Rubengera, Rwanda — Farmer Cecile Mukabutera , 32, looks approvingly at her small tree, one of ten she received from One Acre Fund. Its branches will eventually give her up to 30 poles per year. These 2-3 meter poles are essential for the cultivation of climbing bean, a crop commonly grown in land-constrained Rwanda. “I can use some and sell the rest for 20 francs a piece,” she says. “I am interested in trees.”
The tree she received is a Grevillea robusta, an Australian tree that is popular in East Africa for its fast growth. It is also only slightly competitive with crops and even less so when pruned. The mother of four has been a One Acre Fund client for seven years. “Since I joined, my farm has improved.”
Dr. Athanase Mukuralinda nods. What the farmer says tallies with what he knows. “When you manage Grevillea, you allow light to reach the crop. You also reduce water consumption when you prune,” says the representative of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Rwanda.
One Acre Fund is a nonprofit that provides its farmer clients with inputs on credit and offers frequent training in modern and sustainable agricultural techniques. The organization has grown exponentially since it was founded in 2006—it now serves more than 400,000 farmers across six countries and plans to reach 1 million by 2020.
“We deliver inputs at 830 sites in Rwanda, all within walking distances of the 165,000 homes of our clients,” says Margaret Vernon, One Acre Fund’s global head of Impact. “On average, globally, we help farmers increase their household income by about $130 a year. In Rwanda, our impact is less – $60-70 – because of smaller land sizes. We recover 70-80% of our costs, excluding product innovation and monitoring and evaluation.”
ICRAF, meanwhile, is the global leader in agroforestry, a set of practices that combine trees, crops and/or livestock for positive interactions. “Where trees are present, you have more beneficial soil organisms,” says Dr Fergus Sinclair. “This is critical in Africa where 30% of soils are non-responsive to fertilizer. Carbon from trees supports the living part of the soil and creates a refugia for soil organisms.”
ICRAF and One Acre Fund have come together to discuss ways in which they might collaborate in the future. ICRAF, which has had 40 years of experience developing agroforestry, is always seeking partners through which to “scale.” One Acre Fund, which has a large and growing client base, is eager to expand its tree program and is interested in ICRAF’s expertise.
At their meeting, ICRAF and One Acre Fund discussed the importance of promoting biodiversity, and the criteria for selecting what species to distribute, including farmer preferences for certain varieties.
“Because trees are around for a while, what you select at the beginning is much more important than with an annual crop,” says Sinclair, who is also a senior lecturer in agroforestry at Bangor
University. “You are much more likely to get higher survival rates and overall farm productivity if you match tree species to niches and, on farms, those niches are both ecological and socioeconomic.”
He cites the work of Emilie Smith Dumont in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, across Lake Kivu from where the two teams are sitting. Through a “local knowledge elicitation process,” she and Congolese colleagues found that farmers were able to identify 148 tree species of importance to them, some of which communities are rolling out.
Grevillea trees may be beneficial because they can be used to make poles and timber, but other varieties could have positive impacts too, Sinclair says. “You could create demand for multiple species by talking about their benefits. High-value trees like Grevillea are good, but other species can have a service function such as providing biomass, mulch, and better water infiltration.”
ICRAF and One Acre Fund already have a history of working together. One Acre Fund is working to promote soil health, and ICRAF soil scientist Keith Shepherd helped the organization establish a rural-soil spectral laboratory and analyze over 20,000 samples. Future collaboration on agroforestry may ultimately prove to be just as impactful. More lies ahead as the two organizations plan new ways to team up.
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For more about ICRAF’s work in Rwanda, contact Athanase Mukuralinda at [email protected]
Much of the ICRAF research referred to in this blog comes from the Trees for Food Security project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). This is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), Livelihood Systems Flagship. For more information on the project, contact Catherine Muthuri at [email protected]