Science - March 17, 2005

Tree products can be big business

The high commercial value of some of the trees that grow in semi-arid areas of West Africa is not recognised. Many poor rural households could earn more cash by exploiting their products concludes Dr Albert Nikiema, who received his PhD degree on biodiversity management and conservation in agroforestry parklands.

Nikiema made an inventory of the wild food plants that have a high market value in the markets of central Burkina Faso. The African locust bean tree (Parkia biglobosa) stands out: the fermented seeds (soumbala) of this tree are highly nutritious and command a good price. According to Nikiema more households could raise their incomes substantially by going into the soumbala business, and not only in Burkina Faso but also in other neighbouring countries such as Ivory Coast and Niger. The trees can also be grown in combination with cereals.

According to Nikiema’s findings, locust bean products could generate up to 260 US dollars extra income annually for a rural household, a considerable amount by African standards. Nikiema calculated that farmers would only need to plant ten locust bean trees to add about 100 US dollars to their income from crops. Another tree with high commercial potential is the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) whose nuts produce a butter that can be used for cooking, as well as making soap and medicines.

West African governments need to invest more in parklands where these valuable trees grow, says Nikiema. While data on cereal growing and cattle grazing are widely available, little is known about the use of parkland trees for food, medicine and other commercial purposes. Agricultural and environmental policies do not take these activities into account, and meanwhile the diversity of these valuable trees is declining; some have already disappeared. Policies need to be developed that capture the income-raising potential for rural households. / HB

Albert Nikiema received his PhD degree on 8 March. His promotor was Professor Jos van der Maesen, Department of Plant Science.

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