What do global decision makers and an 8-year old Senegalese girl have in common? It turns out that they can inhabit the same space despite the many miles between them.

The initiative in question is an ambitious 8000 km long natural wonder termed “The Great Green Wall.” Their shared experience comes from a VR film entitled “Growing a World Wonder” led by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in partnership with Surround Vision. But they’re also the first to tell you that VR isn’t the answer to everything. “I know many people talk about VR as the ultimate empathy machine – but for us it wasn’t so much about empathy but about inspiration to see and hear the world from another human’s perspective. I think in that sense. VR breaks the square frame of traditional narratives,” says Alexander Asen, Communications Officer at UNCCD. To craft a compelling narrative, Alex and his team decided to place people at the center of the action, rather than simply speaking to the story through reports and visuals.

Graphic map of the northern half of Africa, showing the green wall initiative's participating countries

(National Geographic)

In order to raise public awareness of the project, the UNCCD considered innovative methods beyond the typical marketing campaign. When they first conceived of the idea in 2015 ahead of the Paris Climate Conference, VR was in its infancy. “VR allowed us to bring what was happening in the field on the edge of the Sahara desert – to the very heart of the conference,” says Alex. The film is told from the perspective of a young girl named Binta, who relays the story of a community on the forefront of climate change. Her village of Koyli Alpha in Senegal is part of the ambitious Great Green Wall project, which aims to bring food, jobs, and future for the millions that live in desertified areas. The film follows her as she tells the story of how the climate has changed the landscape and lifestyles of those in her village, resulting in famine and exodus. However, the ending is much more hopeful.

Screen shot of the "Growing a World Wonder" on YouTube


What was the result? Growing a World Wonder “has been part of a broader lobbying process which incredibly, has led to $4bn of funding for the project over the next 5 years,” according to Alex. In addition, the Sengalese Minister of Environment invited Binta and her grandfather Moussa to a major conference on the role of African Ministers in growing Senegal’s Great Green Wall. There’s still much more to be done, however. Alex and the UNCCD team plan to leverage VR more widely with decision makers at key events, as well as with communities along the Great Green Wall to build awareness. Other opportunities to engage with the broader public include video platforms such as YouTube, showings at theatres like Paris Imax, and immersive education experiences with Google expeditions.

VR experience at Emerge 2017

“The real power was that we could connect global decision makers with the very communities whose lives they could change, to allow them to walk in their shoes – which was an incredibly powerful tool,” says Alex. Creating public awareness of social initiatives such as the Great Green Wall requires a different approach that inspires and entertains individuals, rather than simply educating them. In doing so, we can feel better connected to the future that we all want to build together.

Credit to Alexander Asen from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) for his help in developing and reviewing the content of this article.


Photo of Katherine Li Katherine Li is a current MBA student at the University of Oxford – Saïd Business School. Prior to Oxford, she worked with early stage Bay Area, San Francisco, start-ups to enable future growth and is passionate about innovation, technology, and healthcare.