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Domesticating indigenous fruit trees puts better food on the table in sub-Saharan Africa

Traditional knowledge meets the latest science, as local farmers tweak nature's bounty.
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Image reproduite avec la permission de Anton Matthee/flickr.
Image reproduite avec la permission de Anton Matthee/flickr.

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Africa - BOGOR, Indonesia (5 April, 2012)_Encouraging local farmers to domesticate indigenous fruit trees could help provide much-needed vitamins to millions of sub-Saharan Africans, says a new study.

Using the ‘participatory domestication approach’, traditional knowledge of fruit-tree use and cultivation can be combined with scientific advances in germplasm collection, selection and vegetative propagation.

“Traditional knowledge includes, for example, farmers knowing the trees with the tastiest fruit or that are the highest yielding,” explained Ian Dawson of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), who co-authored the study on domesticating indigenous fruit trees.

“But farmers may not know the best ways to handle and propagate these trees to bring them into cultivation, while keeping these superior features.”

To this end, local farmers are trained in handling germplasm, living tissues from which new plants can grow, so they can then apply their new skills to the fruit trees they find naturally in the landscape around them.

Techniques include vegetative propagation, which can ‘clone’ trees, giving farmers the ability to select and domesticate trees with specific characteristics such as nutritious and plentiful fruit. For example, vegetative propagation techniques can accelerate the production of the Baobab tree’s vitamin C-rich fruit, reducing the period between planting and first fruiting from 10 years to around four years.

“Traditional farmers can be a valuable source of practices and techniques which have produced centuries-old resilient and diverse production systems,” agreed CIFOR scientist Terry Sunderland, who co-edited a recent special issue of the International Forestry Review on forests, biodiversity and food security, which included the ICRAF paper.

“A central approach to better managing the resource is to assist farmers to improve the tree stocks that they grow on the farm and at community level with interventions to increase yield, quality and delivery.”

Thirty per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished — the highest proportion in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s calculations in 2010 — and millions are affected by “hidden hunger”, from a lack of micronutrients such as vitamins.

Indigenous fruits such as the fruit of the Baobab tree and the highly nutritious Safou fruit could be part of the answer to solving both hidden and not so hidden hunger, said the authors of a recent ICRAF study, because they often have far better nutritional profiles than staple foods.

“The diversity of forest, fallow and agricultural margin foods can often help provide the range of micronutrients needed for the human diet,” agreed Sunderland.

But with Africa’s annual deforestation rate almost reaching 3.5 million hectares, it is increasingly difficult for communities to get these natural dietary supplements.

The answer, according to the ICRAF study, could be integrating these trees into farms. Africa has a special potential for this because of the great biological diversity of indigenous fruits, nuts and other edible products found in the continent’s forests.

“Forty percent of the world’s food originates from diverse smallholder farmers, so the potential of agroforestry [trees on farms] to improve livelihoods and nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa is vast,” explained Sunderland.

“Integrating trees on farms not only provides products such as food, fodder and medicines, it also ensures that vital ecosystem services are maintained; for example, pollination, soil stabilisation and watershed protection.”

Promoting tree cultivation in smallholdings has the potential to help address a range of challenges facing agriculture in Africa, including low farm productivity, forest and biodiversity loss, climate change caused by humans, and restricted fuel availability, while at the same time contributing to the nutrition of many rural and urban people and bringing significant revenues to smallholders, the ICRAF scientists said.

According to the ICRAF study, smallholders involved in the ‘Food for Progress’ project in Cameroon, increased their income from the sale of locally selected fruits, and from selling nursery stock of trees to other growers. Around 50 percent of the farmers involved in this project included more indigenous fruits in their own diet, having a direct impact on their nutrition.

With better-directed government and commercial investments, the ‘Food for Progress’ project could be repeated in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, suggested the study, with rural resource centres managed by local communities providing training to farmers and acting as venues for information-sharing and market transactions.

But to achieve the full potential for livelihoods and nutrition benefits from fruit production in smallholder agroforestry systems, some obstacles need to be addressed.

“Tenure is a major problem: without land ownership, people simply don’t plant trees. Instead, farmers tend to focus on short cropping cycles that are often deleterious to long-term soil fertility and biodiversity,” said Sunderland, who discussed challenges to biodiversity-friendly agriculture in the forests, biodiversity and food security issue of the International Forestry Review.

Dawson added: “Apart from land tenure, other constraints to smallholders growing fruit include limited access to high-quality planting material, the current use of poor farm management and post-harvest practices, and weak market systems.”

For fruit production in smallholder agroforestry systems to really get off the ground, Dawson suggested that there should be a greater focus on locally-available indigenous fruits, supporting local commercial enterprises in tree nursery development, and improving market value chains to ensure the benefits go to the right people.

The ‘south-south’ transfer of exotic fruit tree varieties could also be promoted because of their role in providing nutrients.

“The sale of fruits and other tree crops could make important contributions to food security and health in Africa and other developing countries, particularly if there is a focus on how well the qualities of particular fruit species match actual nutritional needs in the areas where the trees are to be grown,” concluded Sunderland.

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  • Planting “improved” fruit and nut trees must not makes us forget about the possibility of direst seeding trees and perennials. Seeds from wild plants are available in great quantities even to the poorest. Direct seeding could be a very important way to augment the biodiversity and productivity of existing forests, tree plantation, windbreak hedges, and orchards.
    Seedlings initially take more time to produce crops but they are much more robust than cloned or grafted trees, and they live longer.