Tunisia was once a land of the gods, swirling with olives, lemons, almonds and herbs. Now, Tunisia is in the process of becoming entirely desertified, with 75 percent of its land already dried. Globally, it’s the country the second-most affected by water stress, of course impacting food security as well.
Sarah Toumi, a Tunisian entrepreneur, isn’t running away from her country’s problems, though. Instead, she works with scientists to turn farmlands into canvases for a multi-layered visions of what farming can – and increasingly should – look like. Palm trees rise high, shading orange and lemon trees, and, underneath, gardens of aromatic herbs.
Not only is such a layered approach to planting resistant to drought, but it’s also poised to perform well on store shelves. Aside from just providing food, the myriad species can each offer a different consumer appeal. Moringa, for instance, is used widely in natural medicine; orange flower is a cosmetic industry darling. Growers, then, are not only resilient to climate change, but also to market fluctuations.
“We put the farmer with all of his dignity and personality as an entrepreneur in charge of his own destiny,” said Toumi at the 4th World Congress on Agroforestry, held in Montpellier, France, in May.
Agroforestry, which integrates trees and forest elements into agricultural landscapes, is currently something of a sleeping giant of a tool to help people dependent on lands suffering in the face of climate change. However, as with anything, showing the economic benefits agroforestry can bring is the most effective way to change this.
In the Pacific, researcher Helen Wallace from Australia’s GeneCology Research Centre has been improving the lives of islanders by focusing on what consumers want. By understanding what works well in markets in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji where she conducts here work, she then figures out how to add value to what smallholders are growing so that more people will ultimately want to buy it.
For example, she found that many restaurants in Vanuatu were buying packaged tamarind paste to use as an ingredient in sauces and condiments. With this in mind, she helped a local woman entrepreneur connect with smallholders growing tamarind, buy the fruit fresh, and turn it into a variety of chutneys and sauces that are now served in eateries across the archipelago. They’re a higher quality product than paste and save the restaurants work.
She also found that dried fruit, such as pineapple and bananas, was widely popular. While farmers could easily grow these fruits, it was difficult to dry them down when living off the electrical grid. Wallace introduced driers that use solar energy – an infinite resource in this part of the world – to parch the fruits, which proved a wild success. After one year, nearly every donor organization had taken up the driers and incorporated them into their community development projects too.
Wallace is quick to note that cultures with a strong sense of entrepreneurism – and tourism –more readily take up new practices. But she also said that, on the consumer end of the equation, more and more people in urban areas are adopting buying habits that can help agroforestry spread, if producers reflect market desires. People want to know now if their food is ethical and sustainable, they prefer artisanal to commercial food, and they increasingly make buying choices that they know help rural communities.
Clement Okia of World Agroforestry (ICRAF) also focused on women and young people in Zambia and Uganda, where these demographics are often “left behind in value chains,” he said. In villages across the countries, he used a selection process to determine which value chains would ultimately aid smallholders most, landing on chickens, coffee, dairy and beekeeping.
By incorporating specific tree and shrub species into landscapes to boost productivity of these resources while strengthening relationships with the private sector, he’s helped more than 5,000 smallholders increase their outputs and therefore their incomes. For example, the quality of coffee beans from Kenya’s Mt. Elgon region has improved, employed more women, and seen co-ops link to buyers in countries as far afield as Australia that are willing to buy beans at fairer prices. “This has caused a lot of excitement among farmers,” he said. “In the second year, we began running very fast.”
Introducing the circular economy can also help. In the highlands of China’s Yunnan province, World Agroforestry senior scientist Jianxu Xu is finding ways to make sure that “all outputs of circular agriculture are things that people can use or sell” in his Centre for Mountain Futures project. For example, on a chicken livestock farm, waste goes into banks of insects, which process it into amino acids that are then used in natural fertilizer.
In the “smart mushroom factory” that’s part of the project, more than 15 million pounds of mushrooms are produced per year with the help of agroforestry methods – and the initiative is currently working to double this to 30 million. Plants with multiple uses are also prioritized, such as Calotropis plants, which produce both natural fiber and fodder, the former going into high-quality textiles and latter feeding goats whose milk is used for cheesemaking.
Xu says there are four steps to restoring mountainscapes through agroforestry and be profitable: finding the right trees for the right places, planting vertically from trees to shrubs to grass, integrating trees crops and livestock, and creating biomass-based circular agriculture that can work at scale.
Through integrating agroforestry with value chains and the circular economy he says creates “new jobs, new technology and a new vision for the future.”
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