Food Forests Could Help End Hunger for Nomads in Arid East Africa

Drought and climate change are making the livestock-centered lives of Kenya's pastoralists difficult to sustain.

Cattle herding in Kenya. (Photo: Flickr)

Aug 25, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

The name itself sounds idyllic: pastoralism. That’s the broad term used to describe nomadic communities who raise livestock across open areas of land as water supplies and seasons change. Cattle raised in such a manner is the main source of livelihood for people in northern Kenya; it accounts for about 10 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product and 95 percent of family income among pastoralists, according to estimates from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture.

But the reality is less picturesque than its name might suggest. Migration routes cut off owing to privatization of land, recurring droughts, and subsequent livestock deaths have led to hunger and malnutrition among pastoralists, with many communities dependent on food relief to survive.

In drought-ravaged Samburu County, 86 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. But it’s on this semiarid landscape that Aviram Rozin, founder of Sadhana Forest, is training Samburu pastoralists to grow forests—food forests.

Designed to emulate the layered ecology of a natural forest, a food forest is made of seven layers that range from tall trees to short shrubs, each working in support of the others. In Samburu County, these forests are planted with 18 species of drought-resistant, fruit-bearing indigenous trees and shrubs, including African oak, the fruits of which are said to be rich in protein and iron, and moringa, known locally as “mother's helper” thanks to its fruit, which helps stimulate milk production in lactating mothers and reduces malnutrition among infants. Sadhana Forest has trained more than 1,000 people in this low-tech approach to agriculture since it launched its Kenya operation in May 2014.

“I always start the training by saying, ‘If you want to work hard, go home. This is not the place for you,’ ” Rozin said laughing. “What we offer is sort of the lazy man’s solution—just plant trees and in a few years you will have a frequent, reliable food supply that doesn’t require effort or input on your side.”

This is the third campus of Sadhana Forest, which began in India in 2003. Initially a community-led effort to reforest a severely eroded parcel of land, its second project, begun in Haiti in 2010, focused on teaching agroforestry methods and reintroducing the Maya Nut tree. The superfood is a complete protein and has sustained communities in Nicaragua and Guatemala as an emergency food source following hurricanes.

But in Kenya the work has the added challenge of overcoming a cultural bias that equates livestock with social status.

"I was seen as someone who had lost hope in life,” northern Kenya pastoralist Abdulahi Ali told Reuters, after he lost almost his entire herd of cattle. “But I had lost everything. What is a man with three cows? What else was there to lose?" His wife, Lukia Muhamud, said farming was “the lowest thing he could do.” But that was before last August, when he grossed $370 from sales of maize, watermelon, and chiles.

Sadhana Forest’s goal is not to supplant the traditional pastoral way of life but to supplement it.

“We want to offer a supplement that could support them when pastoralism doesn’t,” Rozin said. “When you start introducing an idea, very few people understand the potential just from explanation. But when they see the trees growing well, and they’re over seven feet tall and have thick trunks, people want more. A new concept takes time to take off,” just like those fruit-bearing trees.

It’s a long-term investment, he said, but a low-risk one. While the most productive trees can take three to seven years, depending on the species, to fully mature, lower-yield plants can begin producing food within a few months. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the United Nations Development Programme, Sadhana Kenya is able to expand its work beyond training to include a nursery that grows seedling stocks and a training center outfitted with windmill and solar panels that power a water pump; the water that is shared with the community.

The training and trees are free to anyone who is interested; about 70 percent have been women. Rozin pointed out that the food forest method doesn’t require the ongoing, potentially costly inputs—such as seeds and pesticides—that traditional field agriculture does. The trees are watered with recycled laundry or dishwashing water via wick irrigation, which saturates the roots directly and reduces evaporation. This is a boon in Kenya, where people often live far from a water source and women and children can spend one-third of their day fetching it.

“With climate change, we’re going to experience more and more drought. In order to survive in these conditions, there needs to be an alternative source of food,” Rozin said.