Mark Dodd is an award winning photographer-filmmaker who has worked world-wide for 20 years with the BBC. Visit his website at
AH:What is the film “The Man Who Stopped the Dessert” about?
MD:The film is a documentary about Yacouba Sawadogo. He’s an illiterate African peasant farmer from Burkina Faso which is in kind of in, if you imagine Africa, it’s west in the center, just below the part of the Africa called the Sahel which is a big band of arid land below the Sahara Desert, which stretches to the west all the way over to the East. Burkina Faso is kind of on the left hand side in the west. It’s a landlocked country, and it’s one of the poorest countries on the planet.
And the stories is about, well it’s about his life story really. It wasn’t intended as a film about conservation. I was attracted to Yacouba’s story because of who he is, and what he’s achieved, and his humble beginnings. And that was really important to me in the film to show the story through his own voice. So if you see the film, there’s not much narration, and it’s really about Yacouba telling us about what he’s achieved. And what he’s achieved is amazing. He’s – over 20 years, he’s turned vast areas of dry, bone rock hard soil into fertile land, and he grows crops in it now, and the crops are feeding thousands of families. His techniques have been exported, and they’re feeding thousands of families. He’s grown a forest there from scratch. Certainly it’s got a large forest. I think it’s 20 acres or, or 20 hectares, I’m not sure what that is in acres. But it’s – he’s an amazing chap. Yeah, and that’s the story of the film.
AH:How did you come to learn about the work of Yacouba?
MD:That was pure chance. I had a friend, an English friend who happened to be living in Burkina Faso in 2007. I just went over there to visit him just to see what he was up to, and not a lot to do in that part of the world, and he suggested one day we go and visit this interesting farmer as he called him. So we went town to Yacouba’s land, and my friend actually speaks French. Yacouba doesn’t speak French; he speaks his indigenous language, which is Mòoré. So we had to bring with us someone who could speak Mòoré and French, and then actually translate it from French to English; it was quite a tortuous task. I didn’t know to expect, well I wasn’t expecting anything.
We turned up, Yacouba wasn’t around, so we kind of wait under the shade of a tree. And then after about a half an hour or so, we hear the sound of this moped coming through the bush. He must have been in his 60′s at the time, this gentleman arrived in a kind of long brand smock with a pick ax over his shoulder and got off, and that was Yacouba Sawadogo. He showed me around his land, around the forest, around the fields. And I thought, this guy’s done some impressive things. So we all sat down and interviewed him formally, and that took about, over an hour or two. And that – by the end of the interview, I thought this story has to be told. And at that point I decided I wanted to make a film about Yacouba and his life. I had no idea how I was going to do. But at the time, I was a BBC staff cameraman, so I thought I’ll take this story home and offer it to BBC to be made into a film.
AH:What exactly is the Sahel and what are some of the ways his work has impacted the people living there?
MD:The Sahal is a huge band of land between West Africa, and all the way over to the eastern side. It’s below the desert, below the Sahara desert, it’s beyond the fertile zone. So it’s kind of a semi-arid area. And it’s a very unforgiving part of the world. It’s very dry, and not a lot grows there, and they have extended periods of drought. And through the 1980′s, there was very serious droughts across that part of the world. But at that time, Yacouba was just starting on his kind of investigations into trying to do something into reverse the process of desertification, which was going on long, where you had areas of land which was being cultivated, which was being degraded both by the climate change, and also human intervention, cutting down trees for firewood, that kind of thing.
Once you’ve lost the ability to feed people, and villages start to close down, people leave villages in great numbers. And Yacouba was trying to find a way to stop all this. And what he did was he kind of reinvented an ancient farming technique called the Zai, which is Zed-a-i in the local language. And what that technique was at the time was just kind of scratching small shallow holes in the ground during the rainy season, and planting seeds in the holes. And that was getting limited results, but it wasn’t very effective. What Yacouba did was he resigned the pits; he made them much wider, made them a lot deeper. And he started to add compost in the pits, organic matter, and then he planted the seeds in the Zai pits.
But probably one of the most important things he did was he started preparing the land during the dry season which was actually a bit of a gamble for Yacouba because you weren’t allowed to do that. Local tradition said you’re not allowed to touch the earth in the dry season, and there’s no kind of rational behind it, it’s just that’s how it was done. So by doing this, he caused big problems, he got a lot of people’s backs up, and he suffered for that. People thought he was a mad man doing that kind of thing digging holes in the dry season. But he continued doing it. But he had a lot of opposition from people; the village elders didn’t like what he was doing. And one day when he was off his farm, he went to town into the local city to have a meeting there. And while he was there, some people, we don’t know who it is burnt down his newly planted forest and his crops. So he had a lot of opposition at the time. But he continued doing what he’s done, he’s worked through it, and his techniques have now been communicated through other families in the area, and he’s just had an amazing success with what he’s doing. And of course now since the films been made, he’s on the radar of the, well a lot of the top level. UN Secretary General Bank Ki Moon actually referred to Yacouba Sowadogo in a recent convention as the man who stopped the desert. So he’s kind of up there now. Listen to the Bank Ki Moon Speech at UN Radio here.
AH:What is Zai and what are some of the challenges Yacouba has faced in getting people to adopt this technique?
MD:I guess what happened was they could see the results he was achieving. What happened was the year, the first year he did this Zai technique, the improved version where the holes were deeper, and with the compost. And the other thing he did was he planted trees amongst the crops as well, which has the effect of slowing down of land erosion when it blows, the trees slow down the wind, the trees also gather dust, and the dust settles underneath the trees. It helps – all these things added together help. He also puts termites in amongst them. Termites, if you have termites, they will actually break down the soil a lot. So that was termite’s help. He does all these little techniques, and they’re all little simple, little quite simple but when added together, they have these really effective results. And the – because it’s simple, the ideas are easily communicated, and that’s another idea to success that you got to be able to have simple ideas so people can just replicate the ideas. But I guess the reason why people, he’s a lot turned was they could see the results he was achieving the year, the first year he did it, it was a bad for rainfall. But even with the low rainfall, he achieved really good crops, and when he went into town to tell people about this, they didn’t believe him. They said, “Its been a drought year, what are you talking about?” So he had to battle the people in town, the kind of agricultural people to come and have a look. Say look – they couldn’t believe what they saw when they arrived there.
AH:He has developed such an incredible technique. I think the beauty behind it is the simplicity in the fact that aside from labor, there are no costs…
MD:That’s right, and this is important. And prior to that, what happened, all foreign agencies would come in, and they’d kind of impose technical solutions to the problems that required plant, and machinery. And machinery requires maintenance, and requires fuel, and it also, these techniques were imposed, they weren’t to build on anything that was indigenous. And the thing about Yacouba’s technique is that it’s a homegrown solution, and the people, the farmers feel ownership of the solution. And once you have ownership of the solution, then you’re kind of halfway there. And of course it’s a simple solution, it doesn’t require lots of skills, obviously there’s a certain amount of training required, and Yacouba does train people. He does, he has people visiting his farm where he trains people in his techniques. And what he’s doing now is he’s going out of his farm to other villages and teaching people in other villages because obviously this certainly can go, and go, and go.
AH:Have policy-makers taken notice of this work?
MD:That’s a hard one to gauge because what policy policymakers have taken note – I think they have now, I think they have. I think the thinking now from policy makers, they learned the lessons of the past, they know that parachuting in ready-made solutions doesn’t really work. And what does work is engaging the local people. Dr Chris Reij, the Dutch scientist is a real baton holder for this kind of process, he’s the Dutch scientist that you saw in the film, and he’s really backing a large movement in that part of the world called the “African Re-Greening Initiative“. And this African Re-Greening Initiative is based on local solutions, what local people have done, and it’s – what the outside aide does now is it really helps the local people with the solutions that they’ve already produced. It just helps them develop those solutions, and communicate them.
AH:The music was fantastic, can you tell me about the music in your film?
MD:The music was a mixture of – well actually to me the music is absolutely crucial to any production. I wanted the music to feel not like a documentary, I wanted the documentary to feel more like a cinema experience than a documentary which is why its been, I think its been screened so many times in cinema’s. But the brief to the person who wrote the music was I wanted it to feel like a cinema experience. And I kind of, I think he did it, I think he did it.
AH:How has this film changed you personally Mark?
MD:It’s – oh my – how has it changed me personally? I guess its made me more willing to take risks because at the time when I first started the project, I had a safe job at the BBC, I was a staff cameraman, I had a regular income. And in order to make the film, I had to quit my job, and that was a bit scary because that was in 2008. And about a month afterwards, the world collapsed financially. So that was a bit of a worry. But Yacouba, his example is very inspiring not only in obviously what he’s done for the people there, but his whole attitude towards life, and about how he just gets on and does it. So I guess yeah, it’s probably made me a bit more happy to take risks.
AH:Where is the film screening next and what lies ahead?
MD:The next film screening as I understand that there’s two film screenings coming up in Austria. It’s in film festivals – it regularly appears in film festivals all over the world. I get emails all the time from film festivals asking to screen the film, which is fantastic. Normally you have to submit your films, and they’re actually coming to me and saying, “Can we screen it?” And so that’s great. And that’s happening all the time. So the next ones in Austria. But we actually went back – talking about screenings, we went back – I don’t know if you’ve seen the clip on the website. We went back last year to screen the film in Yacouba’s village.
AH: I loved that clip!
MD:Yeah, wasn’t that amazing? To me, it was the highlight of the whole process going back there. I mean, obviously this is my first film as a producer. Prior to that I was just a cameraman, so at the end of the day I would hand over the rush of the tapes and kind of wave goodbye. So this is my first film I’ve kind of written. So obviously, it was a huge amount of emotional attachment to it. And it was such a relief when we screened the film in his village and everyone went mad for it. And it was just such a privilege. Yacouba loved the film, and I think we did his story justice, he seemed to think so.
To learn more and to purchase the film visit: www.1080films.co.uk/yacoubamovie