Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia

by International Centre for Research in Agroforestry
Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia
Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia
Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia
Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia
Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia
Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia
Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia
Fruit trees for micronutrient-rich diets in Zambia
The market in Chipata, Zambia
The market in Chipata, Zambia

Stepha is excited. She has just returned from the field in Zambia. Besides all the indigenous fruits she saw in the markets, the Southern African nation recently published its food-based dietary guidelines.

“Not many countries have them,” says the Irish social scientist, who promotes greater use of tree foods. “A food-based dietary guideline is a huge step towards better food systems for healthy diets. It’s developed by the country, for the country. It’s much stronger than just saying eat such and such food groups”.

McMullin glows when she talks about Zambia’s guidelines,which she describes as progressive. “Food-based dietary guidelines are adapted to a country’s nutrition situation, food availability, culinary cultures and eating habits.”

It is a major breakthrough anywhere in the world for wild foods like insects and native plants to be recognized in a government document: Zambia’s guidelines mention insects no less than an astounding 72 times and products of the iconic baobab tree 22 times.

Sour fruits like baobab and tamarind are rich in vitamin C, say the guidelines, with a quarter of a cup of baobab fruit containing as much as one large orange.

And in a “healthy tip on easily eating two fruits per day”, they state that eating naturally growing fruits, like masuka from the Uapaca kirkiana tree, are “healthy options with many essential nutrients”, and that “wild fruits such as marula, sour fig, mobola plum, and azanza or snot apple are also good sources of anthocyanins and flavonoids”.

All this is music to our ears, and an endorsement for this project. We would like to thank all our donors on GlobalGiving. Much more needs to be done to bring native food trees and improved exotic tropical trees like mango on to farms. You are helping us do this.

“We are going into outreach now,” says project lead Stepha, “with partners on nurseries and extension agents on how to grow a diversity of trees and how this can support more resilient local food systems. In 2023 we will integrate nutrition information into the roles of community health volunteers and put out radio shows, posters and leaflets.” 

As your funds accumulate, we are looking for the most strategic way to spend them. It may be a seed training; getting seed for indigenous trees needs to be carefully planned. It may be a training for health workers. Where in the world do health workers talk about trees?

This is an important new frontier and absolutely essential. In Zambia, over 80% of rural households collect nutrient-rich food from the wild, yet the need for fuel wood and charcoal means those trees are being cleared. Meanwhile, poor urban dwellers have far worse diets than the rural population.

“In three years’, time we would like to see rural communities adopting greater tree diversity for greater dietary diversity, and having had the opportunity to select the fruit and food trees from a portfolio based on their recommendations,” says Stepha.

After deep consultation with communities, her team have a list of 5-6 indigenous trees and 5-6 exotic ones.

About urban communities, she says, “we would like to see these wild and improved fruits and tree products appearing much more in markets. Almost 50% of Zambia’s population lives in a town. Markets are a crucial part of the food environment. People without access to land need to have access to nutrient-rich foods.”

She says that a strong market for nutritious tree products in towns will motivate farmers to grow them. “We know that smallholder farmers are really incentivized by income. If they can sell seasonal produce, as well as have enough nutrient-rich food for their family, it is a better package.”

We thank you for staying with this project, which is part of a larger project to make tree foods available. Quietly revolutionary, it is going places. We send a special thanks to those of you who are recurring donors, and ask all of you to set up a monthly donation. We also ask you to ask your friends and colleagues to donate. Together we can change the world.

Azanza, a nutritious indigenous fruit, for sale
Azanza, a nutritious indigenous fruit, for sale
Micronutrient-rich baobab pulp in the market
Micronutrient-rich baobab pulp in the market
Masuka, fruit from the Uapaca kirkiana tree
Masuka, fruit from the Uapaca kirkiana tree


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Leading a game to determine women's tree choices
Leading a game to determine women's tree choices

Agnes Gachuiri is used to working in tough places. In one case, she brought fruit trees to reformed gang members in an informal settlement in Nairobi. Her aim: to help them to continue to transition out of crime and gain benefits from urban agroforestry.

But now she is working on this project in Zambia. Its setting is also tough. Zambia has high levels of rural poverty (about 80%, according to government surveys), and stunting for children is widespread. Growth faltering usually begins at around six months after mothers stop exclusive breastfeeding.

“Children aged 6–23 months are usually vulnerable to stunting because of factors such as lack of complementary foods containing the necessary nutrients which leaves them vulnerable to opportunistic infections resulting in poor health outcomes and ultimately stuntedness,’ write Zambian academics Bupe Bwalya, Musonda Lemba and colleagues.

The aim of the project is to increase fruit trees on farms so that families, particularly women and children, have the micronutrients they need to thrive.

Agnes has worked in several African countries, including her homeland of Kenya where smallholder farmers commonly grow fruit trees for fruit for home consumption and sale. Zambia, however, is different, she says.

“What is very specific about Zambia is that they have very high diversity and use of wild foods,” says Agnes. “They don’t grow a lot of fruit trees on their farms. They harvest from the wild.”

Getting nutrition right for families with trees is her life’s work, and she loves it. She collaborates with another young Kenya woman scientist, Alice Karanja. Together they are working out what fruit grows where and the farming families’ preferences, often using a game as one of their methodologies.

“We are working in three provinces,” says Alice Karanja. “Central and Eastern Provinces are more or less the same. They have access to forest areas where they are allowed to collect food, like green leafy wild vegetables, wild fruit and insects. They grow a bit on their farms. But they don’t buy much fruit in markets.”

In contrast, says Alice, the third province, Muchinga is much drier, and families rely on the market and grow and collect far less.

Such information is vital as the two nutrition and natural resource specialists work out which tree species should be the focus where and on what should they put their efforts. “I am designing the portfolios of 10-12 trees so that at least one tree is fruiting every month, and we close the hunger gap,” says Agnes.

Alice, meanwhile, has been crunching the data on fruit trees, and has found that besides wanting fruit trees that are common across the tropics like mangoes and guavas, women express an interest in growing indigenous species.

So far, she says, the most frequently mentioned species: are Strychnose cocculoides or Utusongole in local languages; Parinari curatellifolia or Impundu; Ximenia americana or Nyumbuzya); and Uapaca kirkiana or Masuku.

Thank you for supporting this project. We have raised almost $4000! Shortly we will start working with our Zambian colleagues to collect seed and set up tree nurseries to generate these trees. Our second photo is of Ximenia americana, which despite its species name, is native to Africa. A short spiny tree, it is hardy and adapted to the local ecology. Its fruit is packed with vitamins. 

Spiny Ximenia americana tree with nutritious fruit
Spiny Ximenia americana tree with nutritious fruit
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An enumerator collects data on a tablet
An enumerator collects data on a tablet

Out of the shadow of COVID and with rain finally blessing the land, we went to Zambia in March and started field work. You’ll be amazed how much wild food the communities are already accessing! We certainly were! Thank you so much for your donations, which helped us get a fuller measure of this.

Of households that we surveyed, a staggering 94% collect wild fruit; 73% collect wild vegetables; and 44% collect insect food such as caterpillars, flying termites and grasshoppers, which are usually fried in oil and served with local vegetables andmaize meal.

With figures this high, it becomes instantly and abundantly clear why the “wild” is so important.

We define “wild” as “natural habitats not cultivated or managed intentionally for provision of edible animals, insects, fruits and vegetable species.” Even the populations of highly nutritious insects depend upon natural vegetation.

In addition, we found that almost 60% of the households grow and manage both indigenous and exotic fruit trees on their farms. The most common exotic fruit trees are mangoes, guava, papaya, oranges, bananas and avocadoes.

The most common indigenous fruit trees are kabeza (Strychnos cocculoides), mbula (Parinari curatellifolia), katope (Syzygium cordatum), futu (Vitex doniana), and nthumbuzya (Ximenia americana).

Our project is in eight chiefdoms in Eastern, Central and Muchinga Provinces. “It is all about agricultural and wild biodiversity and particularly the micronutrient-rich fruit trees, which can diversify these landscapes, and diets forfamilies,” says post-doctoral fellow Alice Karanja, who led the field team.

The team arrived in Zambia with research tools that needed testing and localizing. We also needed enumerators fluent in local languages and with local knowledge. We recruited and trained 10 females and 30 males, mostly teachers, nurses and university students, in data collection with role play and a pre-test exercise with farmers.

At present we are working with 745 households to understand which agricultural and wild plants, especially trees, they rely on for food, income, and feed for their animals.We willexpand quickly to work directly with 5,000 and indirectly with 10,000.

Askinghouseholds about wild fruit, 86.6% of families said it was for home consumption; 12.6% for sale and home consumption; and just 0.8% for sale only.

We asked 300 women about“seasonality”, and learnt that wild food collection starts in October and runs through April.This is the wet rainy season when most households have hungry months as they wait to harvest their planted crops.

Alice Karanja spent time with three local women, basket in hand, picking, gathering, smelling and sampling all that local nature had to offer.

“Wild foods are safe for consumption,” said one. “We use the local foraging knowledge learnt from our mothers to guide us to identify what’s safe to eat and what’s not. We are also passing this knowledge to our children.”

“Right now, food prices have gone up,” said another woman. “In the market, bunches of vegetable and impwa (wild eggplant) are shrinking. Our women’s group forages for wild fruits for our children to eat like masuku (Uapaca kirkiana), ngaingai (Vangueria infausta), and masau (Ziziphus mauritania). Sometimes we sell the surplus.”

“The prevalence of wild foods consumption indicates the substantial contribution that wild food species can make to not only diversify local diets but also highlights the importance of forests in supporting food and nutrition security,” says Karanja.

The task ahead for us is how to bring this important biodiversity on to farms with the pressures of charcoal and other factors driving the loss of trees in the wild.

“We will do this by providing diverseand quality planting material -- an estimated 100,000 trees that they can grow -- as well as tailored nutrition messaging, so that women are fully aware of the nutritional importance of the foods they feed their families,” says project lead Stepha McMullin. “Some wild fruits have more Vitamin C per gram than an orange.”

Drying wild greens
Drying wild greens
Asking husbands and male farmers their preference
Asking husbands and male farmers their preference
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Borassus palm diversifies diets in Zambia
Borassus palm diversifies diets in Zambia

Merry Christmas from World Agroforestry! We wish you a partridge in a pear tree as well as African hornbills and other birds in an array of tropical fruit and food trees!

We would like to thank the 43 of you who have generously donated since we opened our doors in August. So far the donations amount to $3,774. It is a strong beginning.

Many nutrition projects look at biofortification, which the World Health Organization defines as "the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient, i.e. vitamins and minerals in a food, so as to improve the nutrtional quality of the food supply".

Other nutrition efforts focus on supplementation, delivering the key micronutrients that the body needs to "survive and thrive" via supplements in forms such as pills and tablets. (Nutritional International 2021)

Both have huge merits but our approach is different. We are all about helping families to have a sustainble source of year round nutrition at hand on their farms by growing a diverse portfolio of trees (and annual crops).

"Through a participatory process," says my colleague Dr Stepha McMullin. who heads the project, "we work with communities to customize 'portfolios' of fruits, vegetables, pulses and staple crops that they want and which will meet their nutritional needs. We also consider market demand.  Because besides nutrition, they need successful income generation."

Often families had access in the past to more tree species that provide nutrition than they have now. A study in 2009 by Kalaba and other researchers founds that 97% of the rural people in Zambia's Copperbelt collected from indigenous "wild" trees such as Uapaca kirkiana, Anisophyllea boehmii and Parinarri caratellifolia. They ate the fruits or processed them into juice or porridge. They also sold some. But with loss of forest, such trees are beconing less common. 

Our project will bring such trees as well as mangoes and other pantropical fruit trees onto farms.

In this project, we will have demonstration sites, nutrition literacy awareness with children, and open days for parents where we will deliver agronomic and nutrition training.

One third of the world's tree species are currently threatened. So this approach simultaneously offers hopes for threatened Southern African trees and the insects and birds that depend upon them. Do read this piece in The Guardian. 

We are proud to be starting this work at this time. In addition to providing nutrition, the trees will be capturing carbon and building a model that can be scaled. Malnutrition has spiked with COVID. According to the United Nations, while "the pandemic's impact has yet to te be mapped fully, around a tenth of the global population - up to 811 million people - are undernourished. It will take a tremendous effort for the world to honor its pledge to end hunger by 2030". 


A young woman sells vitamin rich Ziziphus fruits
A young woman sells vitamin rich Ziziphus fruits


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Organization Information

International Centre for Research in Agroforestry

Location: Nairobi - Kenya
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @icraf
Project Leader:
Stepha Mcmullin
Nairobi, Kenya
$5,475 raised of $125,000 goal
87 donations
$119,525 to go
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