At first skeptical, farmers have embraced agroforestry — planting trees on farms — to boost crop production and local biodiversity.
In 2019, Samuel Kwasari, a geology graduate, was managing a farm in Dama-Kusa, a village in Abuja, Nigeria. Worried about the destruction to the vegetation he was seeing, he and a group of other concerned farmers were convinced that the solution lay in agroforestry, an agricultural model that involves planting crops amidst trees such as eucalyptus, moringa, Shea butter tree, and others.
Farmers around Abuja were skeptical of this unfamiliar approach. They had long relied on a monoculture system of planting maize, groundnut, and sorghum. But pesticides had turned their soil sandy and degraded the land, while climate change had added new challenges. Desertification was on the horizon. But Kwasari, aware of agroforestry at work in Brazil and India, persisted, touting its advantages. “When you plant the agroforestry way,” he told the farmers, “all through the twelve months in a year, you are still harvesting and making more money.”
Kwasari founded the Be the Help Foundation and created a ten-hectare agroforestry demonstration farm. He wanted farmers to see how agroforestry worked, and see how it strengthened their crops against desert encroachment from climate change. With improved yields, he explained, they would easily improve their standard of living.
“Many of us doubted the method,” said fifty-year-old Ibrahim Audu, who visited Kwasari's demonstration farm, “but we watched, because we wanted to significantly improve our standard of living.”
With more farmers on board, Kwasari encouraged them to get started by planting different types of trees roughly fifteen feet apart on a straight line. He explained that, after a year, they would introduce fast-growing crops between the trees — plants such as bananas, paw paw, beans, chili peppers, turmeric, rice, and more. The trees would support efficient biodiversity and slow desert encroachment from climate change.
Kwasari encouraged farmers to refrain from applying pesticides to crops, noting that pesticides contribute to soil degradation, which invites more desert encroachment. He also recommended that farmers use organic fertilizers for the different types of trees and crops.
Farmer Pius Abang, delighted with the results of the agroforestry experiment, said that shifting to agroforestry was like growing from a boy to a man. Others felt the same. One farmer who planted an estimated 40,000 tree seedlings and vegetables in between trees found that in two years, he had a third more surviving tree seedlings (some had reseeded themselves) and twenty-five different species of plants. What’s more, his various green vegetables grew throughout the year, providing him with a continuous harvest all year long. “It’s no more the traditional thing of [farming] six months, then staying at home for six months. You can plant and reap twelve months in a year,” Kwasari said.
The initially skeptical farmers are now converts to agroforestry, according to Kwasari. For long-term gain, they plant trees, knowing that their children will be able to harvest them when they are fully grown. In the meantime, they plant crops among them and harvest them throughout the year for a steady stream of income. Because the trees prevent erosion and help maintain nutrients in the soil, the farmers recognize that agroforestry gives them greater resilience to the effects of climate change.
While agroforestry exists in other areas of Nigeria, it remains small scale, embraced only by farmers who’ve been educated in its benefits. In hopes of persuading others of its benefits, Kwasari writes articles, produces videos, offers seminars and workshops, and encourages the government to consider agroforestry in any future farming initiatives.