reforested.

Handmade river by Yacouba, photo by Achille
Sign for medicinal plants
View of some reforested plants
Some plant medicines for sale, made by Yacouba

Achille : What about your relationship with the public environment service?

Yacouba : We did not receive any visit from them since two years. They have more power than us. I have been forcing my attentions on them for 43 years to get some support but I received nothing. Today I am old and tired of running and talking, so I decided to continue the fight with the people who support me. Since then, we did not contact each other. I am not in conflict with them and I did not offence anyone, I am just telling the truth. I received honours and decorations but not materials even a single wheelbarrow. I am old now, they should be the following me not the opposite.

Achille : We saw the news on the internet when you received alternative Nobel prize in Stockholm for your fight against desert advancing. You exposed your willing to share your knowledge with young generation, what do you have tell them?

Yacouba : Thank you again to those who honoured our work. Yes, we are really open to share our knowledge that would benefit them and the environment. I must tell you that if we had the necessary support to spread the Zaï technique accross the country, there wouldn’t be any more famine in Burkina Faso.

Shoots of cereals protected with the Zaï technique

Achille : Did you ever envision yourself teaching in research institutes, schools or universities in Burkina Faso or elsewhere ?

Yacouba : This is my ambition. There was a time (50 years ago) when I was living in Mali. I remember that there was not a single health facility identifiable on the way from here to Mali. So we used to treat people with medicinal plants but also with the soil. Because some components of soil are good for human health; soil can also work as a filter to retain drinking water. All that I wish now is to share what I know before I leave this world, to benefit next generations.

Achille : What do you have to say about your prize?

Yacouba : I am very thankful to those who honoured with this prize. We are most happy because we will invest it into the vulgarisation of the Zaï reforestation technique. One should note that it takes time and means to share experience. Please remember my dream: build a medical centre using medicinal plants, build a river for people, animals and plants, have a listed reforestation area. Thank you for visiting us.


Mr. S.O, son of Yacouba and member of the Zaï association. “There was a time when the old man Yacouba was the laughingstock of the community. Some even treated him as ‘crazy’ because of his conviction. But today I beg that the community finally acknowledges with honesty that his fight is noble and support him on this. Some even dared to cut up to 500 trees that Yacouba reforested, pretexting to build houses. It’s very frustrating that trees disappear in one day while it took Yacouba 50 years to take care of them. The prize he received is honouring Burkina Faso at large. So it’s time that people understand this and support him”.

Mr. Ouédraogo, Primary school teacher

“I congratulate Yacouba in regard of all the efforts that he made. Just imagine the difficulties behind transforming an empty piece of land into a forest. Talking about the alternative Nobel prize, some would spend long years on studies and research in reputed universities or institutes but they wouldn’t receive this honour prize. So here is a reason to say that Yacouba has worked really hard”.

Gallery of pictures

Piece of the soil before Yacouba starts reforesting, left as a testimony
A big hole filled with droppings and other organic debris to be put later in smaller holes for new shoots
Grains of millet thrown on a reserved area for birds
Drinking trough dug on the rock for jackrabbits
Handmade well to water plants
Wire fence to limit and protect the site, village of Gourga



Achille Sawadogo

Mandela Washington Fellow, for Young African Leaders — Civic engagement — Development Cooperation, Economist, Project Management skills, Free learner