More people, more trees: the pathway to food and nutritional security in Africa
It is not a very old term, yet a google search of Evergreen Agriculture returns over 10 million hits. What exactly does it involve?
“Evergreen Agriculture is a form of intensive farming of crops with the right trees,” explained Jonathan Muriuki, a Scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). “The ‘doublestory’ system has both food crops and trees, and means higher crop productivity and a diversified income base for farmers. It brings numerous environmental benefits too.”
Muriuki was speaking on 15 July at an ICRAF side event at the Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW6) in Accra.
He said evergreen agriculture is the way to go if Africa is to feed herself now and into the future.
Particularly on the sloppy farmlands that characterize much of East Africa, Muriuki said soil-conserving trees or biomass are essential. “Conventional mono-cropping of hillsides leads to huge soil losses due to run-off; rapid degradation, and raises the risk of landslides and flooding,”
Tilling the land and turning it over—another routine practice on smallholder farms in Africa—also exposes and desiccates the soil, killing organisms that are so important to soil fertility. “Intensive tillage destroys the biological and ecological integrity of the soil system,” he stated.
Enriching the farming landscape with indigenous tree species, which are well adapted to African conditions, would play a huge role in raising soil productivity and nutrition in Africa, said Muriuki.
The good news, he added, is that these indigenous species are still widely available. But their potential is not well exploited.
“In the semi-arid Machakos county of Kenya, a survey of 90 farms found that in terms of tree species, there are more indigenous than exotic ones. But on the same farms, the exotic trees far outnumbered indigenous ones,” he informed a captive audience.
“Farmers think they should only plant exotics like mango, and these are the only ones they demand from tree nurseries. If farmers also asked for indigenous species, their supply might be encouraged.”
In addition to nurseries, East African farmers can use the practice of farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) to increase the population of indigenous trees on their farms,” said Muriuki.
In West Africa, farmers are increasingly growing high-value indigenous trees, following long term participatory research into their domestication and dissemination. As Zac Tchoundjeu, another speaker at the side event explained, tree domestication is bringing significant income to farmers through the sale of fruits and their products.
See related article: Fruit tree planting is no monkey business
Muriuki said evergreen agriculture is being practiced in various forms in many parts of East Africa. In the Mount Kenya area, for instance, as population has grown, so has tree cover on farms.
But widespread adoption of evergreen farming will happen only once knowledge is converted into action and research sustained. Building the capacity of farmer advisory services and farmers, especially through the Rural Resource Centre model that has been shown to work in West Africa, is of essence to actualize Evergreen agriculture, said Muriuki. “Already RRCs in Kenya and Tanzania are serving as hubs for agroforestry and tree domestication.”
Emphasizing the importance of markets, Muriuki said linking farmers to markets builds confidence and commitment to evergreen farming. However, “markets are moving, so enterprise rotation matters!” he cautioned.
All in all, “More people, more trees” might be a good aspiration for the future of farming in Africa, said Muriuki.
In the discussion that followed his talk, the event’s moderator, ICRAF’s deputy-director for partnerships and impact, Professor August Temu, said Evergreen Agriculture supports forest conservation.
“It makes sense to put the conservation dollar into areas contiguous to the forests.” To illustrate, Temu gave an example from East Africa.
“The Congo Forest has around 6 persons per square kilometer inside it, but in some areas around the forest’s margins in East Africa, population density reaches over 600 per square km. Encouraging tree planting on farms on the forest margins brings relief to the degradation pressure on forests.”
“In Mount Kenya region, where trees have increased with population, 70% of timber comes from farms; in Bangladesh this number is 100%.”
“Simply having a tree standing transforms what can survive under it, and that changes everything,” said Muriuki.
See more on the ICRAF Event at AASW6