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Do Trees on Farms Matter in African Agriculture?


COMMON WISDOM # 7: Trees on farms are negligible

SCORE:  1 - Myth


  • Trees are widespread in the five Sub-Saharan African countries studied, with more than 30% of all rural households reporting cultivating trees on their farms.
  • The economic contribution of on-farm trees is non-negligible: they provide 17% of total gross income among tree growing households and 6% on average across all rural households.
  • Gender, land and labor endowments, and especially forest proximity and national context are key determinants of on-farm tree adoption and management.


Trees on farms in Sub-Saharan Africa are typically more widespread and important than previously thought. They provide a significant source of income for many households across the continent and, in some contexts, a measure of food security. Because data limitations prevent a proper account of the indirect (environmental effects of trees on farms (soil conservation, biodiversity, etc.), they are likely even more important than the numbers presented here suggest. The implication is that governments and others should raise the profile of trees as an important crop and recognize that trees on farms can be an integral part of landscape planning, particularly in the face of a changing climate.


The issue:

Trees on farms are often overlooked in research and policy on agriculture, forests, and rural livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa. Forestry as a field largely focuses on trees in forests rather than outside them. The focus in agriculture is usually on annual crops.  One consequence of this separation is limited empirical knowledge of the prevalence of trees on farms and their economic contribution across the continent.  Sub-national case studies suggest that on-farm trees can be important to household welfare, but there is little national-scale evidence.  

The analysis:

This study uses nationally representative data from the Living Standards Measurement Study - Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) in five African countries: Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda and, Tanzania. Together, these countries represent 41% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa and cover a wide array of agro-ecological zones. The dataset includes information from more than geo-referenced 20,000 households surveyed during 2010-2012.  This also permits examining the effect of variables such as distance to forest, population, soil quality, and other relevant variables. This information is used to picture and explain the prevalence of trees on farms across the study countries.

The results:

1. Trees are widespread on farmland across LSMS-ISA countries.

  • On average, almost a third of landholders report trees for productive use on their farms. 
  • Trees on farms were especially prevalent in Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Uganda (55, 38, and 30%respectively), but were less common in Nigeria and Malawi, where 16 and 22% (respectively) of landowners report having trees.
  • The prevalence of trees on farms varies by tree type.  Fruit trees are especially widespread in Tanzania (reported on the farms of 45%   of landholders).  Tanzania also has the highest proportion of trees for timber and firewood (18%) while such trees were minimal or poorly recorded elsewhere. 
  • About 25% of landowners reported tree cash crops across four of the five study countries, with Malawi an outlier where less than 1%   reported cultivating such trees. 

2. The contribution of trees on farms to rural livelihoods is non-negligible

  • Trees can have multiple functions (e.g. gardens, production, inter-cropping, among others), which make them a valuable asset within the farm productive structure.
  • Most of the products (fruits and tree cash crops) are sold, though in Ethiopia and Uganda, a sizeable share of the fruits is also directly consumed on the farm.
  • Trees on farms accounted for 17% of total gross income among tree crop growers, and 6% on average across all rural households. 


Figure 1. Share of tree products by use

Note: Figures show whether different categories of trees on farms were sold, used for self-consumption, or had other uses. Data not available for Tanzania; in Nigeria, the share of tree products for self-consumption was not collected. All statistics were corrected by sampling weight.

3. Drivers of on farm tree growing

  • Multivariate analysis shows that the adoption of and land allocation to trees on farms is highly influenced by national context, accounting for about 40% of the explained variation.
  • Proximity to forests is also an important predictor of on farm tree presence.
  • Female headed households were less engaged in tree growing while households with larger landholdings tended to allocate more land to trees.


  • Tree growing on farms is more common than anticipated and it contributes a non-negligible share of income for many rural households.
  • Policy can make a difference: national institutional and other contextual factors are major predictor of on-farm management.
  • Further investment in the inclusion of forestry modules in household surveys can help strengthen the information base on on-farm tree growing. Otherwise, the non-negligible contribution of trees on farms risks being ignored and left out in agricultural and landscape policy design.