Food forests: mimicking nature to boost food security in Africa

Food forests: mimicking nature to boost food security in Africa

Food forests are sustainable permaculture systems that have been used for millennia and have the potential to significantly contribute to food security in developing countries. With Africa facing “an unprecedented food crisis”, as indicated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food forests are thought to be one of the solutions to this issue so why have they been largely ignored by mainstream media and aid organisations?

What are food forests?

Also referred to as forest gardens, these biodiverse, localised ecosystems are structured in a natural seven-layer design rather than relying on a single species as most commercial crop fields and orchards do.

Large canopy trees, smaller trees and shrubs, herbs, vines, perennial vegetables, groundcover, and root crops all play specific roles in maintaining a healthy and balanced ecosystem. For example, long-lived perennials enrich the soil alongside nitrogen-fixing plants and deep-rooted species. Complementary species attract pollinators and ward off pests, among other benefits. Meanwhile, the large canopy trees create an evolving micro-climate for the whole forest and provide structural support for climbers and vines.

However, food forests represent a jarring contrast in a society that is shaped by modern agricultural practices. Monoculture farming, in particular, seeks to bend the environment to its will in order to control food production which can have disastrous consequences, stripping nutrients from the soil, destroying natural habitats, and destabilising the ecosystem.

The FAO highlights that while forests and trees contribute significantly to Africa’s food security, this is not sustainable under current practices. Instead, it advocates a combination of initiatives, including the “integration of trees into farming systems (to) greatly enhance the contribution of forests to food security in Africa”.

Food forests can therefore be particularly beneficial for communities in the developing world. Their design places an emphasis on large, food-producing fruit and nut trees, providing sustainable food and livelihoods, and reducing reliance on single-species crops and water-intensive farming methods. Once established, they require little input and low maintenance because, as balanced ecosystems, they utilize natural processes to remain healthy and functional. Thus they can be seen as a type of regenerative agriculture or edible landscape that provides a host of environmental, socio-cultural, and economic benefits.

Food forests also play an important role in the hydrological cycle by soaking up huge volumes of water to boost water retention and reduce the impact of runoffs and flooding. This will become increasingly important as droughts, water shortages, and extreme weather events continue to escalate globally.

What of their use in Africa?

In Africa, the food forest concept aims to boost small-scale farming and return farming land to more sustainable forms of agriculture and, more often than not, it is the development sector taking the lead.

Thousands of farmers in Senegal have now been trained in sustainable food forestry through local NGO, Trees for the Future. This initiative comes in the wake of extensive deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices in southern Senegal and is part of the UN’s Great Green Wall Initiative which aims to create a forest frontier that will span the breadth of sub-Saharan Africa.

See also: Great Green Wall – Africa’s remedy for climate change?

In Cameroon, 771 “forest gardeners” were registered on the Environment and Rural Development Foundation’s Cameroon Forest Garden project in 2019. This project trained and mobilised 660 farmers, planted 1.8 million trees across three regions, restored degraded agricultural land for smallholder farmers, and created seven cooperatives and 57 local groups.

The FAO’s Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) project works with smallholder farmers in various African countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Togo, Zambia, and Madagascar. Meanwhile, the Kenyan NPO, Bio Gardening Innovations, works with over 2,000 smallholder farmers in the country to promote food forests and other forms of sustainable agriculture.

The South African NGO, Food & Trees for Africa, actively creates food forests in communities across the country.

“Food forests have a significant impact on our landscape. They generate a broad range of nutrient-rich foods, and as green spaces they provide established social and psychological advantages, especially in urban and peri-urban areas,” explained Executive Director, Chris Wilde.

“Typically, our Food Forest Interventions are carried out every six months over a period of three to five years. This schedule provides opportunities for training in pruning, managing pathogens, and harvesting. It’s an excellent program for job creation in low-income areas.”

Food forests clearly represent a significant opportunity for communities across the developing world to shape their own narratives and take food security back into their own hands. This can be achieved by mimicking nature and, in some regions, adopting traditional agroforestry practices to gain a variety of benefits. All that is required is the space to plant, green fingers, a little training, and a shift in mindset.