Improving Food Security and Raising Incomes through Innovative Intercropping: An Interview with Dov Pasternak

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By Janeen Madan

Dov Pasternak, a professor from Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev, has devoted his expertise in dry land agriculture to research on land reclamation in Africa’s Sahel region. Since 2001, Pasternak has worked as a principle scientist at the International Center for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Niamey, Niger. Currently, he serves as head of ICRISAT’s Crops and Systems Diversification program. Pasternak’s work promotes agroforestry, agricultural training, and market gardens, to increase food security and incomes of small-scale farmers across the semi-arid regions of West Africa.

Much of your research focuses on systems that help farmers reclaim degraded land in semi-arid regions. Can you tell us about your current project work in Ethiopia?

Dov-Pasternak-hunger-agriculture-drought-intercropping-west-Africa-ICRISAT-International-Center-for-Research-in-the-Semi-Arid-Tropics

In the semi arid regions of West Africa, Dov Pasternak is training farmers to grow drought tolerant fruits and vegetables, which provide a source of food and income to families. (Photo credit: Dov Pasternak)

The project started, when I visited the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia in 2000. It is a semi-arid mountainous region, which was highly degraded—most of the trees were cut down and soil erosion was widespread. Farmers in the region were cultivating crops in the valleys, while the mountain sides lay bare.

The Ethiopian mountain sides reminded me of the Mediterranean landscape of Greece, Italy and northern Israel, where there are systems of production based on planting fruit trees on terraces, interspersed with annual crops. But in Ethiopia, there was no tradition of planting drought tolerant fruit trees and farmers were only planting one or two crops a year.

I started the High Value Trees for Agriculture Intensification program. The main idea of the project is to change the semi-arid landscape of Ethiopia to resemble the mountainous landscape of the Middle East by tapping into the advantages of techniques used in those areas.  This includes planting drought tolerant fruit trees like, figs, grapes, pomegranates, carobs, and almonds in terraces and other water harvesting structures and intercropping these with annual crops.

How is this project helping to improve livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Ethiopia?

Growing high-value fruit trees on the mountain slopes, which are not currently cultivated, can provide farmers with a source of additional income for their family. This can be a big advantage because of the low availability of land for poor farmers. Ethiopia’s rural population is growing very fast. The area of land available for each farmer is shrinking. In some cases, entire households have only 0.5 hectare of land, which is not enough to supply food for the family. But the fruit trees are providing a nutritional source of food.

And the high-value trees form the basis for ago-industry, especially for export. Grapes can be used for wine, figs can be dried and sold in the market, and you can make juice from the pomegranates. Additionally, the project promotes varieties of trees that are resilient to drought, providing adaptation to climate change. This project is very beneficial to the region—planting millions of high-value fruit trees to cultivate thousands of hectares of degraded land.

How are you working to replicate the project in other regions in Ethiopia?

When I realized the project was successful, I proposed the idea to the Ethiopian government and they began collaborating on this project. Dr. Debesai Senbeto of The Ethiopian Institute for Agriculture Research (EIAR) is now leading the program. The team brought trees from ICRISAT in Niger and planted 40,000 different varieties in a mother plantation for further propagation. The project, involving up to 20,000 farmers and 600 permanent staff, plants some 1 million trees each year. Together, these efforts have reclaimed over 350,000 hectares of land. The Ethiopian government has decided to upscale the project and has designated $US3.5 million to replicate the program in 4 regions of the country.

What does your research focus on and what are some of the other projects that you are involved with?

A lot of my work focuses on researching the best plant varieties for different regions. Then, we have to teach people the techniques for propagating these varieties. Every region has specific species that are best suited to its conditions. In West Africa, I am promoting the Pomme du Sahel, or apple of the Sahel, a tree native to India. Each tree provides 20 kilograms of fruit that farmers can sell at the market for $1 per kilogram. The fruits also have a high nutritional value and are very rich in vitamin C.  In addition, I have also introduced sweet tamarind, which is also drought tolerant, and I’m currently looking into new mango varieties and citrus trees from Thailand.

Some of my projects focus specifically on women’s groups, working with them to reclaim degraded land. The Africa Market Garden project, for example, is spreading fast in Niger, Senegal, and Benin. Women are growing indigenous vegetables like okra and moringa on land that was not being cultivated before. They are able to sell their produce at the market while also providing a nutritious source of food to their families. Next year, this project will include 50 villages and up to 150 hectares of land.

One of my recent projects focuses on intensifying agriculture in areas where farmers are only irrigating rice. This involves integrating fruits and vegetables with the rice crop to diversify production. The fruit trees are planted wide apart, and farmers alternate between vegetables and rice cultivation on the land between the fruit trees. This provides a year-round source of food and income for farmers.

To learn more about Dov Pasternak’s research and ICRISAT’s work in semi-arid regions across West Africa’s, see: Africa Market Garden: A Smarter Approach to Agriculture, Farmers of the Future, Nourishing the Planet in the Jerusalem Post, and NtP in Niger’s Le Republicain.

Janeen Madan is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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