WATERTODAY learned more about the mission to bring back degraded land and restore vegetation from Romy de Groot and the entire team at Justdiggit.
THE PROBLEM AND THE DECADE OF DOING
WT: What is Justdiggit? What inspired this project? How, where, when, why did the team come together?
De Groot: We believe in the power of Nature and in cooling down the planet by regreening degraded land and bring back vegetation. We are on a mission to regreen Africa in the coming 10 years, together with all 350 million farmers, and with you.
We empower and connect a movement of millions to give Nature a push. So far, we’ve restored 60,000 hectares, brought back over 9 million trees, and built a grassroots movement that’s growing every day. We believe now is the time to speed up and scale up! No more talking. No more waiting. This is the Decade of Doing.
Justdiggit is a Dutch NGO founded in 2010 by Dennis Karpes and the late Peter Westerveld, based in Amsterdam and Nairobi.
We have been working on ecosystem restoration in Africa for over 10 years.
Peter started by restoring ecosystems in Kenya using bulldozers to dig trenches that retain water. This approach was very successful from an ecological point of view but wasn’t locally/community owned and therefore felt a bit top down.
THE SOLUTION -- BEGINNING IN AFRICA
WT: Why did you choose to start your mission in Africa? Where did you begin?
DeGroot: Dying and degradation of the land is a global problem. Especially in vulnerable dry areas, it can have serious consequences. Regions in Africa, the Middle East, North America and South Asia are under great pressures exploring future changes in land use and land conditions and the impacts on food, water, climate change and biodiversity.
The population in these areas is growing faster in comparison with other areas making available land and water scarce.
Since we think it is important to make the impact of our projects as big as possible, our projects are in one of these most degraded areas: Africa.
65% of the land in Africa is affected by degradation, leaving a lot of space for regreening. Drought and degradation of the land cause crop failure, hunger and poverty within these areas.
The regreening in Africa also has a positive impact on local communities and animals.
WT: Your projects – what has been the impact of your work?
De Groot: Together with millions of farmers and pastoralists, we are restoring more than 300,000 hectares of dry, degraded land; 9.7 trees have regenerated; 200,000 semi-circular waterbunds have been dug; 291 million people have been reached globally; and 8 grass seed banks have been established.
WT: And the solution? What are your land restoration techniques?
DeGroot: Justdiggit uses various techniques to bring back vegetation within degraded areas. The farmers in Tanzania are busy with a technique called Farmer Management Natural Regeneration (FMNR), also known as Kisiki Hai in Swahili. It helps the farmers to regrow felled trees.
Within Kenya, the women and men of the communities dig water-bunds to harvest rainwater and develop so-called olopololis: grasslands which are protected to prevent overgrazing by livestock.
We started working with amazing partners such as Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, Amboseli Ecosystem Trust and African Conservation Centre. These partnerships allowed us to work grassroots with and alongside the local communities who live on and benefit from the restored land.
RESTORING THE WATER CYCLE
WT: What are waterbunds? How are your techniques restoring water and soil?
DeGroot: Bunds or as we call them “Earth Smiles” are semi-circular shaped pits that capture rainwater. They are dug in our project areas in Africa in order to capture rainwater that would otherwise be washed away over the dry, barren soil. By digging bunds, we can regreen large areas in a very short amount of time, benefiting biodiversity, nature, people and eventually our climate.
By capturing rainwater with the help of bunds, it has more time to enter the soil. The water balance is restored, and more water is available for the seeds present in the soil. These seeds now get the chance to sprout. Sometimes we give the regreening process a little push, by sowing extra seeds within the buds.
The Earth Smiles, aka waterbunds, are completely run by the local Maasai communities, providing them with income and ownership
Since 2014, communities in Kenya have dug over 180,000 of these Earth Smiles, restoring enormous plots of previously considered lost lands.
Once the community-based approach rooted within our community we started working with the LEAD Foundation in Tanzania where they were already working on FMNR. The livelihoods of farmers and their families were improved by combining trees with crops which resulted in better soil quality, improved water retention, more shade and most importantly more crop yield
Together with LEAD Foundation we came up with a communication approach that would increase the uptake of these techniques considerably. In the last 4 years we have been able to restore over 6 million trees, restoring over 60,000 hectares of degraded soil in Tanzania.
WT: How is community engagement providing sovereignty over the land, water, biodiversity and sustainability? Any other impacts?
De Groot: Our projects are entirely carried out by local partners and the locals. This makes them committed and gives them ownership of the project, which ensures the nature-based sustainability of the projects. In Kenya we pay local communities for their work, which provides socio-economic benefits within the local devices.
Our goal is not only to regreen but also to emphasize the importance of the regreening techniques. This way, farmers will know how important it is to keep on regreening and spread the message to others.
Of course, this mindset takes time. That is why we work together with local partners who oversee the projects on the spot. We work with rangers in Kenya, for example. They guard our fenced grass seed banks. In Tanzania, we work with certified farmers who apply our techniques and pass them on to other farmers
TIME TO SCALE UP
WT: Your Outreach – please tell us about your campaigns.
DeGroot: Our global online and offline awareness campaigns are developed to promote nature-based solutions; to inspire, unite and activate an entire generation; and grow a landscape restoration movement.
Our approach is to regreen hearts and minds by delivering the right message, to the right audience at the right time. Our network of media partners helps us spread this message and spread the green.
We have been able to promote Justdiggit in the UK through sponsored Out of Home billboards. Additionally, we have formed sponsored partnerships for over 3000 cinema screens in the UK to broadcast our manifesto film.
Through working with these communication partners, we came to the realization that communication was not only crucial in Europe to raise awareness and give hope to people when it comes to climate change. Justdiggit started experimenting with communication in our projects in Africa.
From radio, SMS, billboards, movie road shows, murals and even influencer marketing we refined a farmer-based approach.
We learned that farmers are very receptive to messages that promote simple regreening techniques that improve their lives both economically and ecologically. Therefore this became Justdiggit’s key driver for change. Sir David Attenborough so wisely says: “The climate crisis in essence is now a communication challenge.”
Justdiggit was part of the launch of the UN decade on Ecosystem Restoration with our partner JCDecaux promoting the launch across Africa and Europe in over 26 countries – again completely sponsored.
We also produced a
soundtrack and video from which all profits go to regreening Africa and across platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music and others. We commit that for every 25 streams we will regreen 1 square meter in our projects. To date, we have realized more than 10 million streams.
#STREAMTOREGREEN will be released in a few weeks.
WT: What’s Next?
DeGroot: Our next step is to combine all regreening knowledge and program experience of the past 10 years in an online greening platform.
Every farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa (there are 350 million smallholder farmers) with an internet phone can access this knowledge and will become an ambassador of regreening.
With the support of mobile technology, farmers can be inspired, educated and empowered to restore their own land using simple, low cost and low-tech interventions, without the need for a physical program presence on the ground.
By integrating gamification, a social and financial incentive system and an easy way to track progress and impact, it will be attractive and user-friendly and give farmers a reward for their work, right from the beginning.
In 2021, a pilot version of the platform (app), was completed with 300 farmers, all working with smart feature phones, in Dodoma, Tanzania.
If we succeed in encouraging millions of farmers to regreen their own land by using this online platform, we can scale beyond expectations and the costs per hectare will be a fraction of what they are now.
Additionally, we believe in communication. If you want to make global change, you need to be everywhere: news, ads, social channels, and conversations. But, above all in people’s hearts and minds.
Through various channels we communicate to our audience; farmers, pastoralists, policymakers, consumers, companies, foundations, sponsors, rainmakers, followers, alliance partners, project partners and our ambassadors.
WT: One last drop...please leave all of us with something to think about.
DeGroot: Regreening is done together. DIG IN! LET’S DO THIS!