Matt Flynn, Smithsonian Institution

New exhibition features Regreening Africa mobile app

Landscape regeneration, peace efforts and tech intersect at NYC’s Cooper Hewitt museum

A mobile phone application for farmers working to regenerate degraded land in Sub-Saharan Africa has been recognized as contributing to conflict reduction by New York City’s prominent Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and included in its current exhibition “Designing Peace” (through 4 September).

The Regreening Africa App, developed by a World Agroforestry (ICRAF) team, has been included in the Cooper Hewitt exhibition alongside such varied projects as a co-housing program for young refugees and local youth in the Netherlands, body-mapping that helps former child soldiers reintegrate in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a symbolic installation on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Regreening Africa, by addressing scarcity of human needs, in turn helps overcome a root cause of conflict – one of several important themes of the exhibition, says Cynthia E. Smith, curator of socially responsible design at Cooper Hewitt.

“Resource scarcity can lead to conflict, which is also driven by social divisions, economic disparities, and environmental and political factors – problems all made more acute by global warming,” says Smith, whose exhibition includes 40 projects from around the world.

“Regreening Africa shows us how to look at an issue before conflict emerges and before these shared resources are no longer available. It builds economic stability, and that can contribute to peace.”

The app, launched in 2019 as part of the Regreening Africa project, is being used in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal and Somalia. It contributes to the project goal of restoring 1 million hectares of land and improving livelihoods for 500,000 smallholder farmers by tracking and disseminating local and scientific knowledge.

According to the app’s records, these goals are within reach, as at least 340,000 hectares of land have been restored or are under restoration, used by hundreds of enumerators and field operators who record data from about 127,000 farmers, says Muhammad N. Ahmad, spatial platforms technical lead at CIFOR-ICRAF. And those figures likely haven’t even captured the full extent of the app’s reach, he added.

The Smithsonian’s interest surprised the ICRAF team, but the logic was quickly apparent, they say. “Land degradation is huge driver of conflict. We know there is critical need for restoration, and there is a direct link from that with peace and security,” says Ahmad. Land degradation is inextricably linked to livelihoods and negatively impacts over 3.2 billion people each year globally, according to published research from members of the Regreening Africa team.  

Using the app, farmers, extension agents and project officers collect data on key indicators of land restoration, such asnumber and types of trees planted, survival rates of plants, and location and stock of tree nurseries, as well as practices on farmer-managed natural regeneration sites. Data collected is combined with spatial assessment of land health and can be applied in soil carbon monitoring, above-ground biomass assessments, tree biodiversity assessments, relating directly to climate neutrality goals or restoration targets.

The Regreening Africa installation. Matt Flynn, Smithsonian Institution
The Regreening Africa installation. Matt Flynn, Smithsonian Institution

A significant design aspect important to the app’s success is its use of icons rather than text to represent the different modules: farmer-managed natural regeneration, tree-planting, tree nurseries and training. This means users don’t need to speak either English or French – the only languages used by the current version. More languages are being added to an upcoming version, but the icons allow for illiterate farmers to still understand elements of restoration and what information to record. Training on app use is offered to farmer groups, including women and youth, adds Benard Onkware, ICRAF mobile app developer.

By providing data that’s in short supply on the ground, the Regreening Africa app can be adapted for use anywhere and will make a valuable contribution to future projects on soil and land health, restoration and land degradation. Already, the App has been downloaded in 56 countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe, as well as Nepal, India and other parts of Asia; and is ready for use in a number of tree-planting and restoration initiatives across Sub-Saharan Africa. 

“Our ambition is to make this an app that transcends projects,” says Tor-Gunnar Vagen, principal scientist and head of the CIFOR-ICRAF Spatial Data Science and Applied Learning Lab (SPACIAL).

It also encourages “assisted crowd-sourcing” or “assisted citizen science,” he says. Data collected through the app is summarized and is freely available to registered users, and outputs are available through the Regreening Africa Dashboard.

“Although we started in Regreening Africa, we wanted to really do something that can be maintained and rolled out long-term, because we think there is a critical gap in this type of information.” 

More than 80 percent of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa are dependent on land, yet almost half of the region’s land is degraded, making the soil vulnerable to droughts, storms and nutrient deficiencies. Food and nutritional security suffer, as does support for livestock that are extremely important for pastoralist communities that inhabit drylands and provide essential ecosystem services. The massive loss of productive land increases competition for dwindling resources, which can lead to migration and conflict. 

The five-year Regreening Africa initiative was developed as a response. 

Such projects also have a broader emotional reach, offering an antidote, “as the world today can feel very divisive,” says Smith. “Yet we have the ability to take action and create the world we want. Peace is something most of humanity desires, and design can play a significant and active role in addressing underlying sources of division before conflict arises.”

Regreening Africa is funded by the European Union and led by ICRAF. It’s implemented by a consortium of international NGOs, including World Vision, CARE International, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services and Sahel Eco.

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