First ‘fruit tree portfolios’ established in Kenya, in a novel approach to improved year-round nutrition

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Written by DAISY OUYA, World Agroforestry Centre

World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) researchers have launched a novel approach to tackle the problem of micronutrient deficiencies, also known as ‘hidden hunger.’ The fruit tree portfolio approach involves cultivating a set of fruit trees on farms, which is carefully designed to supply nutritious fruits to eat throughout the year, for diverse diets and improved health.

The fruit tree portfolio for a particular locality gives the optimum number and combination of ecologically suitable agroforestry tree species to provide for year-round fresh fruits for households’ requirements of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A, both essential nutrients. Because the trees in the portfolio have different harvest seasons spanning the entire calendar year, they provide a year-round supply of at least one fruit species per month for the household.

The fruit tree portfolio approach was developed by scientists within ICRAF’s Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery programme under the auspices of the European Commission (EC)- and IFAD-funded Fruiting Africa project.

“A diverse diet containing fruits and vegetables every day is recommended to address hidden hunger, a global problem with serious negative impacts on human well being and development,” said Stepha McMullin, a social scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and one of the developers of the fruit tree portfolio methodology. The lack of vitamins and other micronutrients in growing children is one of the factors that lead to stunting— an irreversible condition that limits both normal physical and cognitive development, and is estimated to affect nearly a third of children under five in some African countries.

Fruit tree portfolio for Machakos county in Kenya.

Fruit tree portfolio for Machakos county in Kenya.

Ecologically suitable

To develop a portfolio, the scientists start by assessing, in a participatory way, location-specific data on current and potential fruit tree diversity, harvest seasons, farmers’ preferences for certain fruit species, availability of fruits from markets, and the occurrence of ‘hunger gaps’—the periods during the year when poor farmer families have finished their stock of grain from the last harvest and the new crop is still growing.

From these data and secondary data on nutrient contents of priority fruit species, a comprehensive list of species is compiled and the most suitable combination of fruit tree species that can be integrated into farming systems is developed. A recommended layout of the species of the farm is also worked out.

Spreading the fruit tree portfolio approach

For Machakos in Eastern Kenya, the first site where the novel approach is being disseminated, the fruit tree portfolio consists of 10 species: mango (Mangifera indica), waterberry (Syzygium cuminii), chocolate berry (Vitex payos), custard apple (Annona squamosa or A. reticulata), guava (Psidium guajava), lemon (Citrus lemon), orange (Citrus sinensis), desert date (Balanites aegyptiaca), pawpaw (Carica papaya) and passion fruit (Passiflora edulis).

From March 2015, the Fruit Africa Team has worked with partners to establish a fruit tree portfolio demonstration plot at the ICRAF Rural Resource Centre in Machakos. In addition, demonstration plots were established on community nurseries and project farmers’ fields. The ICRAF team also developed and distributed communication materials in both English and the local Kikambalanguage, so farmers can learn about the approach and the nutritional benefits of the fruits produced by their portfolio of trees.

Farmer reactions

The participating farmers were very interested in growing the fruit tree portfolio for their locality, as seen from the high survival rates of the planted seedlings as evaluated some months later. However, the researchers found that for indigenous wild fruit species such as desert date and chocolate berry, which are far less common on farms than the commercial exotic fruits, there was need to raise the awareness among farmers and to promote cultivation.

“Both exotic and indigenous fruit trees have a good potential to be highly productive in the project locality, but many of the wild species are better adapted to the harsh local environment, and some provide more nutritious fruits as compared to common exotic fruit species,” said Katja Kehlenbeck, a fruit tree scientist with ICRAF and co-developer of the fruit tree portfolio approach.

“We are working with smallholder farmers, and particularly women who are responsible for household nutrition, to promote both exotic and indigenous fruit trees. The fruit tree portfolio needs to be taken as a whole, if farmer families are to gain fresh fruits year-round,” added Kehlenbeck, who also presented some of these findings at the 2nd International Hidden Hunger Conference in Stuttgart, Germany in March 2015.

Scaling up

By using the common methodology developed, the fruit tree portfolio approach can be applied to many other locations in Africa. ICRAF’s Stepha McMullin highlighted this methodology and its wider application at a session of the Beating Famine Conference in Malawi, in April 2015.

“Fruit tree portfolios offer a long-term, sustainable, and environmentally suitable solution to meeting household nutrition and dietary-diversity needs,” said McMullin.

“The trees will be in the landscapes for present and future generations, and continue to feed and nourish future mothers, future children and future farmers.”

Originally published by World Agroforestry Centre on August 4, 2015