Overlooked no more, precious fruit tree comes into its own in West Africa’s Sahel

photo 01 Ake girl eating ziziphus

Enjoying improved ziziphus fruit on a private plantation in San, Mali. Photo by Akefetey Mamo / ICRAF

While certainly no stranger to smallholders and fruit lovers in many parts of Africa and Asia, this unassuming fruit tree that is so often overlooked by international research is starting to come into its own, proving itself as a potential economic force in the semi-arid Sahel region of West Africa.

World, please meet Ziziphus mauritiana, or Indian jujube, known in West Africa as “ber”, “jujubier” or “pomme du Sahel”.

More specifically, please meet the improved ziziphus trees that are emerging from the participatory tree domestication programme being led by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and its partners in the region. The programme is working to protect and use genetic diversity of the species in conservation, breeding and production populations, creating crucial collections of ziziphus germplasm in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Senegal . The goal is to improve productivity and the tree’s ability to cope with drought, and it’s succeeding beautifully.

The fruit improvement programme builds on the results of years of tree domestication work that ICRAF has done in the Sahel.

“This has involved working with fruit tree accessions of priority species such as ziziphus, tamarind, baobab and shea trees, selecting and testing them for adaptability and productivity,” says Antoine Kalinganire, who coordinates ICRAF’s work in the Sahel.

photo 02 Ake ziziphus Samanko

Ziziphus mauritiana trees at ICRAF’s West Africa research station in Samanko, Mali. Photo by Akefetey Mamo / ICRAF

Using promising accessions of ziziphus introduced from Asian countries and others collected in the Sahel, the domestication work involves field trials on farms to evaluate the germplasm, and research its reproductive biology and controlled pollination. The participatory tree domestication work involves selecting for desirable traits such as fruit size, sweetness and onset, among others, and it has added new accessions to the existing breeding population. This is producing improved planting material; every year more than 10,000 scions of accessions with larger fruit, longer fruit production seasons, and resistance to pests and diseases are being delivered to smallholder farmers in the Sahel.

“Over 50 accessions of ziziphus have been tested and ten made available to and adopted by rural farmers in the Sahel,” says Kalinganire.

But that is still not all that the program delivers. More than 2,500 extension agents and farmers are being trained each year in tree nursery techniques including vegetative propagation — budding, marcotting or air layering, grafting and rooted cuttings, which can expand the benefits of this domestication work.

Adding more value to a valuable tree

All of this is adding value to a tree that is already extremely valuable to people in the Sahel. Its fruit has long been an important source of food security during times of scarcity and even famine, and a popular, nutritious and delicious component of diets at better times. Crucially, in the semi-arid Sahelian countries, ziziphus is also drought-tolerant and farmers in the region rank it as one of the most preferred fruit tree species. The  fruit of Ziziphus mauritiana are important sources of nutritional and food security, rich in sugars, vitamin C and carotene.

Like so many trees and shrubs in the parklands agroforestry systems of the Sahel, ziziphus has many uses. Its leaves make good fodder and they, along with its roots and bark, are also used for medicinal purposes. Wood from ziziphus is also a valuable source of fuelwood, the main source of household energy in rural West Africa.

photo 03 Ake improved vs local ziziphus

Dramatic difference in fruit size between improved ziziphus (left) cultivar and local one (right) from West Africa. Photo by Akefetey Mamo / ICRAF

For all that, there is enormous room for improved accessions. The fruit of ziziphus trees with West African origins tend to be very small compared with Asian accessions; the mean weight of fruit from a tree sourced in Senegal is just 0.47 grams, 85 times less than the 40-gram mean produced by a ziziphus accession from Thailand. Production is also lower in local trees than in the introduced varieties. The local trees are generally planted as live fences, the introduced varieties with their abundant, large and flavourful fruits tend to be cultivated in orchards.

For these reasons, there is great interest in the exotic cultivars among farmers in the region. But this is tempered by the fact that these are more vulnerable to pests and diseases than are local trees. Indian accessions, for example, are susceptible to attacks by fruit flies and fruit eaters.

And there are other obstacles to more widespread use and commercialization of ziziphus fruit. Research from southern Africa shows that fresh fruit deteriorates rapidly and the vitamin C content decreases when the fruits are dried. Moreover, processing of fruit of Ziziphus mauritiana into different products to add value to the production chain still needs to be developed in West Africa.

Thus the time is ripe for ICRAF’s domestication programme, which works to take advantage of the best of both local and exotic ziziphus cultivars by selecting for desired traits, using tree improvement techniques including selection, breeding, vegetative propagation to develop improved accessions and varieties with the heavy fruiting characteristics of the Asian ones and the resistance to pest, disease and drought of the local trees. Such work can produce more stable yields, and overcome the current limitations on fruit consumption caused by seasonal variability. With the right selection and propagation work on ziziphus, combined with similar work on other highly prized food trees in the region, fruits could be available throughout most of the year, as shown in Figure 1 from a key article on the domestication work.

Figure 1. Fruiting seasons for 12 priority local fruit tree spp. in W. Africa Sahel

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Adansonia digitata X X X X
Balanites aegyptica X X X X
Sclerocarya birrea X X X
Borassus aethiopium X X X
Vitellaria paradoxa X X X X X X
Detarium microcarpum X X X X
Diospyros mespiliformis X X X X
Parkia biglobosa X X X X
Tamarindus indica X X X X X
Ziziphus mauritiana X X X X* X* X* X* X** X** X
Saba senegalensis X X X X X
Lannea microcarpa X X X

* introduced cultivars only                                               ** only if irrigated

The fruiting season of ziziphus can be prolonged by months using introduced, improved cultivars, and for an extra two months with irrigation, which makes ziziphus fruit available in October and November when none of the others are.

And this, according to the authors of this article on the domestication programme in the West African Sahel “would be beneficial for consumers, producers and processors”. “If properly managed and promoted for widespread planting,” they conclude, the fruits from the native and naturalized ziziphus “can contribute significantly to the economic development of poor rural communities”.

For more information, contact Antoine Kalinganire at: A.Kalinganire@cgiar.org

 ICRAF’s participatory tree domestication work in the Sahel is made possible with support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada), Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS, Netherlands), the World Bank and national agricultural research organizations in Burkina Faso (INERA), Mali (IER), Niger (INRAN) and Senegal (ISRA), as well as many non-governmental and civil society organizations in the region.  

Further reading

Kalinganire A, Weber JC and Coulibaly S. 2012. Improved Ziziphus mauritiana germplasm for Sahelian smallholder farmers: First steps toward a domestication programme. Forests, Trees and Livelihoods. Available at: http://bit.ly/1M8ivNA

Kalinganire A, Weber JC, Uwamariya A and Kone B. 2008. Improving rural livelihoods through domestication of indigenous fruit trees in the Parklands of the Sahel. In: Akinnifesi FK et al. eds. Indigenous Fruit Trees in the Tropics: Domestication, Utilization and Commercialization. Oxfordshire, UK: CAB International. http://worldagroforestry.org/downloads/Publications/PDFS/BC07271.pdf

Kone B, Kalinganire B and Doumbia M. 2009. La culture du jujubier: un manuel pour l’horticulteur sahélien. ICRAF Technical Manual no. 10. Nairobi: World Agroforestry Centre.

Raebild A, Larsen AS, Jensen JS, Ouédraogo M, De Groote S, Van Damme P, Bayala J, Diallo BS, Sanou H, Kalinganire A, Kjaer ED. 2011. Advances in domestication of indigenous fruit trees in the West African Sahel. New Forests: 41:297-315. DOI 10.1007/s11056-010-9237-5.

Simons AJ and Leakey RRB. 2004. Tree domestication in tropical agroforestry. Agro Sys. 61:167–181. Available at: http://bit.ly/1NTU1I4

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is a communications specialist, journalist and award-winning author, with many years of experience in development and environmental research and writing in Africa and elsewhere.

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