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Domesticating fruit trees for nutrition and livelihood

Boy eating the fruit of East African doum palm tree, Hyphaene compressa, in Lodwar, Turkana, Kenya. The fruits mature during droughts. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu

Boy eating the fruit of East African doum palm tree, Hyphaene compressa, in Lodwar, Turkana, Kenya. The fruits mature during droughts. Photo by Isaiah Esipisu

Nearly every rural homestead in western Kenya has some fruit trees. And even though they pay very little attention to these trees, the villagers here know the trees are crucial cushions against hunger.
“In all the years I have lived here, I have never seen anyone planting a guava tree. Yet guavas come in very handy during times of starvation,” said 50-year-old Robert Amianda, a small-scale farmer in Essong’olo village. “The trees usually have mature fruits when there is nothing else on the farm; during such times, my children have these fruits for lunch and then go back to school.”

The results of a study to be presented at the World Congress on Agroforestry show that indigenous and exotic fruit tree species in agroforestry systems can bring significant health, environmental and economic benefits for smallholder farmers, particularly in the face of climate change.

The study, led by Katja Kehlenbeck and colleagues from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), found that in the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa, various trees provide edible fruits of great local importance for food security and nutrition, particularly during droughts and the ‘hunger gap’ periods that occur at the beginning of the cropping season, when the previous season’s harvest has been exhausted.

In Adjumani district in Uganda, nearly half the respondents reported using the fruit pulp of the desert date, Balanites aegyptiaca. They said over 80 percent of the fruits were harvested from the wild, mainly by children and women. In eastern Kenya, 104 respondents reported consuming fruits of 57 indigenous fruit tree species; 36 species found on-farm and 21 in the wild. During the ‘hunger gap’ periods, at least 12 of the indigenous fruit tree species had mature fruits.

In other regions, farmers are growing improved varieties of fruit trees for income. Kehlenbeck and colleagues report that in semi-arid eastern Kenya, mango farming generated 320 USD per household per year from 77 mango trees on average.
“Mangoes, oranges and papaya fruits are now my main source of livelihood,” said Judith Mwikali Musau, a member of Mbiuni Farmers Association in Makueni, eastern Kenya, corroborating these findings.
In the Miombo area of Southern Africa, on-going participatory domestication of wild loquat (Uapaca kirkiana), wild orange (Strychnos cocculoides) and marula (Sclerocarya birrea) seeks to develop new tree crops to capture economic opportunities, while at the same time reducing the dependence on and and exploitation of forest trees.
The researchers say similar domestication efforts are underway in the West African Sahel, for baobab (Adansonia digitata), tamarind Tamarindus indica and jujube/ber fruit (Ziziphus mauritiana).

Further reading
See Agroforestry Species Switchboard for information on these and many more species.
See http://www.worldagroforestry.org/africa-food for links and more stories

Related stories:
The little-understood indigenous African fruit trees: http://bit.ly/14jrdQS
On the forest’s margins: bringing the benefits of trees from the wild into the farm
A bit of baobab a day keeps the doctor away: wild fruits help solve Africa’s malnutrition crisis

By Isaiah Esipisu

Edited by D. Ouya

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