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Forests and food security in Africa:
the place of forestry in FAO's Special Programme
for Food Security

E.H. Sène

El Hadji Sène is Director of the Forest Resources
Division, FAO Forestry Department.

Note: This article is an edited version of an article
originally published as "Special feature: forests and
food security in Africa" in FAO/GIEWS Africa Report

No. 1, April 2000, 6.

Initiatives for the improved use of traditional practices, management of resources and integration of trees into farming systems can enhance the contribution of forests and trees to food security in Africa.

Fuelwood for cooking is one of the many
important contributions of forests to food
security in Africa; here, a woman in Ghana carries
fuelwood and fruit

- FAO/18465/P. CENINI

Foods from forests and other tree systems in Africa constitute an important component of household food supply. They include a wide variety of plant and animal products found in markets in both rural and urban areas. In many villages and small towns, the contribution of forests and trees to food supply is essential for food security, as they provide a number of important dietary elements that the normal agricultural produce does not provide adequately. In many areas, dietary deficiencies and the monotony of the usual diet are reduced or avoided through this "hidden harvest". However, despite the variety, importance and richness of foods from forests in Africa, progress has been very slow in designing and implementing measures to increase the contribution of wild plants and animals to food production and food security through bold application of science and technology.

Forests and trees also contribute indirectly to food security because they have a major role in the sustainability of agricultural production systems. However, they could make a greater contribution to agriculture with a better and more systematic approach to agroforestry and tree planting in agricultural systems. FAO's Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS) - launched in 1994 to help farmers in low-income food-deficit countries (LIFDCs) increase food production to meet growing market demand and eradicate food insecurity - has, since February 1998, addressed this issue through the introduction of the diversification component in its strategy.

The starting point for consideration of forests and food security in Africa is the present agricultural land use situation and how it is likely to evolve with the growing demand for agricultural land to produce food for a rapidly expanding population. In 1986, the FAO study African agriculture - the next 25 years stated that Africa had enough land to feed itself, indicating that new land could be brought under cultivation. The challenge then was how to manage and guide this process. The challenge now is to increase land productivity through sound use of the best technological practices, agricultural inputs (including irrigation) and the promotion of more effective food markets. Intensification will not only increase food production but will also ease the pressure on forest resources and other natural landscapes: less forest land will be claimed for agricultural production.

The fruit of Saba
senegalensis, shown
here in the FTMret
des Monts Mandingues
in Mali, is widely



Trees and forests contribute to improving the well-being of local populations by providing a wealth of food, flavourings, medicines and beverages. In fact, it can be said that nearly every tree, shrub or grass species is used in one way or another for food and nutrition. Plants provide food either directly in the form of fruits, seeds and other edible parts, or indirectly by providing products that facilitate consumption of other foods.


Through trial and error over generations, African societies have discovered and utilized myriad plant species whose leaves can be used for food. The leaves contribute to the richness of diets, hence reducing various dietary deficiencies. Well-known examples include the Cameroonian ndole (bitterleaf), baobab (Adansonia spp.) tree leaves and the many types of leaves used for making beverages. With more research and greater application of the available technologies and processes, leaves can contribute a great deal more to the well-being of the African population.

The fruit of the rhun palm
Borassus aethiopum,
is commonly used in many
African countries

- FAO/17546/R.

Wild flowers and fruits

There is a wealth of wild fruits and flowers that have great potential for local use as well as commercial development. Conspicuously flowering tree species could be valorized in gardening, urban forestry and plantations. Examples include Erythrina spp., a number of other Leguminosae (e.g. species of the genera Lonchocarpus, Cassia, Acacia) and Combretaceae (e.g. Combretum paniculatum, Combretum lecardii), whose flamboyant flowers come into bloom at the end of the dry season on bare boughs. Woodlands also have many flowering grasses and non-woody plants (e.g. Gloriosa simplex in fallows) whose flowers are picked from the wild and sold by flower sellers singly or in arrangements.

Many fruits are produced in West African agroforestry parklands and fallows. Some nutritious examples with potential for further development include the fruits of the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica), whose use is already highly developed in Asia (Thailand in particular); the pods of the locust bean tree (Parkia biglobosa), highly rich in vitamins and present in many preparations and recipes; the drupes (one-seeded fruits) of Spondias mombin; and the fruits of Detarium spp.

To take advantage of the potential of wild flowers and fruits for future food production, investment in science and technology is necessary, as well as improved management of the natural sources of forest foods. Concerned organizations including the International Council for Research in Agro-Forestry (ICRAF), FAO, a number of non-governmental organizations and national research organizations need to coordinate their efforts and come up with strong cooperative programmes on the various levels of action needed to maximize the "hidden harvest". Steps should include:

Wild roots and tubers

The tropical humid forests and woodlands contain a host of plants which produce edible starchy roots and tubers. Remote relatives of yam, for example, are used in villages. Although these may just be snacks for youth to tap throughout the year, their variety and the potential for their improvement hold great promise for the future.

Underutilized potential for mushroom production

The potential of mushrooms in African forests and other landscapes is largely untapped. The combination of warm weather and air moisture over long periods provides excellent conditions for the production of mushrooms. Several varieties grow on decaying roots, dead wood, termite mounds or directly on cultivated land. FAO has assisted a number of countries in developing mushroom production, but there is still much to do in raising awareness and providing information, as well as in research to increase the knowledge and use of African mushrooms for food.


The international debate around sustainable forest management has yet to produce practical and concrete action at the field level. However, it is likely to improve the way forests are being used. The major social dimension of forestry in this debate is the possibility of creating more jobs at the local level on a sustainable basis. Silvicultural operations of managed forests are continuous throughout the year, with logging providing many job opportunities. Well-organized logging companies include social programmes that cater for the well-being and food security of their workers. There is great scope for this in countries with larger industries such as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Ghana and the Central African Republic.


Agroforestry parklands and modern agro-forestry systems

The greatest contribution of trees to food production and food security is at the farm level. Indeed, trees under various forms, either as single trees or organized in lines or clusters (shelterbelts, groves), have a fundamental part to play in food production and food security. This is particularly true in Africa, where agriculture is in transitional stages in many locations with low input levels and fragile soil systems. The development of new agroforestry systems and/or improved management and conservation of traditional tree systems is essential to maintaining land productivity and buffering degradation processes and other constraints to sustainable farming systems.

In many African countries, a number of processes have led to a gradual modification of the initial natural forest and tree formations to sparsely tree-covered land use patterns, the so-called agro-forestry parklands. The same process can lead to wooded rangelands, depending on the latitudes, for instance when acacia woodlands and steppes evolve to more "humanized" and open rangelands. In both land use types the tree component has a multifunctional role, including restoration of soil fertility and diversification of production, thus contributing to food security. Agroforestry parklands characterize most of the subhumid to semi-arid rural landscapes of Africa and have been essential to maintaining cereal production in these eco-geographical regions.

These important systems are now seriously threatened and need to be conserved until improved farming systems are developed to replace them. The challenges to their conservation include:

Active government, community and individual commitment is necessary to maintain these systems and their role in sustainable farming systems and, most important, the conservation of biological diversity in the rural landscapes.

There is a wealth of wild fruits and flowers that have great potential for local use as well as commercial development. Conspicuously flowering tree species could be valorized in gardening, urban forestry and plantations. Examples include Erythrina spp., a number of other Leguminosae (e.g. species of the genera Lonchocarpus, Cassia, Acacia) and Combretaceae (e.g. Combretum paniculatum, Combretum lecardii), whose flamboyant flowers come into bloom at the end of the dry season on bare boughs. Woodlands also have many flowering grasses and non-woody plants (e.g. Gloriosa simplex in fallows) whose flowers are picked from the wild and sold by flower sellers singly or in arrangements.

Trees aid in the diversification
and sustainability of farming systems,
thus contributing to food security; here,
an agroforestry system in Mali, with millet
cultivation under
Acacia albida

- FAO/15859/R.

Diversification component in FAO's Special Programme for Food Security

Trees, shrubs and grasses contribute directly to maintaining or restoring soil fertility through build-up of organic matter and slowing of soil erosion. This is another important contribution to food security. They also contribute to water resources conservation by limiting run-off and increasing soil water intake, thus improving water resource availability in any farming system, including systems in semi-arid lands. In addition, they contribute to improved agricultural practices by controlling waterlogging. Diversification and sustainability of farming systems are the basic reasons for the introduction of both tree planting and agroforestry practices in the SPFS. Since February 1998, the clear definition of the diversification concept and its incorporation into the SPFS have provided greater scope for trees and tree-related systems in the Special Programme. This is important for Africa, as many countries need and recognize the role of trees, in both irrigated and rainfed farming systems.


The contribution of forest and tree resources to household energy supply is essential in Africa and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Africa has the highest per caput annual fuelwood consumption in the world (0.89 m3 per year). An estimated 623 million m3 are taken annually from forest and tree resources. Most of this is used for cooking food; thus, availability of fuelwood is important for household food security and nutrition. However, in fragile areas, such extractions cause severe deforestation, biodiversity loss and reduction of food opportunities from natural vegetation. This means that the supply of wood to meet household energy needs should be properly taken into account in forest policy formulation and planning. It should also be incorporated into agricultural diversification programmes.

Grilled termites for sale in a market
in Labè, Guinea


Wildlife and food
security in Africa

In Africa, all species of wild animals, from insects to reptiles and from rodents to large mammals, are used as a food resource. The meat of wild animals that are hunted or collected for food is referred to by the West African term "bushmeat", to differentiate it from "game", which refers to animals hunted for sport or trophy. In addition to being a highly preferred food item in many areas of Africa, wild animal foods are life-saving reserves in times of food shortage and hunger. The importance of caterpillars, beetles and termites as key sources of food in times of famine is particularly well documented for communities in the Central African subregion.

Bushmeat is an important source of animal protein in both rural and urban households. One third of the population in Africa is chronically undernourished, and rural populations in many areas are compelled by socioeconomic stresses to use all the natural resources available. Thus, animal species that were not normally exploited for food or were eaten only by children as snacks are now important items in the family diet and/or trade. The magnitude of exploitation and consumption of bushmeat varies from country to country and is determined primarily by its availability but is also influenced by governmental controls on hunting, socio-economic status and cultural prohibitions.

Wildlife is important to food security not only through its direct contribution as a food resource, but also through its influence on access to food through employment and income generation, its influence on the physical, spiritual and cultural well-being of people and its positive and negative influences on food production capabilities. Wildlife contributes significantly to household incomes in both rural and urban communities through hunting, crafts and trade that is based on wildlife products; and to national economies through tourism and the sale of wild animal products. Many communities still depend on wild animals and their products, used alone or with herbs, for medication and the treatment of a wide variety of ailments ranging from mental and physical illnesses to antenatal care.

National parks, game and forest reserves, unprotected forests and savannah lands account for the largest part of bushmeat production on the African continent. On unprotected lands there may be little or no control of wildlife exploitation, or control may be exercised at the local level under either traditional or governmental authority. Subsistence hunting accounts for more than 90 percent of the bushmeat supply on the African continent.

The use of wildlife as a food resource is controversial because at current levels of exploitation it is considered unsustainable. Wildlife populations in many parts of Africa are declining as a result of overexploitation and the destruction of the wildlife habitat caused by increasing human populations and the associated demand for land for agriculture and human settlement. However, large populations of wildlife continue to be maintained in those areas where protection measures are enforced.

In most African countries it is illegal to hunt in protected areas. However, wildlife managers now commonly recognize the necessity of integrating the needs of local people into the management of wildlife resources. Appropriate wildlife harvesting techniques such as game cropping (the regular taking of a sustainable yield from a completely wild population) have been introduced in reserved areas. In addition, a number of promising production systems are emerging, such as game ranching, game farming and wild animal domestication. These systems can contribute significantly and sustainably to food security and nutrition in Africa, if proper measures and approaches are taken. More investment and long-term commitment from governments and multilateral aid agencies are needed to develop Africa's wildlife resources as a complement to conventional agricultural production.

Source: Adapted from FAO, 1997.


The pressure of livestock in some areas of Africa has serious consequences for the status of wildlife. Nevertheless, wild animal resources contribute greatly and in a very diversified manner to food production and household food security.

The meat of wildlife, the so-called "bushmeat", is an important complement to household food supply and nutrition. In addition to hunting by adults, the capture and direct consumption of small wild animals by children provides a great deal of protein. A study in Senegal has shown that the use by children of small rodents, reptiles and fowl contributed an average of 400 g of protein per person per month to children's intake (Vincke, Sournia and Wangari, 1987) - enough to meet about a half to one third of the daily protein requirement of a seven- to ten-year-old child (WHO, 1985).

Hunting still provides a sizeable part of meat consumption for many societies, but also cash income that contributes to food security (FAO, 1997). Hunting is, however, likely to disappear as a factor in food security in Africa unless it is organized. There are good examples where the setting up and proper management of game preserves have provided many opportunities for local populations by creating jobs, including servicing tourism and organized hunting.

New trends towards full-fledged community-based natural resources management schemes, especially in southern Africa, are emerging and will help organize and modernize the wildlife sector, allowing increased use of wildlife resources for food and income and thus contributing to diversification of food production and to sustainable food security and nutrition. In West Africa, especially in the Bight of Benin region, the use of game meat provides a substantial amount of proteins, and initiatives for raising small rodents and antelopes are promising. There is scope for small animal domestication in the diversification component of the SPFS.

Improved organization of the wildlife sector will require:

The rich and diversified wildlife of Africa has great potential for enhanc-ing food security and nutrition in the continent.


The contribution of forests and trees to food security in Africa is significant, diversified and valuable. It ranges from direct production of food to provision of jobs and income. Also, most African households, both rural and urban, depend on fuelwood for domestic energy supply for cooking food. However, under current practices, these contributions are not sustainable. They can only be sustainable if the natural resources are managed in an appropriate manner and if substantive research and improved technology are invested in the forestry sector. A combination of initiatives aimed at a better understanding of local and traditional practices, inventory, better management of resources and integration of trees into farming systems can greatly enhance the contribution of forests to food security in Africa.


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