Sarah Toumi
Ashoka Fellow depuis 2014   |   Tunisia

Sarah Toumi

Acacias for All
Sarah is changing the agricultural sector in the Arab Maghreb sub-region by introducing a new holistic farming approach to fight desertification. Her approach shifts the focus of the sector towards…
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This description of Sarah Toumi's work was prepared when Sarah Toumi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Sarah is changing the agricultural sector in the Arab Maghreb sub-region by introducing a new holistic farming approach to fight desertification. Her approach shifts the focus of the sector towards alternative, natural, plant based irrigation complemented by crops that fit the local context; in addition, she creates a change movement through which farmers adopt new and sustainable farming techniques and organize themselves into cooperatives, in order to manage the entire new farming cycle.

L'idée nouvelle

Sarah is changing the agricultural industry in the Arab Maghreb sub-region, starting with Tunisia. In this region, desertification and dwindling water resources are major environmental concerns that negatively impact agricultural communities and lead to increased levels of rural poverty. Sarah is combating these environmental and economic challenges by creating a movement that shifts the focus from commonly cultivated crops to alternative seeds that are more sustainable for the environment, creating greater opportunities for income generation.

Further, Sarah is introducing farmers to sustainable farming practices through training and education that shifts their attitudes surrounding their land. To complement this approach, Sarah offers farmers new opportunities through alternative crops—mainly Acacia trees, which have a positive environmental and economic impact. They revitalize the land, create a greenbelt to prevent desertification and consume much less water than the traditionally cultivated crops, olives and almonds. Acacia trees additionally produce Arabic gum and Moringa oil which provide large economic returns when sold. Sarah couples the introduction of new crops with empirical research and studies on new potential opportunities that can be used by farmers to fight soil erosion, desertification and water scarcity.

To complement this, Sarah is creating a movement throughout the Arab Maghreb sub-region in which farmers are not only practicing sustainable farming techniques and using alternative crops, but are also taking ownership over sustaining their practices and thinking long-term about the land. Farmers are empowered to become self-sufficient economically and access the market. Sarah is enabling the farmers by organizing them into agricultural cooperatives which then extract and sell Arabic gum from the Acacia trees in international markets. These practices provide new economic opportunities that shape the future of the agriculture industry and lift farmers and their families out of rural poverty.

Sarah’s idea is applicable to all arable lands of North Africa and countries with a desert region. Starting in Tunisia, she plans to expand geographically in order to combat desertification, a major environmental concern throughout the entire Arab world.

Le problème

The agricultural sector accounted for 9%, 15% and 9% of GDP in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia respectively as of 2012. It employs 40% of the population in Morocco, 11% in Algeria, and 16% in Tunisia. However, the availability of arable land per capita represents just 3.2% of Algeria, 17.8% of Morocco, and 18% of Tunisia as of 2011. The most commonly cultivated crops are olives and almonds, which consume large amounts of fresh water to grow. Fruit and vegetables are also commonly produced, but in smaller quantities. Farmers in the Arab Maghreb sub-region have been planting these crops for hundreds of years. The main source of irrigation has always been rain water, which used to be plentiful in the region.

However, recent global climate changes and disruption of the environmental ecosystem, predominantly from deforestation, has led to rain water becoming very scarce, especially in desert areas like North Africa. The average annual rainfall, as of 2014, is below 300 mm in vast areas of the Arab Maghreb sub region, creating an arid to semi-arid climate. Water scarcity has reached a critical point in the region, and severe drought is expected in the future. The agricultural sector is considered the largest consumer of water in the Maghreb sub region, as the annual freshwater usage in agriculture represents an average of 76% of total freshwater usage in the region. The Maghreb region depends primarily on rainfall and groundwater as sources of fresh water. The dependence on rainfall makes this region very vulnerable to climate change, which can have a strong impact on crop production. The recent environmental changes require an accompanying shift in farming practices to preserve the rural lands and compensate for the depleting water resources.

Due to the absence of understanding, a concentration of short term gains, and a lack of focus on sustainability among farmers, rural communities in the Maghreb region continue to intensively cultivate the same crops inherited from their parents. Farmers continue to plant olives and almonds, irrigating them with ground water, 80% of which in Tunisia is salty consisting of 4 - 6 grams of salt per 1 liter of water. This amount of salt damages commonly cultivated crops (sea water has 12 grams of salt per l liter of water). Irrigating land with salty water increases the salt content within the soil, rendering it acidic and infertile after three crop cycles of this practice. This allows desert sands to invade the infertile soil, and then desertification occurs. It is expected that by 2020, 80% of the land will have become infertile and there will not be enough water for daily consumption in the region.

The effects of desertification not only disrupt the environmental ecosystem but studies have shown there is a link between desertification, hunger and poverty. It affects poverty levels and food security, resulting in decline per capita food yields in the affected areas as well as negatively impacts the economic returns of the agricultural sector.

La stratégie

In 2008, during her university studies, Sarah presented her idea to the Ministry of Environment in Tunisia, who refused to create any sort of collaboration. Initially, Sarah wanted to cooperate with the ministry to plant Acacia trees within desert areas in order to create a green belt to protect rural lands from the sand and wind. Despite being rejected by the government, Sarah’s entrepreneurial spirit pushed her to find a more strategic entry point.

Continuing to work on her idea, just a few months later Sarah was nominated as a young changemaker by Ashoka’s Youth Venture, who worked with her to create a professional business plan for her idea “Acacias for All.” From her time working with Ashoka, Sarah learned how working to create change through citizens and farmers would be more strategic and scalable for implementing her vision. She won the Youth Venture prize in 2009.

Following extensive market research, Sarah decided that her strategy would focus on changing farmer’s practices and ideas when it comes to the sustainability of their land. She wanted to offer new alternative seeds to replace commonly cultivated crops, open new channels for farmers through research on desertification, and enable them to think sustainably and create higher economic returns by organizing them into cooperatives.

To change the farmers’ production practices, Sarah began working with female rural farmers in the village of Bir-Salah in Tunisia in 2011. She recognized that women represent a strong entry point into the agricultural sector, as they are more receptive to change. Additionally, most women own small pieces of land and have no adequate access to education or markets. Sarah regularly met with the women, discussed their problems, and offered her solutions. Not only did Sarah do field visits and talked with the women, she also built a demonstration center in Bir-Salah in 2012. The demonstration center contained a seed nursery where sustainable farming practices were used by Sarah and her team.

Having studied possible solutions to desertification, Sarah introduced the Acacias plants into the farming communities of Tunisia as an alternative for the commonly cultivated crops of olives and almonds, which cannot withstand salty water. The Acacia is a tree characterized by very long roots that extend up to100 meters underground, providing the soil with nitrogen and bringing fresh water to the surface. Thus, the roots keep the soil salt free while also re-fertilizing it. Acacias can be irrigated with water that has 8 grams or less of salt per liter, as opposed to other traditional crops that cannot be cultivated with water that has more than 3 grams of salt per liter. Additionally, Acacias are adaptable to desert conditions and when planted around a farm they create a green belt, preventing the invasion of sand and wind. This allows for the growth of fruits and vegetables inside the farm. Moreover, after 3 years, Acacia trees produce Arabic gum and Moringa oil, which have an economic value. Arabic gum is incorporated into many global industrial processes, like manufacturing yogurt, cosmetics, fizzy drinks, medical products and agro-products. Moringa oil is used for massages and relaxation.

In her demonstration center’s seed nursery, Sarah planted 1500 Acacia trees to showcase them to the community. When the first batch produces Arabic gum, the money will be re-invested in Sarah’s operations as a revenue stream. To secure the funds for the demonstration seed nursery, Sarah carried out a crowdfunding campaign through which she raised 3,000 Euros.

Sarah has now built a second seed nursery where she plants and grows Acacia trees until they are ready for cultivation in rural farms. Sarah has been able to impact the lives of 483 women by giving them Acacia trees for their farms—each woman receiving 10 trees. Through a grant from the Orange Foundation in 2013, Sarah was able to plant 5000 Acacia seeds in her new seed nursery. Additionally, she hired three people to further the work of her organization.

It was not only important that farmers were receptive to the idea of changing their traditional crops to Acacias, but also that they adopt an approach to agricultural practices that focused more on the long term sustainability of their land. To achieve this, Sarah trains farmers on permaculture and sustainable farming techniques.

Partnering with several research institutions and organizations, trainings detail the process by which small land spaces can be used to yield large financial returns by employing sustainability practices. Examples of sustainability practices that farmers receive training on are: building homogenous sustainable crops; use of safe irrigation water; new technologies for water treatment; and maximizing the use of natural products and fertilizers rather than pesticides.

To document and measure her impact on the land, Sarah has partnered with the Observatory of Sahel and Sahara - OSS, an international observatory based in Tunisia for scientific studies on desertification and salty water. This partnership will not only allow her to produce evidence on the impact of her idea, it will also allow Sarah to continually work with the OSS and Tunisian engineers’ to research and experiment, in order to find new opportunities and techniques that can be used by farmers to fight climate change and desertification.

A major contributing factor to Sarah’s success in convincing farmers to change their practices is that her solution to fight desertification is coupled with economic returns that will help to save the farmers from rural poverty. To achieve this, Sarah established a cooperative for rural women who are planting Acacia trees. A woman has to pay $6 as a one-time joining fee. The cooperative acts as the organization front through which women can sell their Arabic gum and Moringa oil. Sarah further empowers the women through trainings on entrepreneurship and business skills with the help of university students. Additionally, Sarah links the women to international and regional markets that seek to purchase Arabic gum. Profits from the cooperative go to the rural female entrepreneurs, with a small percentage taken to cover the costs of Sarah’s organization and seeds nursery.

Additionally, for financial sustainability, Sarah has a payment system on her organization’s website where individuals and companies can compensate for their carbon footprints by sponsoring the plantation of new Acacia trees.

Sarah is currently working to create partnerships with different changemaker farmers and to open new seed nurseries in major agricultural regions of Tunisia. She has a goal to empower Tunisian farmers to plant 2,934,000 Acacia trees to cover all the Tunisian arable spaces, constituting 17.4% of the Tunisian land. With every Acacia tree producing an average of 3 kg of Arabic gum, Sarah plans to sell the gum—through the cooperatives—at a rate of $12,000 per ton to businesses and the global market with a return of $4,500 per farmer per year. This will alleviate rural poverty and contribute to Tunisia’s economy.

Long-term plans include spreading to Morocco and Algeria as both countries are facing the same environmental problems. The cultural and agricultural context is also favorable for her idea in these regions. This work would impact the lives of over 10 million farmers who would be working through over 100,000 cooperatives. Each cooperative would produce 300 tons of Arabic gum per year. Sarah plans to put her model and techniques online to open source information and make the information available for everyone to use, thereby changing the face of the Agriculture sector.

La personne

Sarah was born in France to a Tunisian father and a French mother. Influenced by her father who worked for years in the nonprofit sector, Sarah got involved in social causes at a young age. In 1998, while still in school, Sarah co-founded an NGO with her father that focused on children’s rights in France. Her father replicated the organization in Tunisia in 2003, and Sarah continued to be involved—writing and translating documents, contacting potential funders, and building the organization. In her time there, she was able to secure funding to build youth centers, computer labs and public libraries in Tunisia’s marginalized communities.

With a long-time interest in science, Sarah discovered Acacia trees, as well as their environmental and economic value, during a school research project. During 2006, the year declared by the United Nations to be the year of the desert and desertification, Sarah participated in several activities that gave her a better understanding of the desertification problem globally. Seeing the connection between the effects of desertification and the reciprocal benefits of Acacia trees, Sarah began to work on “Acacias for All.”

In 2009 she won the Ashoka Youth Venture prize for her idea and continued to work with Ashoka and other people within the network to develop the business plan.

In 2009 Sarah decided to study communications in order to further mobilize communities around social change.

During her time at her university, Sarah founded DREAMin, an NGO dedicated to empowering students to get out of their bubble and providing opportunities to connect with the world. Additionally, the organization introduced students on campus to the world of social entrepreneurship. The university decided to adopt the DREAMin methodology and today the organization empowers students to carry out social and environmental projects. It remains in operation and is financed by the university.

In 2011, following the Tunisian revolution, Sarah, who had been leading a very comfortable life in Paris, decided to go back to her homeland of Tunisia. In Tunisia, Sarah saw that the levels of rural poverty, resulting from land desertification, were rapidly increasing. This led female farmers to leave their land and change industries in order to work in crafts. However, these industries, like shoemaking, contain very low wages; most artisans are paid less than $4 a week. This was eye opening for Sarah and led to her conviction that desertification and environmental degradation, leading to rural poverty, was the most pressing issue facing her community. After the Tunisian revolution, Sarah started implementing her idea. In December 2013, “Acacias for All” was chosen by the French government as one of the 100 innovations that would shape the future of sustainable development in Africa.

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