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Fighting hunger one tree at a time

Woman shows produce from her trees planted with free seeds from Eden Foundation.
(Phuong Tran/IRIN)

For 17 years, the Sweden-based non–profit Eden Foundation has been working with hundreds of farmers in one of Niger’s most arid zones to disprove the reigning logic that the desert is a tough place to nurture plant- and human- life through its research and free seed distribution.

Coordinator Josef Garvi told IRIN nature has abundant answers to Niger’s perennial food insecurity problems, but “people are not looking close enough. They look for quick answers, handouts from international aid agencies, big expensive hard-to-maintain irrigation projects, or programmes that help politicians look good, but do little to help farmers.”

On a budget of about US$100,000 a year, the 13-person Zinder-based team in eastern Niger, about 900 km east of the capital Niamey, travels a few times a week to its testing station more than 100 kilometres away to check on 68 plots of plants, divided by varieties, and years planted.

They have been monitoring these trees in a two-decade-long desert planting experiment.

Desert nursery

Eden tests its seeds by planting them in a 20-hectare former millet field, which Garvi told IRIN used to be a wasteland. “My father found the most undesirable piece of land with the theory that if seeds can take root here, they can be planted anywhere.”

Garvi dismisses plant nurseries that set up carefully-controlled water and light conditions that are impossible to replicate in the desert. “Our testing station is arid; we are working in one of the toughest arid zones in all of Niger [Tanout]. Rather than making farmers recreate nursery conditions, we found a ‘lab’ that most closely resembled farmers’ planting conditions.”

Garvi walks along rows of plants while his wife and three staff enter the plants’ heights and growth information into handheld computers.

Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
Trying to find seeds that can take root in desert

The seed test

The project pays 10 seed collectors who comb the desert country year-round looking for possible plants that can feed farmers. Garvi’s wife, Renate Garvi, trained as a tropical botanist, also gets seeds from abroad and puts both sets of seeds through what can turn into years of tests. “Once they pass our criteria of viability and produce fruit, and we are convinced they can hold up in Niger’s arid conditions, we distribute to farmers.” says Renate Garvi.

Since 1991, only 19 out of more than 100 seed varieties have passed the test to meet the three criteria: they can germinate, can survive and can bear fruit. Another 44 may soon graduate to distribution stage.

To date, no seeds from outside of Niger have made the mix given out to farmers.

Eden’s 2007 annual report states the organisation gave free seed packets to about 1,300 farmer households in the Tanout region.

The packets carry enough seeds to produce one tree, plus a measuring stick to help farmers distance their plantings. No fertilizer or water is needed. Each packet has picture icons instead of written instructions for the mostly-illiterate farmers.

A few kilometres from the testing station, farmer Mala Abdou says he has grown 600 trees since he started getting free seeds from Eden Foundation 17 years ago. “People used to say we could not plant trees,” says the farmer. “It was something only God could do. But we learned that man can plant trees also. I had never thought about growing trees before, concerned they would attract birds that could eat my millet.”

Other tree-planting programs in Niger, like the non-profit World Vision’s tree regeneration project, report how many Nigeriens think of trees as weeds, calling them “firewood” in the local Hausa language.

But tree-growing convert Abdou points out a local school around which he built a border of trees to protect the school from desert winds. “These trees also protect my millet. Before the winds would blow away the millet seeds,” says Abdou.

Rows of trees now tower over the millet, which Abdou sells. But Abdou keeps the sweet fruits he calls ‘danya’ in Hausa, and other leafy protein-rich vegetables that his trees bear.

With its sacred origins, and rumoured medicinal worth, farmers also plant maerua crassifolia, a plant that yields protein-rich edible leaves that go into sauces.

Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
Tree convert, farmer Mala Abdou

But the Eden team is reticent, almost tight-lipped, about what goes into the seed packets given to farmers, even shielding them from photography.

Garvi says other groups have incorrectly replicated Eden Foundation’s method and have wrongly criticised the method. “We are willing to share, but people need to do it correctly. This takes time. It is not something that will happen in one or two years.”

Can trees fight hunger?

According to the World Food Programme, almost 40 percent of the population in Niger suffers from chronic malnutrition, based on a June 2008 estimate.

Periodic droughts since the 1970’s have wilted harvests, killed livestock, and scorched the already-caked earth.

But Garvi says plants can adapt, pointing to Israel as an example of how plants can grow in extreme desert conditions.

When asked why Niger is still mostly barren of trees, Garvi looks out at the sparse tree-dotted horizon and replied, “People are blinded by what they think they know. There is un-captured potential and abundance here. But you have to really look for it, and then work for it.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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