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Drylands: Africa

According to the United Nations, drylands cover approximately 41 percent of the Earth’s land surface, including many of the world’s poorest countries, and support more than two billion people. Land degradation affects one third of the Earth’s land surface and threatens the health and livelihoods of more than one billion people.

Two international conventions, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) are particularly relevant to the drylands of Africa. The Joint Work Programme of the UNCCD / CBD on the Biological Diversity of Dry and Sub-Humid Lands, into which members of Kew’s Drylands: Africa team have had input, defines drylands as incorporating not just hyper-arid to semi-arid biomes but also Mediterranean-type, savanna (wooded grassland) and grassland ecosystems, all of which are characterised by water stress at some time of the year. Under this definition, two thirds of Africa’s land surface area is desert and dryland, and 73% of its agricultural drylands are already severely or moderately degraded.

The objectives of Kew’s Drylands: Africa team are:

  • to continue to develop Kew’s knowledge and collections of the region’s plants and their uses
  • to improve our African partners’ access to information on their own plant biodiversity
  • to use these accumulated data and knowledge to help prioritise and deliver effective conservation in the drylands of Africa.

Our vision is to see a wide range of species and vegetation types conserved and sustainably used within Africa through the application of the best available information.

The Drylands: Africa team is currently active in 16 sub-Saharan African countries, always working in close collaboration with in-country partners. Because we work in so many countries we can provide both regional- and continental-scale overviews of botanical issues - this is often difficult to do at a national level within Africa. The geographical focus further builds upon:

  • the extensive (c. 1.5 million), well-curated collections of dryland African specimens held in the Kew Herbarium, providing both detailed species information and a means of accurate identification of plant material
  • Kew’s two major regional Flora projects in eastern and southern Africa, Flora of Tropical East Africa and Flora Zambesiaca, which document the plants of large areas of the African drylands
  • the seed collecting and utilisation programme of the Millennium Seed Bank which is particularly active in the drylands of Africa
  • the Sustainable Uses Group which has a focus on eastern and southern Africa, including the Kew-led Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (SEPASAL), active since 1981

Current areas of focus for the Drylands: Africa team include:

  • documenting baseline regional plant diversity, including the completion of the two regional Floras; developing a range of user-friendly products that deliver the wealth of information contained within these Floras to a wider audience
  • identifying regions and species of conservation priority within the Drylands: Africa remit through, for example, botanical survey and inventory work in under-studied regions, species and diversity mapping, and compiling species conservation assessments and regional conservation checklists
  • compiling and disseminating information on plant uses and sustainable utilisation, including continued development of our databases on plant information, and development of germination protocols for useful plant species.
  • active seed banking programmes in eight countries within our remit, building core holdings of Africa dryland plant species with focus on endemic, threatened and/or economically useful species; using our seed holdings for innovation in habitat restoration, forestry, agriculture and horticulture.

We are committed to providing in-country capacity building in all aspects of our work, through for example, training staff, providing resources, participation in fieldwork and collaborative research.