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Could Acacia trees solve Africa's hunger problems?

Decades of food delivery and 'miracle' seeds haven't addressed underlying causes of hunger. But new efforts to replicate Africa's original ecosystems are generating impressive, sustainable results.

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Acacia trees work wonders

The acacia’s benefits are myriad: acacias fix nitrogen in the soil, which feeds the annual crops and other trees; their leaves produce mulch, which is either composted or left in place, rather than burned; the limbs can be coppiced for firewood, timber, or mulch; and the seeds, which are high in protein, can feed both people and livestock. Acacias on the farm’s perimeter act as a living fence, protecting against encroaching sand dunes. No wonder the productivity of crops grown inside the acacia’s protective arms have doubled and even tripled.

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Acacias confirm the Hausa proverb: The one who plants trees will never be hungry.

IN PICTURES: Celebrities aiding Africa

The success of this agroforestry model has been immediate and impressive, with yields two to three times higher than traditional farming methods. Rather than a rigid system, it is more of a template, easily adapted to each region. Could it be duplicated in other parts of Africa? Cunningham thinks so; edible Australian acacias are now being trialed in Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, and Mali.

And other alternative efforts to aid are starting to be heard. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, an anti-hunger advocacy organization, was recently awarded the World Food Prize along with Heifer International’s president, Jo Luck. The prize recognizes the important role of advocacy and citizen engagement in getting hunger issues onto the agenda of national and international policymakers. Bread for the World utilizes its grassroots membership and a network of 4,000-4,500 churches to lobby members of Congress for development and foreign aid reform.

“Currently our investments are very project-oriented,” says Asma Lateef, Director of the Bread for the World Institute. But when the funding runs out the projects end. “We need to focus on leaving behind skills, systems, and institutions that can carry on that work. That’s where our aid should go.”

Faith-based groups can offer real value

Instead of offering the hungry a sack of grain each year, thus making those people dependent on the whims of an outsider’s benevolence, faith-based groups working in Africa can offer them something much more valuable that can break the cycle of dependence and famine: knowledge. Specifically, agroecological knowledge. Instead of yearly inputs of grain hand-outs, petro-chemicals, or “miracle” seeds, agroecological knowledge puts farmers in control of their own farm and increases their chances of staying on that farm.

The past 30 years of aid in Niger may have filled a few bellies, but it’s brought no lasting change. It’s time for faith-communities and other aid groups to start planting seeds of change by investing in agroecological and organic farming. And the world community is recognizing that faith-based initiatives have the drive, the need, and the network to make an incredible impact. Imagine it: vibrant small farms and communities where hunger is just a memory, where the land is resilient in good years and bad, where the food in one’s belly doesn’t depend on yearly gifts from well-meaning Westerners, but comes from the natural abundance latent in the land itself, waiting to be discovered.

Fred Bahnson is a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at IATP (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy) and author of a vignette in the forthcoming “State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.” Danielle Nierenberg is co-director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet ( project.


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