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Soil scientist Leigh Winowiecki works with over 8,000 farmers to restore degraded land in Africa

7 Mar 2018
IWD Landscape Laurel in focus

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, Landscapes News is publishing a series of stories honoring women with a laurel for their dedication to improving the landscape. In this profile, Elizabeth Kahurani Kimani, of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) writes about Leigh Winowiecki. Check Viewpoint all week for more laurel recipients.

Almost no one at ICRAF is in the field more than Leigh, and when she is not in the field, she’s analyzing data. As soil systems scientist, she has trained over 100 scientists around the world to systematically assess land and soil health in the field in Niger, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, South Africa, China, Costa Rica, Peru, Nicaragua, among other countries. She has trained several hundred farmers. Leigh is committed to working with interdisciplinary teams to address the social-ecological contexts.

Her focus is soil health as well as strategies and innovative approaches to restore degraded land. She can tell almost at a glance if a landscape is eroded.

“Look how the plants’ roots are exposed. The soil has been washed away,” she will observe. But she makes sure she backs this up with science, her aim to reduce poverty and increase food security for smallholders.

She leads a project with 8,000 smallholder farmers in the dry lands of Niger, Mali, Ethiopia and Kenya.

“We have started activities such as growing trees in home gardens and use of manure basins, says Leigh

“With these interventions, we have seen a yield increase of up to three times. In Ethiopia, our trees planted have a 90 percent survival rate, and we have witnessed a lot of enthusiasm and uptake of tree planting, especially among women and youth.”

An important aspect of Leigh’s work is to develop and implement tools for interacting with farmers to learn from their experiences. This allows her and to develop context-specific approaches to land restoration with her colleagues. Thousands of farmers are conducting plant comparison trials on their own land by themselves, an approach that guides the farmers to identify the farming methods that work best for them and give them high yields.

“This new method of on-farm participatory trials is proving to be more effective than farmer field schools,” says Leigh. “And we are building a massively scaled community of practice by having farmers talk about land restoration and bringing implementers, researchers and NGOs to share and work on restoration with them.”

Further, Leigh’s research focuses on landscape-scale assessments of soil and land health, developing soil organic carbon stock accounting methodologies and assessing socio-ecological drivers of productivity and land degradation across many different landscapes.

She implements global assessments of ecosystem health through the Sentinel Landscapes Initiative of CGIAR and through the climate-smart villages within the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and leads an International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – European Union funded initiative on Restoration of Degraded Lands in East Africa and the Sahel and a project on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification in east and southern Africa funded by Britain’s Department for International Development.

Dr. Winowiecki holds a Ph.D. in Soil Science and Tropical Agroforestry through a joint doctoral program between the University of Idaho in the United States and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica (2008).

Her Ph.D. focused on nutrient cycling in cacao agroforestry systems and incorporating local soil knowledge into research activities. After earning her doctoral degree, she completed her postdoc at Columbia University in New York where she led field and research activities in East Africa for the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) project.

She is an eco-warrior and spends her holidays in remote wilderness areas. She is a Landscape Laureate.

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Honor your “Landscape Laurel” on International Women’s Day 2018



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