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.

Faith-based aid groups in Africa have a long and mostly admirable history of working to alleviate hunger. Too often, however, faith groups have focused their relief solely on food aid and have stopped short of addressing hunger’s underlying causes. While doling out sacks of Nebraska wheat during famines or giving farmers yearly gifts of petro-fertilizers and “miracle” seeds may alleviate hunger in the short term, such “aid” merely perpetuates a downward cycle and does nothing to improve the long-term resiliency of the land.

Today, a growing number of churches and Christian development organizations with long tenures in Africa are gaining attention with approaches to hunger that are more holistic, ones that look for answers from African farmers and from the land itself.

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Peter Cunningham, an Australian agricultural missionary who worked for the past nine years with Serving in Mission in Niger, is well aware of approaches to hunger that do not work. “There have been countless project interventions and millions of dollars spent in Niger over the last 30 years,” he says, “all aimed at reducing poverty, all with little or no lasting benefits at the village farm level. Adoption has not continued when the project ended or left.”

Band-aid approach isn't working

Mr. Cunningham is frustrated by aid organizations, both faith-based and NGOs, who continue to offer a band-aid approach, handing out food aid but doing little to change the underlying conditions of poverty. Why not put that money and energy into solving the region’s agricultural problems? The agronomic answers are out there, Cunningham believes, but they will not be found by using genetically modified “miracle” seeds, petro-fertilizers, pesticides, and other so-called Green Revolution practices. Rather, they must start with agroecological and organic farming practices.

Using what he learned from Niger farmers, Cunningham sought an agroecological approach that would be both regionally adapted and culturally specific. That meant starting with the Sahel’s original ecosystem. “In zones where God created the ecosystem as a savannah – trees, grasses, and herbs – then we should follow that pattern with trees. If large areas of productive land once had trees and were cleared, then we should go back to having trees with annual crops inter-planted between them,” Cunningham told me.

Following the pattern with trees is an idea that turned into a full-fledged food-security project serving more than 30 villages with over 6,000 inhabitants in the Maradi Region of Niger. It’s called Sowing Seeds of Change in the Sahel. In addition to indigenous trees, the seeds being sown are edible acacia trees from Australia.

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.

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

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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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