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Gardening in the Sahara Desert

I am going to be teaching gardening in Mauritania. There is a source of water for bucket drip irrigation. In order to do composting, I am wondering what organic material I can use, given that plant materials are scarce. I am interested to find information from someone who has experience in harsh climates. The same question applies for mulch for the soil surface.
I could purchase materials, but I am looking for a reproducible solution for poor people.

Hello Dennis,

This could be an unconventional answer, but coming from the Sanitation Sector I know technologies of faecal sludge (human excreta) composting. Humane excreta is a resource that is available where ever people are. The composting is even better when co-composting with organic waste (e.g. from kitchens). You could have a look at the following websites:

Composting human excreta and reusing it for gardening is related to health concerns, and should thus only been done with good knowledge on the topic. If you are interested I could provide you with some more information and contacts.

Dennis, if you’re not aware of the many water harvesting and storing techniques taught by permaculturists, please take a good look at this incredible video. Understand that permaculture is a design system that has 3 ethics and various sets of design principles which are applied to landscapes for any use, but are primarily used for agricultural purposes. If this interests you, please contact an experienced permaculture design consultant, or Geoff Lawton himself. Or, at the very least, look around for more videos about this project because there are more recent videos than this. :slight_smile:
‘Permaculture Behind Greening the Desert with Geoff Lawton full 8:40min clip’

Thank you for replying and giving me an option to investigate. I appreciate you passing on this information to me. Thank you so much.


I spent several days in Niger learning about their gardening practices. Since plant matter is scarce they rely on animal manure. A older local told me that with water, manure, and lots of TLC you can raise nice crops. I saw some amazing gardens right in the middle of the desert.

Thank you for your reply. I am glad to get some first-hand knowledge. The research I have started is very interesting.

Hi Dennis,
From the sound of it, you have not yet been to Mauritania. Of course you will want to read as much as possible and discuss with folks who have experience gardening in Africa, but you can’t decide what you are going to do before you arrive in country unless you are planning to garden for yourself. The fact is, although there are plenty of solutions for just about any technical problem, successful community development does not hinge on imported “technical solutions” as much as it hinges on the facilitator’s relationship with the people among he/she will be working. In addition, social norms and values, not technology, will dictate the bulk of what is and what is not feasible in any particular region.
Here are a few of the questions you will need to ask when you arrive. Are they interested in gardening in the desert? Have they ever tried it? Have they tried composting? Do they have access to a good well, one that has plenty of water and is not too deep? Is there any prohibitions about gardening with water from a well that is primarily used for drinking? Have they seen or heard anything about drip irrigation? Are they interested in trying it? What do they think about gardening with human excrement?
It sounds like you are hesitant to buy materials. That is good because if a solution is to be sustainable the people have to be willing to spend their own resources on equipment, and that equipment should be affordable and available at their local markets. As you can see, there are many factors that you do not know, indeed you cannot know, until you are there working among the people.
I suggest you go with the idea of talking with the group you hope to work with because in the end, even if you are really excited about fecal matter composting, it will only work if the people are excited about it. Don’t be discouraged by this, but be ready to spend a lot of time with the people learning from them before you expect much to happen.
Joel R. Matthews

Hey Dennis,

This is a bit late, but I hope it helps. I’m north of Mauritania in the Sahara and we are dealing with the same issues for composting. It really depends on your location as far as resources for composting. I think once there, you will find things. Maybe from parks, local restaurants, goat and camel markets, etc. I think the issue you might have is keeping the pile moist. We only do compost on our site in the winter. It’s too hard in the summer. We have also planted a lot of fast growing coppice friendly species like Tecoma stans, Leucaena leucocephala, and senna bicapsularis for chop and drop purposes. If you are close to the coast, you probably have access to a fish market. We have an underground compost setup for fish. As for mulch, we have used cardboard and straw. Straw is hard because the wind takes it away.

As mentioned above, Geoff Lawton and Neal Spackman have some great videos. Joel’s advice above is great. The project will succeed or fail based on your relationship with the people.

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