Mali: Trees for Food Security

Life in the sandswept Sahel of West Africa is a year-long quest for food security. The region is plagued by annual droughts that last nine months, by periodic droughts that may last several years. People from Chad in the east, across to the Atlantic coast of Senegal in the west, have learned to make the best of the resources that nature has bequeathed them. They leave scattered trees in their fields of sorghum, millet and maize, an agroforestry system known as 'parklands'. If crops fail, or during the long dry seasons, the trees provide them with many of their nutritional needs.

So it is not surprising that when researchers set out, using the priority-setting methods outlined above, to find out what trees people most value and why, they found that people in the Sahel most value trees that provide food security and generate some income. The priority-setting exercise was carried out by ICRAF scientists from the Canadian-funded Semi-Arid Lowlands of West Africa programme, together with their partners in national agricultural research organizations. Their surveys took them through Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal, and the list of the top five trees in each country showed some striking similarities.

Baobab appears in the list in each country; it tops the list in three countries. Its fruit pulp is used for porridge-making and for flavouring drinks. It is extremely high in vitamin C, an added bonus in an area where this vitamin is chronically lacking.The leaves,high in vitamin A, are used in sauces. These products are used at home and also sold to generate income.

Another top-rated tree is Vitellaria paradoxa (karité in French, sheanut in English). Karité produces an oil or butter used in cooking and as a cosmetic, which is the main ingredient in many of the most expensive facial cremes on the international market. In Burkina Faso, guests will often find sheanut butter soap in their hotel rooms. This tree, difficult to propagate at the moment, is an important source of income throughout the Sahel and south into the savannas of northern Ghana and Nigeria.

A third tree, Parkia biglobosa (néré in francophone countries and dawa-dawa in anglophone areas), produces brown seeds that are ground into a pungent spice used in sauces throughout the region. This soumbala seasoning, sold as balls of brown paste, can easily be tracked down by its remarkable smell that is almost synonymous with Sahelian markets. The yellow powder in the pod is consumed raw or as porridge. Domestication of this tree is particularly urgent because the fruits are collected when they are still hanging and few seeds are able to germinate.

Other important trees include tamarind (Tamarindus indica), Ziziphus mauritiana, Lannea microcarpa, Balanites aegyptica, Diospyros mespiliformis, Cordyla pinnata and Faidherbia albida, all of which provide products and consumables for people and for livestock as well. These results, according to Elias Ayuk of ICRAF, show that farmers most prefer species that provide food security as well as a wide range of products.

In coming months, he reports, specialists from ICRAF and national agricultural research organizations will be assessing the value of the products of these trees on farms. This will lead to the actual tree improvement work in the area, and go a long way to point researchers in the right direction when they are working on agroforestry technologies suitable, and adoptable, in the Sahel.

International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF)

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