Trees as Crops in Africa

It sounds like a child’s fantasy—chocolate berries, gingerbread plums, and sugar plums. But these aren’t the contents of a Christmas stocking, but some of the wild fruits of Africa that the U.S. National Research Council has recognized as important to improving food supplies and nutrition in some of the world’s poorest, most malnourished countries.

Organizations such as the World Agroforestry Centre which we had the pleasure of visiting earlier this week (stay tuned for a blog about the visit), are working with farmers to help identify indigenous fruit trees that farmers can grow along with their crops. These initiatives not only give a name to these fruits (many of which scientists didn’t know about), but also a value that wasn’t recognized previously. Although they’re often referred to as famine foods because they’re usually eaten after granaries are exhausted, many have enormous nutritional value, making them important foods year round.

Dr. Roger Leakey, former head of the World Agroforestry Centre, says in a recent article in New Scientist that unlike the Green Revolution that took place in the 1960s, this current revolution of domesticated fruit trees is not led by agribusiness, but by farmers. “Local farmers play a key role in developing and testing new varieties,” says Leakey, “and they’re the ones who stand to benefit the most.”

Because fruit trees can be grown along with other crops, they don’t require much additional work from the farmer. Trees also provide a variety of products, in addition to food, including fodder for livestock, fuel, and ingredients for medicines.

And corporations are taking notice, but in a way that likely benefits local communities. Unilever, for example, has entered into a partnership to promote the domestication of Allanblackia, a tree whose seeds contain an oil useful for cosmetics and the food industry. By providing farmers a fair price, Unilever is helping both generate income and protect biodiversity—two things that sub-Saharan Africa needs more of.

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