Getting trees into farmers’ fields

Ann Degrande, Patrick Tadjo, Bertin Takoutsing, Ebenezar Asaah, Alain Tsobeng and Zac Tchoundjeu report on the success of rural nurseries in distributing high  quality planting material in Cameroon.

(Photo: Roger Leakey, CABI, 2012)

Throughout the humid tropics of West and Central Africa, trees are used by rural populations for nutrition, health and construction. A number of these tree species have also become  important sources of income. Sadly, though, population growth and deforestation have steadily depleted these natural tree resources, forcing farmers to integrate the trees into their  farming systems instead. In this undertaking, however, they are constrained by a lack of knowledge on propagation techniques, and on managing trees in combination with other crops.

For robust and widespread uptake of tree cultivation, smallholders need sufficient quantities of high-quality planting material, at prices they can afford. The question is, though, can small-scale rural nurseries adequately meet this need? World Agroforestry Centre scientists in West and Central Africa set out to find out exactly that.

In Cameroon, there are three main types of actors in the tree seed and seedling supply system: governmental and nongovernmental institutions; private enterprises specialising in seed production; and small tree nurseries. They target mainly urban clients and often do not meet smallholders’ needs for species’ diversity, field adaptability, or even quantity. Moving  seedlings from central nurseries to faraway planting sites considerably reduces the survival rate of the plants. Then, seedlings are often incorrectly transplanted onto fields and, even where transplanting is done properly, the seedlings often don’t survive because of lack of care. Many of these problems can be attributed to insufficient involvement of local  communities—from selection of species for reforestation, through to planting and care of the trees on community or individual land. Tree domestication, on the other hand, a   participatory process where farmers engage in all steps of tree selection, multiplication, integration and marketing, is offering an alternative approach to tree planting and is expected to overcome some of the difficulties highlighted above. The World Agroforestry Centre’s participatory tree domestication programme supports nurseries by providing high-quality founder germplasm, training in tree propagation and enterprise development, and small nursery tools; and facilitating networking and exchanges between nurseries. Participatory tree domestication is one example of the Centre’s work towards achieving the goals of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry (CRP6)—where the Centre collaborates with three other CG centres to improve smallholder systems and outputs.

To establish whether the nurseries are actually meeting the needs of resource-poor farmers, twelve nurseries supported by the tree domestication program in the West and North-west regions of Cameroon were compared to 12 nurseries in similar conditions, but not in contact with the program. The success of the nurseries was evaluated in terms of quantities of seedlings produced, species diversity and client satisfaction.

It was found that the participatory tree domestication program has clearly assisted small-scale nurseries to become more professional and more client-oriented. More specifically, it was found that tree domestication nurseries produce a higher diversity of species, and make more use of vegetative propagation methods. Their clientele was found to be more diverse, including farmers from the communities where the nurseries are located, but also from far beyond. Their clients were also more satisfied in terms of quantity, quality, propagation  method used and timing of delivery; and with the post-sales services rendered. Prices of vegetatively propagated material, especially marcotts, were considered too high by the majority of clients and were the most prohibitive factor for non-clients as well.

Planting initiatives must provide technical training and business support to small-scale nurseries, and research efforts should be geared towards ways of reducing production costs and improving nursery productivity. Despite overall satisfaction of clients, plant quality management in these nurseries requires further attention. Researchers and the private sector must strive to supply high-quality founder germplasm of a range of species through the establishment of genebanks, mother tree blocks and seed orchards with superior material. They must also further investigate tree improvement and propagation techniques. Research organisations continue to look for ways of reducing production costs and improving nursery productivity to remove the price barrier that is still holding farmers from buying high quality planting material.

Read the full research paper here.

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Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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