Of Trees and Banks

by Catherine Ky-Dembele and Ake Mamo

In the drylands of Mali, adoption of tree based food banks is creating big impressions in farmers’ lives.

When we think of food security, it is specters of food shortage and bags of grain that come to mind. However, a major source of malnutrition and stunting among children in the developing world is the deficiency of vitamins and minerals in foods. In Mali, nowhere is this more evident than in the fertile region of Sikasso, a major cereal producing area, where the stunting prevalence (45 – 47%) of children under-five is highest in the country.

Paradoxically, the region has lesser prospects for nutrient rich foods than the more food scarce areas of Mali. Part of the problem is a densely growing, peri-urban population where fruits and vegetables have become increasingly scarce and diets have impoverished accordingly.

But it is also here that indigenous tree based fruits and vegetables offered an opportunity for impact oriented interventions. In 2007 Research undertaken by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) found that indigenous fruits and vegetables were not cultivated because of a lack of good quality plant material and perceived difficulties in harvesting, processing and conserving techniques.

Ruti Diarra in Tominian, Mali.

Ruti Diarra collecting leaves and fuelwood, Mali. Photo@Ake mamo

However, in a country where traditional diets are already incorporating tree vegetables, it was imperative to find ways to easily adapt these species to a high regional demand.  Heeding the research recommendation to also promote fruit and vegetable tree garden establishment at household level, especially for children and women in Sikasso Region, ICRAF in 2013 undertook further research on superior accessions and grafting of 5 priority tree species including baobab (Adansonia digitata), jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana), moringa (Moringa oleifera), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), and shea (Vitellaria paradoxa).  Each fruit is creating big impact in the region (see Roots of Recovery here) but one of the outcomes for moringa and baobab is currently the launch of leafy tree vegetable gardens known as food banks.

The first of its kind, the concept of foodbanks is to allow farmers to have a ready source of fresh, rich nutrient sources with locally consumed tree leaves such as baobab and moringa.  A foodbank is like a vegetable garden but incorporates  tree vegetables such as the highly nutritious baobab and moringa scientifically improved to provide maximum biomass.  These trees can be planted at any combination with other traditional vegetables which are usually highly irrigated in much of the country. The current most amenable spacing types (0.3m x 0.3m with 72 plants per plot), (0.5m x 0.5m with 45 plants per plot) and 1m x 1m with 15 plants per plot have so far been used to install 11.25 m2 plots (4.5m x 2.5m) in 10 villages across Sikasso.

Baobab leaves are an extremely valuable source of proteins, vitamins A and B, as well as a range of essential minerals. They are consumed as a leafy green vegetable, and as a sauce. As the leaves are available during the rainy season only, they are dried and kept for the long dry season. This results however in loss of vitamins and micro-nutrients.

” In nature the fresh Baobab leaf is available for only a very short time” says Brehima Kone, Research Assistant at the World Agroforestry Centre based in Samanko, Mali. “But now with the science of species selection and domestication, we have varieties that have been improved from the natural stands to

Baobab trees in natural stand with very little leaves.

Baobab trees in natural stand with very little leaves. Dry Season. Photo@Ake Mamo

make fresh leaves available all year round. The moringa is also a veritable health treasure and with the food bank we get both of them to provide a fuller range of micro-nutrients”.

Moringa is consumed as a spinach equivalent but the leaves are far superior providing protein, vitamins A, B and C and minerals such as calcium and iron. They are also an excellent source of sulphur-containing amino acids methionine and cystine, which are often not available in diets composed of cereals alone.

 “Normally it would take several years before health benefits can be seen to derive from planting trees. What makes the food bank exceptional is that both the baobab and moringa are extremely fast growing trees and now with superior accessions and reductions in growth time with grafting, they can provide an abundant supply of vegetable leaves within a year” says Antoine Kalinganire, ICRAF West Africa Sahel and Dry Savannas Flagship Coordinator.

The tree based food banks have also been integrated into a broader initiative known as technology parks implemented by ICRAF with other centers such as the World Vegetable Centre (AVRDC ), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) amongst others who together demonstrate the integration of vegetables, grains, and tree based vegetables for a food and nutrient secure diet.

It is still work in progress but already in 2015, seventeen individual farmers have taken up the technology partly for their own consumption and partly in order to be able to avail a fresh supply to the market during the dry season. In addition ten women associations with 500 female members have adopted tree based food banks in the districts of Koutiala and Bougouni in Sikasso.

As a community based experiment, the technology parks aim to provide hands on training to farmers and students, facilitate knowledge flow not only from science to farmers but also from farmers to science, and farmers to farmers. It also helps research and development organizations understand the dynamics behind farmer’s preferences for technologies in the region.

Each technology park is expected to increase the uptake of improved technologies such as the tree based food banks to nearly 380 farmers in each district at the end of the 2016 growing season. With an easily available source of nutrients and vitamins – often lacking in staple foods – this will contribute to addressing the prevailing micro-nutrient deficiencies known as hidden hunger – in Sikasso and the West African Sahel at large.


This outcome is jointly mapped to the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems (known as Dryland Systems) through the USAID Africa RISING project; and to the CGIAR Research Programme on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

The CGIAR Research Program on Dry land Systems conducts four (4) major research-in-development projects in the West African Sahel and Dry Savannas region of which one is the Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING). The Africa RISING project, led by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), comprises three research for development implemented in West, East and Southern Africa and is supported by the United States Agency for International Development as part of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative.


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