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In Britain, most people’s idea of a tree food would be an apple or perhaps hazelnuts, but for many people living in Africa, tree foods can mean the difference between life and death. In Burkina Faso, for example, UNICEF figures state that nearly 40% of children under five are malnourished. The country suffers from the same problems of drought, the effects of climate change and increasing demands upon the land for food that characterises so many African nations. For the rural poor, tree foods can play a vital role in sustaining the family throughout the dry season and food shortages.

In Burkina Faso, 90% of the population makes a living from agriculture, with the majority of villagers working at subsistence level. This means that food security throughout the dry or ‘hungry’ season alone is precarious for a large proportion of the population, even without considering the periodic severe droughts and the effects of encroaching deserts. When drought does strike it is the ‘conventional’, often imported, crops, which have high water demands, that wither and fail. When food stores run out, it is tree foods that can provide local, sustainable and effective relief.

Trees, like the familiar mango, as well as the less familiar baobab and shea, have the advantage over ‘conventional’ crops because they are much more able to survive dry periods and drought. Evolved to thrive in semi-arid climates, they are an important feature of the rural landscape, and are essential in not only providing food themselves, but also protecting the delicate drylands soils and farmed areas from desertification and long term damage. For the people that live on these lands, the trees provide a dependable safety net for when the rains fail and last year’s harvest doesn’t stretch far enough.

Arzouna Thiombiano, from Fada N’Gourma in Burkina Faso, recalls, “Twenty years ago a big famine came, but people escaped starvation by eating the leaves and fruit of the baobab tree. Now we rely on trees more.” For Arzouna and his neighbours the baobab survived the drought and helped alleviate the effects of famine.

Arzouna’s daughter, Nassouri Thiombiano, is a beneficiary of the work done by the charity TREE AID. As the UK’s leading forestry focused development charity, TREE AID helps African villagers like Nassouri unlock the potential of trees to increase their self reliance and improve their environment. She tells us about the role that tree foods play in her family’s diet throughout the year.

“We eat such foods almost every day, usually in a sauce to go with our grain porridge. February and March we eat the leaves of the Balanites tree with millet. In May, there are lots of leaves and ripe fruits to sustain us through to the end of the wet season in September. After that we collect the fruits of the Saba tree and in the first months of the year we harvest Tamarind fruits and the sepals of the Bombax tree. In April we pick the guava and mango fruits, which we can eat straight away or dry to eat later in the year. But the most important tree for us is the shea tree. We use it not just for food but for wood, medicine, fertiliser and so many other things. The seeds of the Parkia trees are one of the most nourishing of tree foods. I also sell these seeds for around 35p a bag, and I use that to buy other foods to vary our diet.”

Nassouri is one of the many women that TREE AID is supporting through training on good management of the existing trees that they depend upon for food, and on planting and growing seedlings to conserve and develop these tree food sources for future generations. TREE AID’s work particularly encourages the involvement of women, as they are most often the guardians of the household diet. Given the right training and access to resources they can make tree foods work as a local, long term and sustainable tool to reduce hunger and malnutrition.

Tree foods contain high levels of essential vitamins and minerals which make a big difference to the nutritional value of a diet when added to staple grains and carbohydrates like millet. Take the Moringa tree (Moringa oleifera). Its leaves alone have;

• more beta-carotene than carrots,
• more protein than peas,
• more vitamin C than oranges,
• more calcium than milk,
• more potassium than bananas,
• and more iron than spinach.

They can be dried and stored until the hungry period, and when nursing mothers add Moringa leaves to their diet they produce more milk.

It is no surprise that these tree foods are becoming increasingly important as the rural environment is put under more pressure, but this pressure is also threatening the trees that play such a big dietary role.

Burkina Faso’s population has the 11th highest population growth in the world, at 3.1 percent, and a high urbanisation rate. Price rises are also playing their part in placing food sources under stress. Mrs Sawadago, Co-ordinator of TREE AID project partner ADECUSS (Association pour le Développement Economique, Culturel et Social du Département de Séguénéga ) told us that, “high food costs are affecting people’s health. A tin of tomatoes can cost three times as much as it did a few months ago.” Food, fuel and building materials are in ever higher demand. Rural areas are vulnerable to overgrazing and soil degradation, and there is growing pressure to fell trees for firewood and building poles. All of these things are making life for the rural poor even more precarious: you can eat a tree’s fruit and leaves indefinitely if responsibly managed, but you can only burn it once.

TREE AID is working with villagers in projects across Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana and Ethiopia to support villagers to use the knowledge they already have, to learn how to protect established trees, and how to grow more. This means a greater availability of tree foods in the long term. It also protects and improves soil quality for conventional food crops. Nassouri’s husband talks about how he uses trees, “as a guide to where to plant my Sorghum and maize. The Camel’s Foot, Silcoana or Ficus tree tells me the soil is good. We have also been trained through the TREE AID project to compost our household waste, and along with the leaves and inedible fruits that fall from the trees the soil is enriched.”

It is not just the villagers who are recognising the importance of tree foods. In Burkina Faso the Secretary General of the Ministry for the Environment announced recently that, “In Burkina Faso, as in other countries in the sub region, Non Timber Forest Products [of which food products are an important part] are of paramount importance for the survival of populations, especially rural ones.” She added, “I congratulate the British charity TREE AID and its partners in Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana in sharing their innovative and multifaceted contribution to the sustainable management of forest resources.” The Ministry has now established a dedicated Agency for the Promotion of Non Timber Forest Products, which is a positive commitment to the future of people like Nassouri Thiombiano and her family.

Tree foods are a lifeline for rural African families. They are not only a local relief during drought periods, but with the right training and support can make a significant contribution to long term food security and the fight against malnutrition.