Monthly Archives: April 2015

Trees and food security in Africa; what’s the link?


The right trees, coupled with the right varieties of crops, rural advisory services, and a supportive policy environment can have a huge impact on crop yields, nutrition and income in Africa. And because smallholder farmers feed and nourish most of Africa’s 1 billion population, this is where we must start.

Agroforestry systems in Africa range from open parkland assemblages, home gardens, mixtures of trees with one or several crops, and trees planted in hedges and boundaries of fields and farms. Thanks to a rich body of science-based knowledge that brings the best in ‘agro’ and ‘forest’ together, farmers can select the right tree and crop associations for the right place. Well designed agroforestry systems provide benefits that cannot be attained from monocrops.

African farmers have the most agroforestry species to choose from out of all developing countries; according to the Agroforestree Database at least 1,141 species are known to provide functions of importance to smallholders for promoting food and nutritional security. Among these are fertilizer trees, fruit and nut trees, as well as nutritious fodder trees and shrubs, which lead to higher yields for dairy farmers.

Agroforestry using fertilizer trees has been proven to raise and stabilize maize yields. between 2007 and 2011 ICRAF and partners implemented the Malawi Agroforestry Food Security Programme funded by Irish Aid, reaching about 180,000 farmers. The programme involved introducing fertilizer, fruit, and fodder trees and shrubs into smallholder farms. By the end of the intervention maize yields, food-secure months per year, and fruit availability had changed for the better in a vast majority of households practicing agroforestry. And across hundreds of thousands of hectares of the Sahelian region of Africa, yields of grains, ground nut and cotton have improved when grown under or near the fertilizer tree Faidherbia.

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Scaling up farmer managed natural regeneration and other regreening practices – six steps to success


During a high level meeting of African Ministers of Environment convened last month in Cairo to discuss Africa’s climate change challenge, the Ministers recognized the connections between climate change, food security, poverty alleviation, and increasing the productivity of land and other natural resources. This month, the release of new data on forests revealed that tree cover loss around the world now amounts to 18 million hectares, an increase of 5 percent over the average rate of loss from 2000-2012. Clearly, we need to do more to address the loss of tree cover and associated land degradation, and find more effective ways to boost land productivity, particularly across agricultural landscapes, if we are to achieve success in improving food security and reducing poverty.

We know that the right trees integrated into appropriate cropping systems, when accompanied by supporting policies, can make a big contribution to raising crop yields.  And agroforestry systems help to boost soil fertility and crop yields, while simultaneously contributing to increased supplies of firewood, fodder for livestock, higher incomes and improved nutrition for rural households. Increasing the density of trees on farms is potentially an important part of a needed “paradigm shift” towards more sustainable, “climate smart” food production systems.

The multiple benefits, especially for women, of a number of agroforestry and climate smart agricultural practices such as farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), conservation farming, and rainwater harvesting have been documented.  A key question is what can be done to ensure that tens of millions of farmers are motivated and enabled to adopt these practices?

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The potential of FMNR in Southern Africa


Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is a low cost, easily replicated form of community owned natural resource restoration and management that contributes to both sustainable development goals and also to climate change mitigation and adaptation goals. FMNR has been used (under many different names) by communities throughout the world both in indigenous management systems, and as an introduced process in modern times.

The value of FMNR is very simple:

First, regeneration is less risky and more successful than tree planting, because instead of having to establish a root system in difficult conditions, regenerated trees take advantage of extensive existing root systems that are already tapped into deep soil and water resources. It’s like grafting a new seedling onto the well-established roots of a big, mature tree. Second, communities rebuilding and managing the land and resources that sustain their lives and livelihoods are much more secure than communities dependent on external choices and actions for their well-being, or who have little control over the resources they depend on. And because many FMNR activities can be accomplished during the dry season, the benefits of FMNR are gained without increasing the work load during the most critical planting and harvesting periods.

The process of FMNR is also very simple:

  1. Farmers select and protect regenerating trees of their choice and density based on their interests – no prescribed arrangement, but densities range from a few to 250 or more per hectare.
  2. Regenerating trees are protected from grazing, cutting, fire, etc, to allow them the time to grow – it doesn’t take very long, with some trees growing a metre or more in a year.
  3. Farmers thin shoots to only a few stems to promote vertical growth – this avoids scrubby bush which takes land away from crops and produces low quantities of wood.
  4. They then manage the regenerating trees by periodic pruning out new shoots to ensure that the trees continue grow quickly and to serve the purpose(s) for which they were selected.
  5. Prunings can be used as fertiliser, fodder, for fuel or other uses. Other products may be collected as needed such as fruits, fodder and various parts of trees for medicinal or other uses.

Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of FMNR’s spread to date has been managed by developing country small-holder farmers without significant external support. If small holder farmers have been able to regenerate millions of hectares mostly on their own, imagine the impact they could make with regular and substantial support from the other stakeholders interested in supporting lasting, transformative development and/or strong, healthy ecosystems.  A critical recommendation from this Thematic Session was that FMNR needs far greater attention, research, exposure and publicity to attract the support of governments, donors, NGOs and the private sector to realize its massive potential to improve the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and their environment.

In Southern Africa, numerous indigenous systems are based on the same processes and practices that make up FMNR: this isn’t a new technology in this region, but rather a very old one that has already had positive impacts for communities and individual farming families. Total Land Care indicates that with “with protection from fire and cutting, most farm land in Malawi has inherent ability to regenerate”. In a land where forests contribute more than 30% of income for the vast majority of the population, regeneration makes good business sense. Since FMNR systems have been demonstrated to fair better in drought conditions and decrease flood risk, substantial regeneration has the potential to make a big difference in Malawi’s food future, especially as the impacts of climate change become more severe. Malawi is not alone: FMNR is the most widespread and most successful agroforestry system in Southern Africa.

FMNR is the process of regenerating and managing trees in the landscape, but it is by no means a stand-alone process. African farmers are smart and they have found numerous ways to increase the benefits of on-farm trees. Combining FMNR with conservation agriculture, water harvesting, and other practices has increased the benefits of both. Regenerating fertiliser trees, such as Faidherbia albida can improve yields while reducing input costs – a double win that makes good sense for farming families. Many families incorporate not just the trees and increased crop yields into their livelihood plans, but also the secondary opportunities that increase as tree cover increases – such as bee keeping.

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Linking fertilizer subsidies to sustainable farming with trees


A proposed new platform to link Southern Africa’s fertilizer subsidies to sustainable farming practices could be key to reversing the region’s land degradation crisis. The platform – which would be jointly sponsored by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the Secretariat of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) – would aim to help the region’s 19 countries link the scaling up of fertilizer tree technologies to their agricultural input subsidy programs.

“Southern Africa stands out as the area where the long-term trend is distinctly negative in terms of the biomass production on an annual basis over a whole quarter century,” Dennis Garrity, a senior fellow at ICRAF and a UN Drylands Ambassador, said during a presentation at the Beating Famine, Southern Africa Conference in Lilongwe on Thursday. Despite the severity of the crisis, Garrity added, the region has been “really neglected” in terms of international attention to bring the region’s land back to good health.

We already know how to fight land degradation: Farmers need to adopt sustainable, low-cost practices like conservation agriculture, agroforestry and farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). But the real challenge is figuring out how to spread these proven strategies to the farmers who can benefit from them. A number of options have been discussed this week at the Beating Famine Conference. This one, Garrity says, has enormous potential.

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Even children can do FMNR


That is an excellent question because the practice that many farmers in Malawi are adopting called natural tree regeneration is something that children can do very easily. It doesn’t cost any money; they can simply identify good and useful natural trees that come up in the fields naturally and both adults and children can manage them into fully grown trees. It makes agroforestry in Malawi so easy. It’s happening all over the country. As we are talking right now, there are examples of farmer managed natural regeneration from north to south. But, your point about the children is that they can contribute to this because children can actually do this themselves for the benefit of their families and communities. That means involving children in schools as a part of our vision for FMNR.


Malawi is actually considered to be partly a dry land situation; you know farming in Malawi is rain-fed and rainfall only occurs for a few months of the year. This year as you know, Malawi is experiencing a very serious drought because the rains stopped at the middle of the growing season and that really hurt the nation.  So, although Malawi is not considered a desert; it’s not considered to be a very dry place, it is still classified as semi-dry because in fact it is dry most of the time of the year. So as a Drylands ambassador, my work is to help to spread the solutions, the experiences of countries that are copying with dry conditions and climate proofing agriculture around the continent.


Well, what we have been doing is talking to hundreds and hundreds of delegates who themselves are influential in their own fields and countries and their own organizations to realize that the real issue is about the poor farmers and farming families. That is where the whole attention should be focused. Because when you make agriculture work in a country of small holder farmers, everything works better. Money in farmers’ pockets, buys goods, stimulates industry and creates economic growth and there are so many countries where that has happened and I am happy to say Malawi is getting along the path moving into that direction.  But we want to focus every attention on the people who are called the children of the land, the people who live in those small farms and if we can help them gradually improve their situation, educate their children and creating a changed generation; Malawi will in fact see a brighter future.

Beating Famine Conference Discusses Upscaling of Evergreen Agriculture in African Drylands

The Beating Famine Southern Africa Conference, held 14-17 April 2015, in Lilongwe, Malawi, explored strategies for expanding farmer-managed natural regeneration, alongside other sustainable land management practices, to help smallholder farmers boost their productivity and resilience to climate change. The conference also discussed ways to align these strategies with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other international aspirations, while preserving a “unique Southern African voice.”

In a keynote address, UNCCD Drylands Ambassador Dennis Garrity lamented “alarming” trends in land degradation in the region over the past 25 years and described the conference as a “launching pad for many new partnerships, initiatives, programs, projects, and action plans to reverse [these] … trends.” He stressed that the “real issue” is assisting the rural poor with increasing their own productivity, so they can grow more for their families, sell more on the market and meet their basic needs.

Participants also discussed a study of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), which was launched during the conference. The study identifies 24 different social, environmental and economic benefits that stem from the practice of FMNR.

The conference also explored strategies for expanding the ‘Building a Large Evergreen Agriculture Network for Southern Africa’ (BLEANSA), which brings together research organizations and innovation platforms. Isaac Nyoka, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Coordinator for Southern Africa, said that one of BLEANSA’s goals is to develop an agroforestry information hub to promote awareness of climate-smart agriculture among policy makers, extension staff, farmers and other land users in the region. Hamilton Chimala, Department of Agricultural Extension Services, Malawi, emphasized the need to provide farmers with the right tools and knowledge to improve their productivity and income, and reported the department is currently developing an agroforestry information-sharing model that farmers can access through dedicated television and radio channels.