The Sahara Desert was once a lush landscape full of exotic plants and wildlife, before a dramatic era of climate change created the arid plains of today.
Now an ambitious, high-tech agriculture project could make the desert bloom again, and establish a new green economy in the process.
Norwegian social enterprise Sahara Forest Project (SFP) is preparing for the construction of a $30 million facility over 10 hectares in Tunisia — where desert covers around 75% of territory — which will bring together cutting edge technologies to regenerate the environment, deliver fresh food and water, and create jobs.
“We try to achieve a triple bottom line,” says Joakim Hauge, CEO of the company. “Something that makes financial sense, but also delivers social and environmental benefits.”
Solutions inspired by nature
The SFP has developed a model based on using resources that are abundant to deliver scarcities. This principle will be reflected in the core technologies of the Tunisian facility.
The desert sun will be harnessed for solar power to heat and electrify the site. Seawater will be piped in to cool greenhouses and allow year-round cultivation of crops, a ‘biomimicry’ process inspired by the Namibian fog-basking beetle.
Seawater will also be desalinated to extract both salt and fresh water, and the humidity of the greenhouses will be used to spur the growth of new plant life outside the facility, in the hope of regenerating a wider ecosystem.
The methods may seem far-fetched, but a successful pilot of the model in Qatar produced vegetables at a comparable rate to European farms over three crops a year, while plants multiplied rapidly around it. A scaled up facility is under construction in Jordan.
Hauge says that efficiency has improved as the group have learned to adapt their model to particular conditions.
“We have learned more about the value of local knowledge,” he says, adding that the Tunisian project would rely on local talent across a spectrum of jobs from farming to highly-skilled, technical positions.
Hauge hopes the project, and its local employees, can inspire growth in the nation’s renewable sector.
Right place, right time
Tunisia was chosen as the site for the project on October 9, 2015 — the day a group of Tunisian activists were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” that preceded a transition to democracy.
“Tunisia was always interesting for its physical conditions,” says Hauge. “Political developments made it increasingly interesting for us.”
That same day, the SFP convinced the Norwegian Foreign Ministry that a newly dynamic and forward-thinking Tunisia would be the ideal host for their project, and secured funding for it.
The Tunisian government has also been supportive, as it seeks solutions to growing climate threats such as droughts and floods. Tunisia recently committed to raising 30% of energy from renewable sources by 2030, up from just 1% in 2015.
In addition to addressing an emergency, the clean energy industry also offers another symbolic break from the past.
“The renewable sector can be good for our economic transition, after the success of the political transition,” says Ammar ben Lamine, the Tunisian Ambassador to Norway, and a key ally of the SFP project.
Like doing ‘agriculture on Mars’
Despite the success of the SFP pilot in Qatar, there are doubts that the project can deliver on its grand promise.
“The problems are not dissimilar to doing agriculture on Mars,” says Professor Heribert Hirt, head of the Center for Desert Agriculture at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.
“(Among) the biggest problems in the entire region of Northern Africa and the Arab countries are the dust and sand storms that constantly cover up solar panels and get into all machinery that is exposed.”
However, Hirt believes that the SFP is “worth the effort and will teach us more how to transform these vast regions of unused land back into agriculture.”
Addressing desertification has become a global challenge, that is listed among the UN’s sustainable development goals for all member states. Responses to the challenge include the African Union’s “Great Green Wall” initiative.
The SFP intend to scale up their model to have a greater impact. Looking beyond its work in Tunisia and Jordan, the group has embryonic plans for a 4000-hectare mega-facility that would employ 6,000 people and deliver 170,000 tons of produce each year.
Should such plans come to fruition, the Sahara could enter a new, green era.