Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda

by International Centre for Research in Agroforestry
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Agroforestry with refugees and hosts in NW Uganda
Children watch their mother plant a jackfruit tree
Children watch their mother plant a jackfruit tree

Our last report was submitted on 22 June. Since then, Elise, our intern from Yale School of Forestry, has left, giving us invaluable advice. Young forester Osidi has joined, bringing new ideas like a living fence around our learning center. And our tree growing at school, health centers and other institutions has taken off.

Thank you for backing us to “wrap schools” in trees! Tree are associated with “better cognitive functioning and attention capacity” in pupils, says a report just out from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health

Elise was with us from 7 June to 28 July. “Overall, I really loved it,” she said. “We are in the right spot doing the right thing.”

We sensed from “overall”, however, that she had more to say, and knowing that she had majored in human centered design, we asked her to speak to the project in those terms.

“Human centered design has four steps,”said the Stanford graduate, “empathize, ideate, prototype, and iterate. We are doing well on empathizing and ideating, and less well on prototyping and iterating – which means looking at what you did and changing it.”

That feedback was not entirely unexpected. But, wow, it energized us, and we stepping uptoindeed prototype and ideate - define and refine our approach. Elise is helpingthere too by, among other things, drafting a document on “Best Practices for Implementing Tree-based Programs in Refugee Settlements”.

One of her recommendations is “establish regenerative norms and expectations from the outset”.

 “People entering a new context, such as refugees settling in a new location, will adapt to the norms and expectations of that context. Establishing an early expectation that cut trees should be replaced can save a lot of work in generating buy-in later.”

Another is “Promote regenerative norms beyond tree planting. Reinforce ecological mindsets by exploring with refugees energy conservation, disposing of waste properly, keeping water sources clean, and protecting the life-giving capabilities of the natural environment.”

We will stay in close touch with Elise, and would like to see her back on the continent! Meanwhile, in 2022 we plan to host two further interns, one from the US and another from Europe. This time they will be matched with Ugandan masters’ students who we will support in their research.

Focusing still on people, we welcomed Osidi in August, a major addition to our team. Hired through a competitive process, he comes with a diploma in forestry, experience with Lutheran World Federation in Palabek Refugee Settlement, including mapping refugee plots, and is studying organic agriculture at university via distance learning.

 He immediately took up distributing our seedlings to institutions, a priority that we pitched to you during the Climate Action Campaign.

"We are doing very good team work. In September we planted 450 trees in six schools and donated 8469 seedlings to Danish Refugee Council.  Then in October we planted 1913 trees in 29 institutions. Overall, we have planted 10,842 trees in 27 schools, 19 churches, two health centers and one police post. We have identified so many places to plant.”

Osidi also leads the planting of an impenetrable hedge to keep roaming goats and pigs out of the nursery. It will look neat but consist of a tangle of tree and shrub species, some providing fruit. When we asked on Facebook how best to build it, we received 42 comments from permaculture and agroecology practitioners around East Africa. What a community!

“The fence is very important as an edge,” wrote James from Kenya.“It should be multifunctional, supplying needs for wild animals, birds and insects,domestic animals and humans.Plant as many diverse plants as possible. My living fence has Sesbania, Calliandria,mulberry,gooseberries,stinging nettle, and diverse indigenous trees, plants and shrubs.”

Finally, we are excited to host in November a training on tree seed collection, processing and banking that had been delayed by COVID. Day 4 looks particularly stupendous.It includes an 08:30 departure to a “nearby forest reserve for field practicals”.

The schedule then notes the “need for a Field Assistant/Forest Patrol man who knows the forest well and can track and guide to mother seed trees”. We will then learn “methods of collection, and a high tree climber will demonstrate high tree seed collectionwith safety precautions.”

 In our next report we will give data on seedlings raised and planted in 2021, but the figures are already looking higher than in 2020. We have also rolled out new species of trees this year like the small fruit tree, Ziziphus, with its tangy delicious vitamin-rich berries.

 Thank you so much for you support. Do look at the photos. We have done so much with your generous contributions.

Agroforest of banana, maize + indigenous Markhamia
Agroforest of banana, maize + indigenous Markhamia
Understanding better: Elise talks with refugees
Understanding better: Elise talks with refugees
Patrick packs indigenous fruit trees for schools
Patrick packs indigenous fruit trees for schools
Just planted  Vitex doniana looking healthy
Just planted Vitex doniana looking healthy
Children not working but happy showing seedlings
Children not working but happy showing seedlings

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Sorting seed in the learning center
Sorting seed in the learning center

From promoting new species, to building our team, to setting up a seed bank, to hosting an intern, this last quarter has been rewarding and fast-paced.

Our big news is that we are now on a much firmer footing. In April we had a hugely unexpected win. We placed an astounding first out of 118 projects in GlobalGiving's 2021 Climate Action Campaign. This ran for five days in April during which we hammered social media and stayed up sending out emails. We raised $15,653 from 80 donors. We are so grateful.

In the same quarter, we also received another generous gift from the family trust which donated in 2020. We thank all our old friends and new. Some of you must have seen our posts on Linkedin - the kindness and interest of strangers! We were chuffed too to receive donations from two NGOs, the awesome French Pur Project and the Indian social enterprise Grow-Trees.

We are estatic about our growth, and now on this solid footing, we are further raising our game.

In March-June, we started a seed bank. As soon as the strict lockdown in Uganda eases, we will host a training by Tooro Botanical Garden in seed collection, processing and storing. We have always collected and processed tree seed but usually planted most seed immediately. Now we are building a cadre of youth seed professionals, with an eye to their future employment in green jobs.

We are also becoming more botanical, adding species like Kigelia africana with its long pods, which grow to be signature trees on the landscape, retained by farmers and used largely for medicine in the case of the sausage tree. We will open this training to staff of other organizations. We do not want to be the only ones raising a multitude of tree species from great mother trees.

We reinforced our team. We now have six community-based facilitators. All are South Sudanese, two are women, one of whom is a trained midwife. We hope she will be able to build our narrative around the importance of food trees that provide leaves and fruit that are full of the micronutrients that prevent stunting and bolster the immune system.

Still on our human capital, Joel is now the new head of ICRAF in Uganda and full of energy and ideas. One of his first moves was to ship seeds of the woody shrub pigeonpea to the project. We retain the support of Clement, the previous head, who is now a professor at Muni University in nearby Arua town.

In March, Clement led a much appreciated training in farmer-managed natural regeneration for NGOs. Held at our learning center and in the bush around it, it was sorely needed, and an approach that we ourselves need to use more.

Finally, we received Elise from the Yale School of Forestry in early June. Our first intern ever, her first question was "what is the process for on boarding new households?" She had us at "what is the process". Indeed, what a good question!

She is living in the refugee settlement and is a daily presence at the learning center and nursery. Trained in human centered designed with a year's experience in refugee camps in Kenya, she is probing our theory of change, supporting the team and looking to document what we do.

We thank the Yale Macmillan Center Program on Refugees, Forced Displacement and Humanitarian Response for supporting Elise's travel and time with us. 

Finally, we began a new push to grow trees around institutions. Since they are protected from fire and often fenced and therefore not grazed by livestock, we think this is a way to ensure trees remain on the landscape long after we and the refugees have gone. We have permission to plant around schools, child friendly spaces, playgrounds, early childhood development centers and health facilities.

To conclude, here is what it feels like on the ground. We drive along and spot a bed for sale made of poles in an area where "our" trees are clearly visible. We jump out and ask a young woman. Yes, it's made from trees that grew from seedlings we provided. Slam dunk!

We see 20 feet high Albizia trees, an indigenous nitrogen-fixing genus. "We planted those in 2018," says the community based facilitator. We speak to the head of the household. Eight people can sit under them. The ground is cool and shaded.

Some refugee compounds are pretty bare, however - sometimes because we've not yet worked there, sometimes because trees we provided have been coppiced for poles. The latter is a win because a pole sells for 5000 shillings ($1.50), a goodly sum for families. But the ground is hot, and soil is eroding away. 

Back in the pickup, we wonder - how do you balance trees for livelihoods and trees for soil and water conservation? What is the dosage of trees a family needs to meet its needs?

We want to help to embed tree-based solutions in the humanitarian response, stimulate the uptake of trees by refugees and nationals, and formalize our processes so that others can replicate them in Uganda and beyond. That is what we are working towards. Thank you for supporting our work!

Kigelia africana on farm in refugee area
Kigelia africana on farm in refugee area
The seed team holds pods of sausage tree
The seed team holds pods of sausage tree
Made from "ICRAF" trees, a bed and chair for sale
Made from "ICRAF" trees, a bed and chair for sale
Planted 2018, an Albizia shades homes of refugees
Planted 2018, an Albizia shades homes of refugees
Pigeonpea greens a home fast, gives food + fodder
Pigeonpea greens a home fast, gives food + fodder

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Farmer in his woodlot: 600 trees suppled by ICRAF
Farmer in his woodlot: 600 trees suppled by ICRAF

 It seems impossible but, in February 2018, our nursery and training site was bare parched ground that we were just preparing. How far we have come! 

In three years, we have built a community learning center where we have held dozens of events. We have reached out to hundreds of households in the refugee and host communities. And we have enabled the planting of almost half a million trees.

Forester Gerturde Tiko reports this week that "The trees are doing very well. We've been showing refugees and farmers how to prune and trim them. We are also sensitizing people about bush fires and roaming livestock that damage the trees. We can't rule those challenges out. But we can minimize them." 

So far this year we have collected and sowed the seeds of eight species. They are germinating and will be ready to plant when the rains start in March-April.

Those species are: Afzelia africana - the big and much sought after African hardwood; Balanites aegyptiaca - the tree with nutritious fruits and leaves that the refugees enjoy and cook; Tamarindus indica - the pods of which have a highly nutritious pulp and you may know from Thai and Indian cooking; Gmelina arborea - a fast growing exotic that is good for poles; Albizia gummifera - a fast growing, nitrogen-fixing indigenous tree with flowers for bee forage; Senna siamea - an Asian tree that is naturalised, not invasive, and very good for shaping into bowers for shade; Papaya - the wildly popular heavily fruited pan-tropical tree; and Jackfruit - another naturalized tree, also Asian, with bumpy fruit that grow straight out of the trunk and can weigh 25 kg.

Moringa - the leaf powder of which you can find in health food stores - has not yet been sown because they grow so fast that we need less than a month to prepare them. The Markhamia trees, one of the best coppicing trees, are not yet seeding so we will have to raise them for the next rains. The seeds of Khaya grandifoliola - mahogany; Azadorachta indica - Neem; Annona muricata - soursoup; Mangifera indica - mango; and Vitex doniana, with small blue fruits - are also awaited.

We like to keep you up to date on what we are growing, partly for accountability. But perhaps most exciting in these dry months where life slows down was the publication of two journal articles emanating from research done in association with this project. The links are below. 

Like most of rural Uganda, the refugee settlement is not on the grid, and the first journal article presents our data that shows that if you combine small solar panels and wood-conserving energy efficient cookstoves with agroforestry - the planting of trees in fields -- households can be sustainably self-sufficient in energy without drawing down the woody biomass in surrounding forest and bush. That is a resounding statement. 

The next paper was written by ICRAF researchers with academics from Coventry University in the UK and is based on interviews with 40 refugees and members of the host community about the trees that we gave them. The link is also below.

Shade was the number one reason they wanted trees. One refugee, male, stated "“This tree, I planted it when I first arrived and now we are using it to talk under its shade. If this tree was not there, do you see how we would suffer? The sunshine is too much.”

Protection from wind was also a motivation. One refugee, female, had a tragic story. “My house was destroyed by the wind. I lost my daughter because of that. She was inside the house and the bricks collapsed on her. This was done by the wind. So I feel like it is important to plant trees around the house to reduce the wind from destroying our houses."

Having poles to sell and to repair and build their own houses was a strong reason to plant. "Attract more rain" was cited by 28% of refugees.

Being on good terms with the host community was a further reason. “I do not mind planting trees, even if I go back to my country," said a male refugee. "I know that someone here will enjoy the trees I am planting, and I can leave all the trees for them. I will not even cut them to sell them if I am going back home because I want them to remember us and be happy that we stayed here. We never know if we have to come back and they should be happy to see us, not angry with us because we have cut all their trees.”

Just 10% of refugees want to raise trees for timber but 100% of the host farmers do.

We are immensely reassured by these findings. Just three years ago, it was not clear whether refugees would even consider planting trees. It's now clear that they will.

We thank you for your support. We are going miles with what you have donated - hand in hand with out staff and workers and the refugees and host community.  

End note: Do read the piece (below third link) for the World Economic Forum on three of the species that provide hugely valuable micronutrients and that occur in this refugee-hosting part of northern Uganda but also across the Sahel and other drylands in Africa and even Asia. 

Young refugee repairs his radio under Senna bower
Young refugee repairs his radio under Senna bower
Refugee mother with pigeon peas, papaya from ICRAF
Refugee mother with pigeon peas, papaya from ICRAF
Refugees charge light and radio with solar panels
Refugees charge light and radio with solar panels
Refugee with guava + Markhamia trees just 1 yr old
Refugee with guava + Markhamia trees just 1 yr old
ICRAF community mobiliser interviews refugee
ICRAF community mobiliser interviews refugee

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A refugee homestead with GlobalGiving trees
A refugee homestead with GlobalGiving trees

Delayed by COVID, I have finally spent time in the refugee area. It was incredibly rewarding. The model is flourishing though like anything needs tweaks. Here are some snapshots.

On our way to NW Uganda, we pass through Gulu, an epicenter of pigeon pea. This woody legume is a centerpiece of our approach. Planted as hedges or among vegetables or a cereal like sorghum, it fixes nitrogen and provides food for people, fodder for livestock, shade for the soil and poultry, and stems for cooking.

With the help of market women, who have deep knowledge about what they sell, we buy 100 kg of two types. One has a particularly long season during which it produces peas. The other is particularly good for firewood, a major concern for us. Our hope is that, by integrating trees and shrubs like pigeon pea among crops (the practice of agroforestry), fuel from refugees' plots will replace some of the wood being sourced from the natural vegetation. 

Reaching the agroforestry center on the first day, we offload the seed and sit down to talk.

Our project is led on the ground by Joel and Gertrude. Their feedback is that it is not the time to plant pigeon pea and that they would preserve it by adding dried chilis, leaves of neem, and ash to the sacks. I really appreciate this traditional way to fend off insects. We will distribute the seed in the next rains to the 500 refugee households we work with: 200 grams of seed is enough for about 150 plants.

Our community-based facilitators, three young South Sudanese. are also part of the conversation, which focuses generally on "how it is going?" Amos has a heavy load of 195 refugee households but has good news. Refugees are getting poles from the seedlings we gave them. "Some are even selling them," he says.

Later as we move to homes, we see how this can be. Many species we supply have the ability to coppice, to grow additional long strong stems after the first stem is cut. And they do this rapidly. We see Gmelina, Melia, and Markhamia trees that had been planted in 2018 with four or five strong stems.

This is a sustainable system. The poles can be harvested on a rotation, again relieving pressure on the surrounding woodlands. There is an unlimited demand for poles for huts, latrines, fences, beds, drying racks for crops, trellises for pots and dishes, and more. We know about coppicing, an ancient practice in Africa, Europe, and elsewhere but had underestimated its role in humanitarian settings. 

We are encouraged too by the performance of the fruit trees we distributed. A year on from the last visit, papaya trees are more abundant than ever and figuring centrally in diets. Besides being eaten ripe, when harvested when unripe, the fruit can be peeled and cut into pieces that are dried in the sun. These can then be cooked in a nutritious stew with a sesame paste or with dried fish called mukene, says community-based facilitator Joseph.

These were positive findings but walking around, I sense that we are underutilizing assisted natural regeneration. We have not sufficiently stressed this easy, inexpensive, and fast way to get trees back. Our seedlings are quite often planted next to stumps that could be assisted to regrow. 

Good enough, Bidal, the third community-based facilitator, expertly shows us how to "treat" a stump so it regrows. But it remains a worry how to popularise this approach when seedlings and planting are seen as a more valuable intervention. Assisted natural regeneration is a vital way to restore indigenous species that are heavily used and critical for biodiversity. 

Day one finishes with a radio show in Arua, the district headquarters that is the jumping-off spot for the refugee area. Gertrude and Chale, a retired forest with copious knowledge of local species, talk entirely in the local language, Lugbara. The host of the show goes by the radio name of "Patience Sugar" and has a large following.

The topic is the importance of indigenous trees for nutrition and, as I sit in the studio with them, it is clear from the calls coming in that this subject is hot. One caller says "I used to look after cattle in the bush and would eat those fruits. I never fell sick then because they are medicinal. Today I don't see them. It's very annoying."   

Caller after caller says that these fruit species are disappearing. We have prepared key messages - let's eat them, prioritize them, feed them to our children, they are as nutritious as an orange, let's value and not look down on them, let's be sure not to cut these precious species for charcoal.

Day two also focuses on nutrition from trees. We drive the two hours back to the refugee settlement to meet with Dinka refugees who have prepared a meal for us of leaves from the dryland tree Balinites. These pastoral people rely heavily on the leaves in the dry season when leafy vegetables are scarce.

Our focus is not just homesteads but schools and other institutions, where trees can become permanent fixtures not vulnerable to being cut. So we visit a headmaster who has planted numerous seedlings of one of our hardwood species, African mahogany. They are thriving. He thinks they will attract "some rain". Above all, he is concerned to have shade for his pupils. "You can sit there all day without the sun shining on you. You can have an assembly under such a tree." 

We thank all our GlobalGiving donors and hope these snapshots are vivid for you. The project is exceeding our expectations. COVID has been an interruption. But with your generous funding, we are increasing our activities. 2021 will see more radio shows and more assisted natural regeneration, among other things. We are very proud when we see homesteads that are dense with "our" trees. They are your trees too. 

Pigeon pea seeds being examined by market women
Pigeon pea seeds being examined by market women
Project team saying "yes!" to nutrition from trees
Project team saying "yes!" to nutrition from trees
Refugees prepare a meal of tree leaves with maize
Refugees prepare a meal of tree leaves with maize
Gertrude on radio advocating indigenous fruit
Gertrude on radio advocating indigenous fruit
Bidal demonstrates how to assist a tree to regrow
Bidal demonstrates how to assist a tree to regrow

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Tree medley around a refugee home including Papaya
Tree medley around a refugee home including Papaya

Almost two years into raising funds on GlobalGiving - thank you all so much - and almost three in this region of over 400,000 refugees, we have hit our stride.

We are making a big impact on fruit consumption for refugee and host community families. And we are making a dent in the damage to the natural ecosystems caused by refugees' entirely legitimate need to use wood for cooking

You've got to love papaya, also called pawpaw. To date, this fruit species is our most rewarding. In 2020 we have distributed 16,700 papaya seedlings, In less than a year it has the potential to be loaded with large orange-fleshed fruit that can also be cooked when unripe into a vegetable stew. 

Pointing to a pawpaw tree 4 meters high, one refugee farmer told us, “I have just finished eating a ripe pawpaw fruit and my wife cooks the raw ones. She peels the outer layer and slices the pawpaw into small pieces that are cooked with sesame or peanuts."

Out of the 123,053 seedlings raised since January, 54,627 were either fruit or food trees. Food trees in this region produce edible leaves and include Moringa oleifera, the leaf powder of which you may find where you live in a health food shop marketed as a superfood. It is indeed very nutritious.

We are very happy about these inroads that we are making into the lack of micronutrients that can characterize local diets, which can be starchy.

On fuelwood, we are really delighted that women are making fewer long treks because they can use prunings from trees like Senna that we have provided for them. There is also an almost imperceptible but still real drop in the use of natural vegetation.

In total, we have raised 11 species of trees this year, a good range that includes mahogany, which produces neither fruit nor fuel but is a hugely important species for the local ecology. The latest field report says, " When it comes to numbers of seedlings planted, host communities usually plant more given the larger land sizes they hold. Hosts are also willing to plant long-term trees like Khaya (Mahogany) and Afzelia while refugees mainly prefer fast-growing trees like Moringa, Melia, Senna, and papaya for quick returns."

The field team has also sent photos of our trees being used as hedges, fodder banks for livestock, windbreaks, and for the supply of poles.

One of the most exciting developments of the last quarter was the use of radio to reach a broader group of refugees and host families than the ones with which we interact personally (about 400 households). We were super generously gifted $1000 by GlobalGiving itself to intensify our communication in this time of COVID-19. Two of our team spoke for an hour reaching an estimated 44,000 listeners. 

Phillip opened the show by saying, "People often think - refugees come for a short time and will be going back home, so why plant trees? But we say No, it's not like that. When refugees reach Uganda, the first thing they do is put their luggage under a tree and sit to rest there. That shows the connection between trees and people. We have found refugees are really interested in growing trees."

Hosted by a DJ called Baby Frank, the call-in show received 15 calls. The most common question was - "when are you bringing trees to our area?" Phillip reassured listeners that the project will expand - but in truth, it is a challenge. Natural resources are underfunded generally and do not have a high profile in humanitarian crises. This project is gathering data that is going to change that.

Gertrude, another of our young foresters, also spoke but in Lugbara, the main language of the region. She prompted Phillip when he did not know the Lugbara name for shea butter. She helped him by adding "In our region, people eat a lot of shea. It's very healthy and it does not come from anywhere except for a tree."

Phillip stressed how the oil from the kernel of the shea fruit is good for immunity. "This is important when pandemics like COVID come our way and we have to resist them."

It is a pleasure to work with such smart young people. We thank you immensely for your support. 

A young refugee with a grafted mango sapling
A young refugee with a grafted mango sapling
Onions, eggplant and a fodder bank of pigeon pea
Onions, eggplant and a fodder bank of pigeon pea
Refugees invest heavily in protecting fruit trees
Refugees invest heavily in protecting fruit trees
A refugee cooks on an energy saving stove
A refugee cooks on an energy saving stove
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Organization Information

International Centre for Research in Agroforestry

Location: Nairobi - Kenya
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Twitter: @icraf
Project Leader:
Cathy Watson
Nairobi, Kenya
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