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[NAIROBI] Africa's severe land degradation could be reversed by private sector investment in tree-based restoration technologies, a meeting heard.

Poor agricultural practices and deforestation are some of the causes of land degradation, which has led to a massive loss of biodiversity on the continent, experts said at the international investment forum Mobilising Private Investment in Trees and Landscaping Restoration in Africa, held in Kenya, last month (25–27 May).

Restoration technologies include halting soil erosion through increased vegetative cover — for example through planting trees and other plants — conservation techniques and water management structures to promote responsible use of water resources said Frank Place, head of impact assessment at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, which co-hosted the event.

Other techniques include retaining plant seeds in the soil for regeneration and reducing or halting the use of resources in badly degraded areas to enable natural recovery.

"The emphasis is on identifying specific technologies suited to the environmental and market context that will also generate private benefits to [small-scale farmers who own land]," said Place. But "planting trees of almost any type can have a positive effect on the environment in terms of soil health improvement and support for biodiversity."

Faidherbia albida, also known as the apple-ring acacia tree, fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere and makes it available to crops through leaf litter fall. This planting system, common in West Africa, is an example of good restoration practice, said Place.

The private sector, he said, should invest in income-generating trees and technologies that produce wood, fruits, oils or livestock feed, or improve soil health through conservation agriculture or grain legumes that improve soil health.

Place added that investors must consider the length of time they must wait for a return on their investment. For example, technologies for fodder and soil improvement provide benefits within as few as two years, whereas grafting can take anything up to 15 years.

"Promoting private sector investment in technologies that can be used on degraded areas to improve food security, increase rural incomes and make farming resilient to climate change is key to tree and landscape restoration in Africa," said Peter Dewees, a forest specialist at the Agriculture and Rural Development Department of the World Bank.

According to Sara Scherr, president of Ecoagriculture Partners, an international non-profit organisation  the goal is to increase food production whilst ensuring biodiversity protection.

"Much landscaping work has been done by the public sector and civil society but the public sector is not where the money that drives the economy in Africa is. It is the private sector," she said.

A good policy framework is necessary to promote these mutually beneficial goals, she said.

The director general of the World Agroforestry Centre, Dennis Garrity, said Kenya had made a bold policy move in which farmers are now required to have ten per cent of their agricultural land under trees.