A Moroccan startup has invented a solar-powered, soil-awakening system for transforming desert into fertile land.
Sand to Green
Sand to Green has been trialling the process in a 5-hectare plot in the heart of the Azwarig plain in southern Morocco since 2017.
Now the firm intends to scale up to a 20-hectare proof of concept in the same region, on which it expects to break even and see returns within five years. A 500-hectare project, again in Morocco, is also in the offing.
The start-up raised $1 million in seed funding earlier this year.
The fight against soil poverty is potentially big business. Soil poverty and desertification due to drought, deforestation and inappropriate agriculture affects places as widespread as Africa, South America, southern Europe, China and an astonishing third of US soil.
The UN Convention to Combat Desertification said in a 2018 review the issue affects 169 countries around the world and could cost the global economy $23 trillion by 2050.
Meanwhile Tim Searchinger of the World Resources Institute has said, “If we were to try to produce all the food we will need in 2050 using current production systems, the world would have to convert most of its remaining forests.”
This means the race to develop a solution is on.
Regenerating the earth
Potential answers include the cultivation of salt-tolerant superfoods and innovative ways to prevent water loss. Sand to Green’s method depends on a source of brackish (semi-saline) water nearby, which the company has found a way to desalinate using solar power, so it can be used for irrigation.
Drip irrigation is deployed to limit water loss through evaporation and a planting method known as “intercropping” is used to grow fruiting trees and vegetation in the same space. The company also feeds the soil with a specially-developed blend of compost, and microorganisms and biochar (a charcoal that promotes water retention). This “green manure” helps to “wake up” and regenerate the earth.
“With this system we create biodiversity, which means better soil, healthier crops and a bigger yield,” Wissal Ben Moussa, the company’s co-founder and chief agricultural officer says. “Our plantation can generate 1.5 times more yield and thus more revenue than a monoculture plantation in the same area.”
The eventual plots of land regenerated by Sand to Green’s method will be commercialised and run from end-to-end by the company as “green investments,” Ben Moussa says.