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December 30, 2010

Could Acacia trees solve Africa's hunger problems?

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.

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 workingMr. 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 wondersThe 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.

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.


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