Africa’s first global environmental data collection initiative is bearing fruit


By Abebe Haile-Gabriel

Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa, FAO.

In the midst of a busy news cycle, a Quiet Revolution has taken place in Africa. Data analysts across the continent have collected data on agriculture, land and the environment and for the first time we have a complete picture of land use in Africa.

It found more forests and arable land than previously detected and for the first time revealed 7 billion trees outside the forest. We can see the forest and the trees.

The analysis also shows that 350 million hectares of cropland are cultivated in Africa, more than double that of the European Union. These findings confirm that Africa has enormous potential to be a productive powerhouse, to produce enough food to feed its people and earn income from exports, as do other regions with a comparable land resource base.

The initiative made Africa the first continent to complete the collection of accurate, comprehensive and harmonized digital data on land use and land-use change. The publication of these results is particularly relevant during Africa Climate Week (September 26-29), when African countries and their partners come together to discuss climate action in Africa.

Analysis found that the area covered by the Great Green Wall in Africa initiative – which aims to restore arid and semi-arid lands – has 393 million hectares of land with restoration potential. Together this would represent the equivalent size of India and represent a great opportunity for the large-scale model of restoration led by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in support of the Great Green Wall.

The rich list of results is growing, revealing among other things that 17 million hectares of land have been transformed into new cultivated land since 2000, an increase of 5% over the period. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has the largest forest area (155 million hectares) followed by Angola (66 million hectares). Nigeria has the most cultivated land (50 million hectares), followed by Ethiopia (29 million hectares). Only 10% of the continent’s cultivated land is irrigated.

Innovation for the future of Africa

The Africa Open DEAL initiative, where DEAL stands for Data for Environment, Agriculture and Land, was led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the African Union Commission (AUC) , with funding from the European Union, Germany, Turkey and FAO Technical Cooperation Program.

The huge data collection operation was carried out between 2018 and 2020, with the support of the Pan African Agency for the Great Green Wall, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and 30 African countries.

Analysts used Collect Earth, a free and open source tool developed by FAO with support from Google. It allowed users to zoom in to areas of around 0.5 hectares, using very high resolution images, allowing them for the first time to count individual trees and see farmland, forest fires, infrastructure and other land uses.

Above all, places that were difficult to access on the ground could be analyzed, which led the team to discover the 7 billion trees not previously listed.

Now the results are available free to any researcher – they are integrated into the geospatial platform of FAO’s Hand-in-Hand Initiative and are accessible to everyone via This means that users can detect where deforestation is occurring, where colonized land encroaches on cropland or grassland, and where the wetland is disappearing.

Countries can monitor and report on climate change instruments and agreements, including Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and Sustainable Development Goal indicators.

FAO supports the transformation towards MORE efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable agrifood systems for better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life, leaving no one behind. We believe that science and innovation can provide real solutions to many of the problems facing the world, and this initiative is helping to light the way forward.

* Contribution of Moctar Sacande, Coordinator of the Program of Action against Desertification in support of the Great Green Wall of Africa, FAO Forestry Division and Danilo Mollicone, Technical Officer, Bureau of Climate Change, Biodiversity and of the FAO environment.

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