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[NAIROBI] African farmers could triple yields by planting a type of acacia tree that sheds its nitrogen-rich leaves in time for the growing season alongside their crops.

The fast-growing, hardy species, Faidherbia albida, which has common names including apple-ring acacia and ana tree, also has a wide range of other benefits, according to Dennis Garrity, director general of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

"Besides organic fertiliser and livestock fodder for farmers, it also acts as a windbreak, provides wood for fuel and construction and cuts erosion by loosening the soil to absorb water during the rainy season," he said at the 2nd World Congress of Agroforestry in Nairobi this week (24 August).

"The tree becomes dormant and sheds its leaves during the early rainy season at the time when seeds need fertiliser and regrows them at the beginning of the dry season, so not competing with crops for light," Garrity told SciDev.Net.

Planting the trees can nearly triple yields, he says. In Malawi, maize yields under the acacia canopy are 280 per cent higher than outside it.

The acacia variety is already grown on farms in western Africa, as well as in Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania. But uptake has been minimal in other parts of Africa. Despite 60 years of research and more than 700 scientific publications on F. albida, few farmers — especially in parts of eastern and central Africa — know of its potential.

As Garrity notes, the tree can thrive in a wide range of conditions and is suitable for planting across the continent. He says the lack of knowledge about the acacia highlights a need for research agencies to find more effective ways to reach farmers. Governments must also invest in generating and communicating research, he adds.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, says that the lack of extension services that tap into agroforestry science from research institutions and universities and then pass information to smallholders is a great disservice to the quest for food security in Africa.

There is a pressing need to communicate research findings to farmers in languages they can understand, Maathai says.