The Tree Crop Programme

Indigenous fruits and livelihood security in SA
In Southern Africa, acute food insecurity, poverty and malnutrition are common for many rural dwellers. Poverty is associated with low income, poor nutrition, low food intake, low educational standards and poor (sometimes deplorable) health conditions. There is also increased vulnerability to diseases, especially HIV/AIDS, and high economic risks. Food security means access to food for productive and healthy lives, i.e. ability of households to produce, purchase, or acquire an adequate amount of food to meet biological requirements. It also means that people do not have to rely solely on staples such as maize, rice, cassava and potatoes. The problems confronting the rural poor are far more complex than simply increasing crop yields in order to combat hunger; they involve maintaining biodiversity and addressing the intransigent problem of poverty, poor health and malnutrition, especially in a region where HIV/AIDS still maintains a strong foothold.

A ‘win win’ intervention. Fruits at a market in Malawi.
Vitamin deficiency is reported to affect school children worldwide and has caused eye damage to about 14 million people. Therefore, the deficiency of vital micronutrients and vitamins in the dietary system are a form of ‘hidden hunger’ that could be addressed through availability of fruits and fruit products. To attain an acceptable level of food production, income and/or livelihood security for rural dwellers is still largely an ambitious goal in the region. Integrated approaches to combat food insecurity and poverty tap into unconventional livelihood options and crop diversification with high value trees. Investing in high value fruit trees, especially developing the indigenous fruit trees (IFTs) into a small-scale commercial enterprise, is a ‘win-win’ intervention that could help households mitigate poverty, malnutrition and hunger. This can make a tremendous impact and have a high probability of success.

The tree crop programme / domestication
Alternative approaches are required to help farmers and their communities move beyond dependency on maize, food aid, free seed and fertiliser handouts. High value fruit tree cultivation has the potential to bridge the gap in cyclic food supply, characterised by sufficiency during the harvest season and deficiency in periods of crop cultivation (Figure 1).
Socio-Economic Factors in the Collection and Use of Indigenous Fruits in Zimbabwe (Dagmar Mithöfer and Hermann Waibel)

Income Flow               Labour Burden

Figure 1: Labour burden and income flows in the course of a year, Takawira resettlement area.
Source: ICRAF-SA Household Monitoring Survey 1999/2000.

Tree domestication is occasioned by the need to supply tree products as wild sources decline due to genetic erosion, over-exploitation, deforestation and/or difficult access. The need to meet growing demand for tree products as the population increases and new or external markets develop also justifies domestication. Fruits and processed fruit products from the miombo indigenous fruit trees are an important source of food and cash in Southern Africa. Most of the harvests are obtained from the natural forests. Many of the fruits found in the region and their oils have potential for market and home consumption. They have strong, sweet flavours and are rich in minerals, vitamins and essential amino acids.

Opportunities for smallholder farmers
The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southern Africa Programme has opened up new opportunities for small-scale farmers to diversify into higher value production enterprises that involve production, processing and commercialisation of fruits from indigenous fruit trees (IFTs) and their products.By linking farmers and communities to markets, their capacity to learn and adopt new innovations is enhanced. Currently ICRAF-SA is rigorously addressing the first mover challenges of developing innovations, increasing dissemination to enhance the scale of country and regional reach, creating regional and global footprints and building core and grass-root capabilities. Simultaneously, we are forming strategic alliances with key research and development partners.

Wild fruit tree improvement (clonal selection, propagation and cultivation)
Farmers’ preference of IFTs: Research work on indigenous fruit trees, lasting close to a decade, has started to generate useful lessons: Uapaca kirkiana, Parinari curatellifolia, Strychnos cocculoides and Sclerocarya birrea have been identified by farmers and stakeholders as priority species for domestication in the Southern Africa region. Additional country-specific selected species are: Vitex mombassae for Tanzania, Anisophyllea boemiii for Zambia, Azanza gackeana for Zimbabwe and Flacourtia indica for Malawi.

Farmers have also indicated the important fruit and tree traits requiring improvement. The three most identified traits for improvement through domestication research are:

  1. How to reduce the long juvenile phase (precocity), i.e. time required before the first fruiting.
  2. Manageable tree size, i.e. farmers wanted shorter trees that would be easy to harvest.
  3. Bigger fruit sizes, especially with greater pulp content.

Participatory selection for big fruit size
Propagation: Farmers previously held the view that wild fruit trees are planted by God and cannot be cultivated. This was mainly due to lack of knowledge on the biology and propagation of wild trees. That view is quickly changing. ICRAF-SA, working closely with farmers, has now developed efficient propagation systems and nursery practices for production of quality germplasm of wild fruit trees. Grafting seems to be the most handy and promising propagation technique in the programme.

(Variation in fruit size of Uapaca Kirkiana)

An IFT nursery at Makoka, Malawi.
With good nursery practices, relatively high graf_take values have been achieved for most priority IFTs: 83% for baobab (Adansonia digitata), 80% for masuku (Uapaca kirkiana), 90% for masau (Ziziphus mauritiana) and 70% for Strychnos cocculoides. These achievements compare favourably with 97% for mangoes, an exotic fruit. Management of pest and diseases plays an important role in the production of quality rootstocks as well as in the collection of scions (budwood). The life of a tree starts from the nursery!

Grafted IFT seedlings at Makoka, Malawi
Tree improvement and cultivation:
The approach adopted for domesticating the indigenous fruit trees involves systematic and participatory selection of superior phenotypes from the wild, propagation and cultivation. Working with the rural communities, village heads, school children and fruit vendors, the individual fruit trees with superior traits were identified, named and collected. The underlining assumption is that large natural variability in fruit and tree traits exists in IFTs. This variability can guide in the identification of putative (superior) cultivars of wild trees. To effectively capture these traits, the indigenous knowledge of the different user groups is combined with qualitative and quantitative analyses.

Provenance selection
Significant gains in fruit yield and yield components can be achieved if superior trees are properly captured from the wild using participatory clonal selection. Tree precocity (reduced time-to-maturity) can be enhanced using clonal propagation of matured mother trees from the wild. Our research so far has resulted in reduction of the fruiting period of Uapaca kirkiana from 10 – 15 years to 3 – 4 years. We regard this as a major breakthrough in our research on precocity of ITFs and enhancing the food function of indigenous fruit trees.

Managing a clonal orchard of indigenous fruit trees


Hard Luck ICRAF Southern Africa, Try Next Time
[ more ]

ICRAF Southern Africa in Finals
[ more ]