Solving World Hunger
If you'd come here 10 years ago, says Thaddeus Salah as he shows us around his tree nursery in northwest
Salah's fortunes changed in 2000 when he and his neighbors learned how to identify the best wild fruit trees and propagate them in a nursery. "Domesticating wild fruit like bush mango has changed our lives," he says. His family now has "plenty chop," as he puts it. He is also earning enough from the sale of indigenous fruit trees to pay school fees for four of his children. He's been able to re-roof his house with zinc sheets and buy goods he could only dream of owning before. He even has a mobile phone.
From Salah's farm we gaze across the intensively cultivated hills which roll away towards the Nigerian border. "Ten years ago, you'd hardly see any safou (African plum, Dacryodes edulis) in this area," says Zachary Tchoundjeu, a botanist at the World Agroforestry Center's regional office in the Cameroonian capital of
The spread of African plum through these hills is one small part of a bigger movement that could change the lives of millions of Africans. The continent is home to some 3,000 species of wild fruit tree, many of which are ripe for domestication. Chocolate berries, gingerbread plums, monkey oranges, gumvines, tree grapes and a host of others could soon play a role in ensuring dependable food supplies in areas now plagued by malnutrition.
One of the architects of the program is
"The last great round of crop domestication took place during the green revolution (in the mid-20th century), which developed high-yielding varieties of starchy staples such as rice, maize and wheat," says Leakey. "This new round could scarcely be more different." Sparsely funded and largely ignored by agribusiness, high-tech labs and policy-makers, it is a peasant revolution taking place in the fields of
The revolution has its roots in the mid-1990s, when researchers from the World Agroforestry Center conducted a series of surveys in west
In response to this unexpected finding, the World Agroforestry Center launched a fruit tree domestication program in 1998. It began by focusing on a handful of species, including bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis ), an indigenous African species unrelated to the Indian mango, African plum -- not actually a plum but a savory, avocado-like fruit sometimes called an afrocado -- and a nut tree known locally as njansan (Ricinodendron heudelotii ). Though common in the forests and as wild trees on farms, they were almost unknown to science.
"We knew their biological names, but that was about all," says
Rural Africans consume an enormous variety of wild foodstuffs. In
Some of these so called "famine foods" have already been domesticated by accident, says ethnoecologist
Likewise, generations of farmers in west
The planned domestication program in
Initially, many villagers viewed the techniques with suspicion. "People said this was white man's witchcraft, and at first they didn't want anything to do with it," says Florence Ayire, a member of a women's group in Widikum,
This isn't the only technique farmers are learning. They're also being trained how to clone superior trees by taking cuttings -- one of the best ways of producing large numbers of genetically identical plants -- and how to do marcotting, which involves peeling away bark from a branch and tricking it into producing roots while it's still attached to the parent plant. Once the roots appear, the branch can be cut down and planted in the soil.
Marcotting overcomes an important barrier to domestication for many species: the time it takes a tree to reach maturity and bear fruit.
"There's a saying round here that if you plant the nut of a kola tree, you'll die before the first harvest," says
There's nothing new about the horticultural techniques being used to develop superior varieties of fruit tree in
The program has been a huge success: in 1998, there were just two farmer-run nurseries in
Many farmers have increased their income by a factor of three or more, and their spending priorities are nearly always the same: more and better-quality food, school fees, decent healthcare, and zinc sheets to replace leaking thatch. Many also use their new-found wealth to buy land or livestock. One of the most exciting things about the domestication program, says Tchoundjeu, is the way it is encouraging young people to stay in their villages rather than head to the cities to look for work.
Some projects are evolving into big business. Leakey is particularly impressed by Project Novella, a public-private partnership involving, among others, Unilever, the World Agroforestry Center and the
All of this chimes well with the findings of a recent analysis of the problems facing agriculture worldwide. The latest report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development suggests that business as usual is not an option. Instead, it argues, agriculture must do far more than simply produce food: it should focus on issues of social, economic and environmental sustainability, concentrating on the needs of the world's smallholders. The report also suggests that more attention should be paid to utilizing wild species.
BETTER THAN COCOA
A glimpse of how such a future could look can be seen at Christophe Misse's smallholding, an hour's drive north of
Two years later, he set up a fruit tree nursery with three neighbors, and they now sell over 7,000 trees a year. Their own farms are also much more profitable since they began growing indigenous trees. Some of Misse's most fruitful African plum trees earn 10,000 CFA francs (about
Misse still has some old timber trees shading his cocoa, but these are gradually being replaced by fruit trees, which will provide not just shade but a significant income and a habitat for wildlife. There is another benefit, too. Trees are much more capable of resisting droughts and other climatic shifts than annual crops such as cassava and maize. By planting a range of different tree species, farmers like Misse are taking out an insurance policy for the future.
As he sips a glass of Misse's home-made palm wine, Tchoundjeu muses on the changing landscape. "If you come back here in 10 years' time, I hope -- I'm sure -- you'll see improved varieties of indigenous fruit tree on every smallholding," he says. "I think you'll see a great diversity of different tree crops and a much more complex, more sustainable environment. And the people will be healthier and better off." It's a story, he believes, that could be repeated across
FUTURE FRUITS OF THE FOREST
In 2008, the
Ten of these species have undergone a degree of domestication, including African plum, tamarind and marula. Of the 14 completely wild species -- "essentially untouched by the almost magic hand of modern horticulture" -- they identified seven with outstanding potential for domestication.
Given how many tropical fruits have already made their way into Western supermarkets, here are some African staples that shoppers may soon find in their shopping cart:
Chocolate berries (Vitex spp): Scattered across tropical
Aizen (Boscia senegalensis): A scrawny scrub in the hottest and driest regions, its fruits, seeds, roots and leaves are eaten by desert-dwellers. The yellow, cherry-sized berries are sweet and pulpy when ripe, and harden into a sweet caramel-like substance when dried.
Ebony fruit (Diospyros spp): Best known for their valuable, jet-black wood, ebony trees also produce large, succulent persimmon-like fruit with a delicate sweet taste.
Gingerbread plums (several genera of the family Chrysobalanaceae): Distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the plums this tree produces have the crunch of an apple and the flavour of a strawberry.
Medlars (Vangueria spp): These trees grow well in arid areas and produce fruits that, when dried, have the flavour and smell of dried apples.
Sugar plums (Uapaca spp): Found in woodlands, this tree bears juicy fruit with a honey-like taste.
Sweet detar (Detarium senegalense): A leguminous tree of savannahs, its pods contain a sweet-and-sour pulp which can be eaten fresh or dried.
Earthquake Buries Progress in Haiti
Even before Haiti's massive earthquake, the news from Haiti could seem relentlessly grim, from hurricanes to political violence to desperate poverty. But for the last year or so, things had actually started to look up in the hemisphere's poorest country.
Haiti - Tragedy and Opportunity for Haiti
Kara C. McDonald
The January 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, is the first test of the Obama administration's ability to mount a full-scale international disaster response, and it is no ordinary test. Haiti is the poorest nation in the hemisphere, with abysmal infrastructure, struggling to stabilize
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(C) 2010 Charlie Pye-Smith