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Multifunctional Agriculture: At Last, a Solution and ‘Plan B’ for Africa

By: , Posted on: May 11, 2017

multifunctional landscape
A multifunctional landscape containing a large number of different crops

A practical, appropriate and effective solution to Africa’s food and nutritional insecurity has eluded everyone for over 100 years1. Since colonial days, conventional thinking has been based on the misconception that what works in temperate latitudes must work in the tropics and sub-tropics. This thinking fails to understand the very different biophysical, social and economic conditions in these different regions. There are two critical issues here: firstly, hundreds of millions of smallholder households live in severe poverty and so are unable to purchase the essential technical inputs needed to cultivate monocultures of staple food crops. Consequently, the soils become increasingly degraded and infertile – trapping farmers in hunger and poverty2.

Secondly, the practice of high-input, intensive monocultures of these crops sees trees as a hindrance to cultivation – which should be removed – rather than as a natural resource to be nurtured. This flawed thinking fails to recognize that trees play a keystone role both ecologically and socially, especially in the tropics and sub-tropics. Trees in the diverse and fragile ecology of Africa, are critically important for the maintenance of soil fertility and agroecosystem health. Additionally, they are the source of culturally-important food and non-food products greatly appreciated and widely used by local people3.

Some of the 50 tree species being domesticated as new crops and some of the products being produced and marketed from new tree crops

I was born and brought up in Africa, as part of a long line of colonial families stretching back to the 1600s, and became a third-generation tropical forester with a mission to right some of the wrongs of the past. Read more here.  In addition to the food crisis, I have tried to also address the related serious issues of extreme poverty, deforestation and desertification, climate change and the increasing loss biodiversity that sustains the planet? My approach has been unconventional, implementing biophysical and socio-economic research at the interface of agronomy, ecology, forestry, horticulture, food science, soil science, environmental science, economics, and plant physiology. Starting from first principles, I have sought to understand the problems by working with, and learning from, the farmers themselves, as well as from other academics with a wide range of academic disciplines; firstly, at the World Agroforestry Centre, and then elsewhere around the tropics and sub-tropics. This multidisciplinary and participatory approach has paid huge dividends of value to promoting community development in Africa4. Now, the biggest challenge is to try to influence future policy, especially as it seems that there are many powerful currents flowing in the opposite direction.

One key to our success to date has, I believe, been our recognition of the important role of the ethnobotanical knowledge of local people and our subsequent emphasis on the participatory domestication of new tree crops. This has been the start of the ‘social modification’ of useful and marketable species in ways that leaves the farmers both in the driving seat, as well as the beneficiaries of their own innovations. That’s not to say that there aren’t intellectual property right issues still to be addressed. Nevertheless, by integrating the socially modified crops into agroforestry systems and by promoting the local development of new associated rural industries, great progress has been made towards correcting some of the mistakes of the past, through a 3-step approach to Multifunctional Agriculture5. I hope this book, Multifunctional Agriculture – Achieving Sustainable Development in Africa” will usher in a new dawn, bringing trees back into the farms and improving the lives of the people in Africa.

multifunctional agriculture

This work provides a single-source, comprehensive insight into agroforestry/ multifunctional agriculture, its potential, challenges, and progress and helps readers understand and assess potential opportunity through implementation. It includes case studies and real-world insights that address common situations and the practical application of best practices and explores the role of multi-functional agriculture in mitigating climate change impacts, providing value-story beyond crop production.

Visit and use discount code STC317 at checkout to save up to 30% on your very own copy!

1 – Gordon Conway, One Billion Hungry, 2012 –
2 – Julian Cribb, The Coming Famine, 2010 –
3 – Roger Leakey, Living with the Trees of Life –
4 –
5 – Global Report of IAASTD, 2009 –

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