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‘Food bank’ concept proves that money and meals can grow on trees

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Baobab trees in natural stand with very little leaves in dry season. Photo credit: Ake Mamo

The nutrition security of the people living in the West African Sahel is challenged by extreme resource scarcity and degraded ecosystems. Malnutrition, especially among children, is widespread. Establishing tree-based food banks, using improved versions of native species, is considered a promising approach for improving the nutritional value of local diets.

Key messages:

  • Nutrient-poor diets lead to malnutrition and stunting
  • Native trees, rich in nutrients and vitamins, have potential to improve diets
  • Improved plant material and techniques increase availability of tree-based vegetables

Hidden hunger threatens millions

Malnutrition is known as ‘hidden hunger’ because it is characterized not by a lack of food, but by a lack of micronutrients. It is a real threat to millions of people, and threat has turned reality in Mali’s fertile Sikasso region.

While the Sikasso region is a major producer of cereals, its inhabitants, paradoxically, have less access to nutrient-rich foods than those living in other, more food-scarce areas. As a result, the stunting prevalence among children below the age of five, at around 45 percent, is the highest in the country.

Part of the problem is that tree-based vegetables, which are known to be rich in nutrients and vitamins and which can be sourced from a diversity of native trees and shrubs, are no longer dietary staples. Finding ways to reintegrate such tree-based vegetables into diets may help reverse malnutrition trends.

Looking to native trees to solve the problem

In 2013, researchers set out to discover why families in Sikasso were no longer eating tree-based vegetables. The answers turned out to be complex: a lack of access to high-quality plant materials as well as difficulties with harvesting, processing and conserving tree-based vegetables were holding farmers back.

For example, the leaves of the Baobab tree are only naturally available for a very short time during the rainy season. When picked and dried, to be consumed during the long dry season, they lose some of their vitamins and micronutrients.

In response to such challenges, scientists worked with farmers to improve the quality and availability of tree-based vegetables. For example, they trained farmers on grafting, a technique that essentially allows for copying quality plant materials and which therefore guarantees strong yields. Grafting also means that trees can start fruiting within six months, much quicker than non-grafted trees.

Other efforts included working with nursery managers to improve the quality of seedlings and seeds as well as identifying and promoting superior plant varieties.

Tree-based food banks boost nutrition security

Using the new and improved plant material, tree-based food banks were launched in ten villages across Sikasso. The food banks allow farmers to readily and continuously access fresh, nutrient leaves, such as those from the Baobab and Moringa trees.

The leaves of the Baobab tree are an extremely valuable source of proteins, vitamins A and B, as well as a range of essential minerals. They are consumed as a leafy green vegetable and as a sauce,” tells Brehima Kone, research assistant at the World Agroforestry Centre.

The Moringa tree is also a veritable health treasure. It is consumed as an equivalent to spinach, but the leaves are far superior, providing protein, vitamins A, B and C, and minerals such as calcium and iron. They are also an excellent source of sulphur, containing amino acids, methionine and cystine, which is often not available in a diet composed of cereals alone.

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A woman collects leaves and fuelwood in Mali. Photo credit: Ake Mamo

Quick results for long-term benefits

Normally, it can take up to ten years for these trees to carry fruits, but the improved plant material and techniques produce much quicker results. This makes the food bank concept exceptional:

With superior plant material and the use of grafting techniques, these trees can provide an abundant supply of leaves within a year,” explains Antoine Kalinganire, flagship coordinator for West Africa Sahel and Dry Savannas at the World Agroforestry Centre.

In 2015, seventeen individual farmers, six of them women, adopted the technology, partly to support their own food supply and partly to sell to the market during the dry season. In addition, ten women associations with 500 female members have adopted tree-based food banks in the districts of Koutiala and Bougouni in Sikasso.

It is promising to see that these food bank have been adopted so quickly," says Kalinganire, “and we expect to see further adoption in the years to come.”

Acknowledgments

This activity was led by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) under the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems, through the USAID Africa RISING project, and in collaboration with the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. This research was supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

About the author

Marianne Gadeberg is a freelance writer, editor, and communications specialist.

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