Value unchained: putting money into the hands that grow our food

Farmers in Sulawesi, Indonesia, use agroforestry to increase farm productivity. Photo: World Agroforestry/Yusuf Ahmad

The economic benefits of agroforestry

 By Gabrielle Lipton

This article is part of a Landscape Newsseries on agroforestry, published in partnership with World Agroforestry (ICRAF) in conjunction with the 4th World Congress on Agroforestry. 

Tunisia was once a land of the gods, filled with olives, lemons, almonds and herbs. Now, Tunisia is in the process of becoming entirely desertified, with 75% already dryland. Globally, it’s the country second-most affected by water stress, which of course has an impact on food security.

But Sarah Toumi, a Tunisian entrepreneur, isn’t running away from her country’s problems. Instead, she works with scientists to turn farmlands into canvases of a multi-layered vision of what farming can — and increasingly should — look like. Palm trees rise high, shading orange and lemon trees, and, underneath them, gardens of aromatic herbs.

Not only is such a layered approach to planting resistant to drought, it’s also poised to perform well on store shelves. Aside from providing food, the myriad species can each offer a different consumer appeal. Moringa (Moringa oleifera), for instance, is used widely in natural medicine; and the flower of the orange tree (Citrus sinensis) is a darling of the cosmetics industry. Growers of such commodities from deep-rooted perennials are not only resilient to climate change but also to market fluctuations.

‘We put the farmer with all of his dignity and personality as an entrepreneur in charge of his own destiny’, said Toumi at the 4th World Congress on Agroforestry, held in Montpellier, France, in May.

Agroforestry, which integrates trees and forest elements into agricultural landscapes, is currently something of a sleeping giant that is waiting to help people dependent on land who are suffering in the face of climate change. As with many other things, demonstrating the economic benefits of agroforestry can be a very effective way to awaken the giant.

Local handicraft at Art in the Park, Honiara, Solomon Islands, 2012. Photo: Yvonne Green / DFAT

In the Pacific, researcher Helen Wallace from Australia’s GeneCology Research Centre has been improving the lives of islanders by focusing on what consumers want. By understanding what works well in markets in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji where she conducts here work, she is able to figure out how to add value to what smallholders are growing so that more people want to buy their products.

For example, she found that many restaurants in Vanuatu were buying packaged tamarind paste to use as an ingredient in sauces and condiments. With this in mind, she helped a local female entrepreneur connect with smallholders growing tamarind, buy the fresh fruit, and turn it into a variety of chutneys and sauces that are now served in eateries across the archipelago. They’re a higher quality product than paste and save the restaurants work.

She also found that dried fruit, such as pineapple and banana, was widely popular. While farmers could easily grow these fruits, it was difficult to dry them when farmers were far from the electrical grid. Wallace introduced driers that use solar energy — an infinite resource in that part of the world — to parch the fruits, which proved a huge success with consumers. After only one year, nearly every donor organization had also taken up the driers and incorporated them into their development projects.

Wallace is quick to note that cultures with a strong sense of entrepreneurship — and tourism — more readily take up new practices. But she also said that, on the consumer end of the equation, more and more people in urban areas were adopting buying habits that can help agroforestry spread, if producers reflect market desires. People want to know now if their food is ethical and sustainable, they prefer artisanal to commercial food, and they increasingly make buying choices that they know help rural communities.

In a community-based nursery living adjacent to Mount Elgon National Park in southeast Uganda, where agroforestry is practiced to promote multifunctional climate-smart landscapes. Photo: World Agroforestry/Olivia E. Freeman

Clement Okia of World Agroforestry (ICRAF) also focused on women and young people in Zambia and Uganda, where these demographics are often ‘left behind in value chains’, he said. In villages in the two countries he used a selection process to determine which value chains would ultimately aid smallholders most, settling on chicken, coffee, dairy and beekeeping.

By incorporating specific tree and shrub species into landscapes to boost productivity of these resources while strengthening relationships with the private sector, he’s helped more than 5000 smallholders increase their output and therefore their incomes. For example, improving the quality of coffee beans from Kenya’s Mt. Elgon region has employed more women and seen co-operatives link to buyers in countries as far afield as Australia that are willing to buy beans at fairer prices.

‘This has caused a lot of excitement among farmers’, he said. ‘In the second year, we began running very fast’.

Introducing a ‘circular economy’ can also help. In the highlands of China’s Yunnan Province, World Agroforestry senior scientist Jianxu Xu is finding ways to make sure that ‘all outputs of circular agriculture are things that people can use or sell’ in his Mountain Futures project. For example, on a chicken farm, waste goes into banks of insects, which process it into amino acids that are then used in natural fertilizer.

In the ‘smart mushroom factory’ that’s part of the project, more than 7 million kg of mushrooms are produced per year with the help of agroforestry methods and the initiative is currently working to double this output. Plants with multiple uses are also prioritized, such as Calotropis, which produces both natural fibre as well as fodder, the former used in high-quality textiles and the latter feeding goats for milk used in cheesemaking.

Xu says there are four steps to restoring mountainscapes through agroforestry and being profitable: finding the right trees for the right places; planting vertically from trees to shrubs to grass; integrating trees, crops and livestock; and creating biomass-based, circular agriculture that can work at large scale.

Integrating agroforestry with value chains and the circular economy, he says, creates ‘new jobs, new technology and a new vision for the future’.


World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is a centre of science and development excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Leveraging the world’s largest repository of agroforestry science and information, we develop knowledge practices, from farmers’ fields to the global sphere, to ensure food security and environmental sustainability. ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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