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May 31, 2008

Australian acacias being adapted to West Africa

With its gnarled limbs and jagged thorns the acacia is perhaps one of the most striking symbols of the African landscape. But acacias are not restricted to Africa. Worldwide, there are over 1200 species with the vast majority being native to Australia. Known also as wattle trees, the seeds of certain Australian acacias are tasty, nutritious and safe to consume, and are providing a valued food source in parts of West Africa.

The Sahelian region of West Africa is among the poorest and least food secure regions of the world. In Niger, the almost total destruction of trees and shrubs in the agricultural zone between the 1950s and 1980s resulted in recurring drought, strong winds, high temperatures, infertile soils and increased desertification. Combined with rapid population growth and poverty, these problems contributed to chronic hunger and periodic acute famine.

Whilst drought and crop failure is still a problem in Niger - the last severe famine was in 2005 - there are areas where farmers have been able to protect and regenerate degraded land and combat the effects of desertification. Building on twenty years of successful and sustainable agricultural approaches tried and tested by the Maradi Integrated Development Project (MIDP), farmers have been encouraged to take up an integrated agroforestry farming system. These involve a range of multi-purpose Australian acacias, other agroforestry trees, crop residue mulching and annual crops.

Through MIDP's work, millions of hectares of farmland in Niger have been transformed over the past two decades. Natural regeneration of trees by farmers has proved particularly successful. This system, known as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is based on the natural regeneration and management of tree stems from underground stumps. FMNR provides firewood, building timber, improves crop yields, increases biodiversity and provides valued income to farmers. With this system, trees are owned by farmers and seen as beneficial and it is one of the few sustainable and expanding agroforestry systems in the Sahel.

More than a decade of research, as part of MIDP's approach, has also involved the testing and domestication of edible Australian acacias, including Acacia colei, A. torulosa, A. tumida and A. elachantha. These perennial species grow rapidly, are well adapted to infertile soils and produce seeds that can be easily harvested and processed into nutritious human food.

As a result, a significant number of communities in the area are known to be regularly consuming acacia-based foods, particularly derived from A. colei. However, more sustainable adoption of acacias proved rather slow at first until MIDP alone, and then in collaboration with World Vision Niger, launched a more concerted approach to promoting the multiple benefits of acacias.

In continuing to explore the potential of Australian acacia species, MIDP staff have since developed the Farmer Managed Agroforesty Farming System (FMAFS), which is an alley cropping, agro-pastoral forestry system that incorporates FMNR of trees along with high seed and wood-producing acacias (particularly improved A. colei and A. torulosa). Whilst the FMAFS is introduced as a model, the approach is flexible to ensure that farmers can adapt it to meet their needs and local conditions.

The added attraction of acacias

Whilst very few A. colei trees were recorded to have been planted in the Maradi region during 1999-2003, a small market created by an Australian company, Kalkardi Pty Ltd., together with promotion by MIDP, led to a renewed interest in the species. During 2006-7, over 350 FMAFS were established in 33 villages, which has led to increased production of acacia seed. In 2004 Kalkardi purchased 1,640kg of seed which, by 2007, had risen to over 4,550kg. The price offered for seed (US$ 0.40 per kg) has stimulated interest in acacia planting and subsequent consumption of the seed.

From an informal survey conducted in 12 villages in three districts of the Maradi region in September 2007, it has been discovered that the demand for Acacia trees in MIDP and World Vision intervention villages exceeds supply, and that farmers were experimenting and innovating to find new uses for acacias not promoted by MIDP. These included using the seed pods as fertiliser side dressings, using water from soaking acacia bark to increase the strength of mud-plaster, and the medicinal use of acacia leaf juice to treat fever and stomach upsets.

Acacia foods, such as local dishes made with acacia flour, have become widely and enthusiastically accepted in the villages where A. colei is grown. The food is valued for its taste and, since acacia-based foods are more filling, consumption of staple grains is reduced, so that more is available for use at a later date or for sale.

MIDP's work is ongoing and trials to evaluate different types of A.torulosa, A. tumida and A.elachantha continue. The lessons learnt in Niger should enable multi-purpose acacias and adapted FMAFS to be adopted in regions with similar conditions and needs to Niger, particularly if markets for acacia seed and food products are developed.

The New Agriculturalist

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