By intentionally growing crops among trees in a way that each crop does not inhibit the growth of the other, farmers in the Nigerian capital promote sustainable ecosystems that support efficient biodiversity.
In 2019 when Samuel Kwasari introduced agroforestry practice to smallholder farmers in Dama-kusa village, the farmers said it was a waste of time and energy, believing that crops planted would die off in a couple of days.
Two years later, local farmers in the village and surrounding communities were amazed by the profound level of transformation and vegetation restoration that had occurred in the bare land area they had known, which now harboured over a hundred different species of essential staple crops and exotic plant species.
"The farmers thought this (agroforestry) will not be possible in this area because they are only used to mono-cropping systems of farming which has destroyed the existing vegetation in this area," Mr Kwasari, the founder of Be the Help Foundation (BHF), told PREMIUM TIMES.
Without applying any form of inorganic fertiliser, herbicides or pesticides, Mr Kwasari said the agroforestry models have created an all-year round atmosphere for healthy food production and green vegetation that exhibits rich biodiversity.
"This system has helped reduce the negative impacts of climate change, boost healthy food production and has improved the soil microorganisms availability on the farm and surrounding environment," he added.
Dama-kusa village is a small farming settlement in Yangoji, an agrarian community in Kwali area council tucked along the Abuja-Lokoja road of the Federal Capital Territory.
Subsistence farming is the major occupation of the Dama-Kusa people. The crops grown majorly by farmers of this settlement are maize, groundnut and sorghum, on a small scale. However, the agroforestry model being practiced within the community still remains strange to many, while some are already developing interest, Mr Kwasari said.
"Uniqueness of agroforestry"
Agroforestry is one of several climate smart models of farming being practised by some Nigerian farmers in Abuja in order to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change on food production and biodiversity.
According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), agroforestry is a dynamic, ecologically based and natural resource management system that, through the integration of trees on farms and in the agricultural landscape, diversifies and sustains production for increased social, economic and environmental benefits for land users at all levels.
The food organisation said that agroforestry systems are multifunctional systems that are crucial to smallholder farmers and other rural people because they can enhance a wide range of economic, sociocultural and environmental benefits.
It is a sustainable system of farming whereby farmers intentionally grow several crops among trees in such a way that each crop does not inhibit the growth of the other, thus promoting healthy food production and sustainable ecosystems that supports efficient and effective carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
Some farmers under the BHF initiative explained that the switch from the common traditional system of farming to agroforestry systems has significantly improved not only their livelihood,but also the species richness of the environment.
Mr Kwasari said they had adopted two major agroforestry systems so far-- the Brazilian system which they referred to as Modern Brazilian System(MBS) and the Indian system which they also referred to as the Vetri system (named after the partner from India that helped set it up).
The farm manager said both models entail a land use management system in which trees, shrubs and herbs are grown among crops and pastureland.
He noted that the concept is to practise agriculture with trees as the basis, and that the Brazilians are the ones famously known for agroforestry but that they practise the alley farming.
"In the Brazilian system, the target is to get the rural or smallholder farmers to practise the system of agroforestry without disrupting their traditional ways of farming," he said.
He said smallholder farmers can easily grow their crops in the alley, while tree lines are situated 4.8 meters apart. He said trees are grown in a straight line and that trees need minimal care once they are planted and have been established.
"... We have about 23 varieties here; guava, bitter kola, mahogany, cashew, eucalyptus, shea butter tree," Mr Kwasari said, "We had about 10 thousand seedlings in this farm, we have planted over 4000, currently raising some more. Last year we raised about 50,000 trees. We made use of about one third of it on the farm then we sold some out. Now we are getting rid of all the old seedlings to raise another 60,000," he added.
On each hectare of land, he said they have a minimum of 2,500 trees planted and that currently, they have nursed and planted 75,000 - 100,000 trees so far on nine hectares of land.
In the MBS model, he said crops that do not require much water are usually planted alongside trees with similar characteristics in a definite pattern, while the Indian system is irrigated and it bears crops that are mostly vegetables, spices and herbs all year round.
Mr Kwasari said fast growing food crops - bananas, pawpaw, chili peppers, turmeric, castor plants, rice, beans, hibiscus and trees (Eucalyptus, moringa etc), among many others - were deliberately planted because they wanted a situation whereby once a farmer sets up a farm, after 60 days the farmer would be harvesting food crops for the rest of their lives.
"In this system, for 12 months for sure, you will have one or two crops that are produced every month. It is not like the traditional system of farming where you grow crops for five months, after harvesting, the farmers will now sit at home for another six months, while they keep selling what they have harvested instead of having multiple streams of income," he added.
The farmer said: "Now, we are telling them(farmers) that , look, there is a better way of doing this thing, and that when you plant once, all through 12 months in a year you are still harvesting and making more money."
Joyce Brown, an Abuja-based environmentalist with Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), said agroforestry is an important agroecological practice that should be supported and encouraged in the Nigerian farming system.
She said it plays a key role in climate change resilience and that agroforestry reduces atmospheric carbon, improves soil structure, reduces soil erosion as well as pest and diseases
"Agroforestry helps to boost nutritional diversity and also diversify income for the farmers," she added.
The forest is one one of the several subdivisions of the MBS system being practiced by the farmers. It encourages the planting of trees alongside staple crops like maize, pepper, sunflowers among others.
Abang Pius, one of the farmers who embraced the agroforestry model of farming two years ago, said the system of farming has significantly improved his standards of living these past years.
"Before I was a boy, but now I can satisfactorily call myself a man. To be candid, it has really impacted my livelihood in a positive way because I was not doing well before,but now I am better," he added.
Mr Pius, who heads the unit in the agroforestry system called the Forests, said the main reason for the model is to reduce desert encroachment.
He said he decided to plant trees artificially (man-made forest) that he specifically planted six different types of trees - Gmelina, Mahogany, Teak,Eucalyptus, Neem and Gliricidia on a hectare of over nine hectares of land currently being cultivated by the farmers.
After a year, the graduate of agriculture said the forest trees had developed to form shape (canopy), after which he decided to plant crops in between the furrows
"The yield was perfectly good and we have harvested some crops this year, then we still have our pepper and sunflower perfectly alright," he said.
Asked about the difference between the forest model and the traditional system of farming, he said in the latter , farmers make use of chemical inputs while the former is strictly organic farming.
"We don't use chemicals here," he reiterated.
He said one of the main challenges they faced in the course of setting up the model was erosion and shade from trees grown which prevented other sun loving crops from sprouting well.
"I had a challenge in water, that is erosion and where the tree canopies are much, crops around the area may not do well," the farmer said.
More farmers speak
Mustapha Yusuf, who heads the nursery at the farm, said the agroforestry system of farming has clearly shown that with a farmer's little capital he or she can effectively and efficiently grow as many crops as they deem fit.
"As I am now, with my little capital, I can raise a nursery, organise my farm and plan my future," he said.
He said two years ago, he started with 40,000 seedlings, but that this year he has raised 60,000 seedlings of 25 different species of plants.
Peter Ikwu, another agroforestry farmer at Damakusa village, said he is currently practising an agroforestry model called MBS II that enables him to grow tree crops and assorted vegetables simultaneously, and that it has turned his life around significantly.
"This is an organic farm and in this farm we do not use inorganic chemicals. We weed off grasses, then make use of the weeds and banana leaves to cover the soil(mulching) which on decay adds more nutrients to soil," he said.
Iwan Barnabas, who heads the Vetri system unit, said the model has clearly shown that farmers can grow significant numbers of plants on a hectare of land.
He said the system has helped improve his thinking on plant combinations, because he now knows plants that can be grown beside each other that will not suppress the growth of the other.
With this model a farmer can improve the soil texture and nutrients by planting other leguminous crops, thereby saving cost of manure," he added.
While the devastating impacts of climate change has been linked to be one of the root causes of the perennial farmer-herder clashes in Nigeria due to the imminent scarcity of pastureland, Nathan Abel, another agroforestry farmer, decided to use agroforestry models to grow varieties of nutritious grasses for livestock.
He said he is using the MBS III model to grow over 16 varieties of pasture grasses and trees mainly for feeding animals.
He said the pastures are situated on a hectare of land, and that on the hectare, in between every 4.8 meters marked out for planting of grasses, 1.2 meters are used for planting fruit trees and timbers in a row simultaneously.
"On one hectare, we have sixteen 4.8 meters - portions where different grasses are grown and 17 tree lines (1.2 meters) where we planted 16 different grasses," he added.
He said they have successfully planted nutritious livestock grasses like Napier grass, Ruzi grass, Gamba grasses among others, and that the main challenge is how farmers will get the source of the grasses before propagating them.
"Even me, I got to know these grasses when I started working here, " he said.
He said by growing these grasses, it has helped him improve his livelihood and sources of income, and that an interesting part of the grasses is that they are all drought tolerant, thus they remain evergreen during the dry season.
Mr Kwasari said the main challenge they are facing is the lack of unity and awareness amongst farmers, and that most farmers do not know how to propagate or store seeds for subsequent farming seasons which they are already trying to resolve.
"We have set up a demo plot solely for this community in order to show them how Agroforestry works, and they are beginning to see that with a small plot of land, a farmer can grow enough crops that will sustain him or her for life," he said.
Mr Yusuf said another challenge they are faced with is the difficulty in acquiring some tree seedlings due to insecurity in the country.
He said it will take a farmer over two months to get some seedlings because they usually travel into the forest to acquire some seedlings then try to propagate these seedlings effectively.
"Now everyone is afraid of going into the Forests because of kidnappers, especially in Kaduna and Niger states. It is difficult for us to enter the forests there to find seedlings, except we use the local hunters there," he added.
Roland Frutig, a Swiss agroforestry consultant at the farm said the farmers under their supervision as well as other community members can all see that they are having much more yields than the existing traditional system of farming in the community.
"Smallholder farmers can secure their future with this system of farming, because it helps them to benefit from the different crops planted all year round non-stop," the Sexagenarian told PREMIUM TIMES during a visit to the farm.
Mr Frutig explained that agroforestry systems are multifunctional systems that can provide a huge range of economic and sociocultural benefits to not only the livelihood of smallholder farmers but also to the environment.
"Nigeria can feed other West African countries with this because they have the potential," he said.
The agroforestry expert explained that trees like Gliricidia commonly referred to as "quick stick or mother of Cocoa" are very easy to multiply once it grows up, and that it helps to enrich the soil with all the necessary Nitrogen required for plant growth.
Studies have shown that Gliricidia sepium is a legume that is able to fix Nitrogen, and that it produces a lot of litter and the half-life of gliricidia leaves is about 20 days.
Hence, the plant is thus considered as a good soil improver. Because of its deep roots and quick growth, it is used as a windbreak, and because it thrives on steep slopes, it may be used to reclaim denuded land as practiced by these farmers at Dama-kusa village.
This story was produced under the 2021 Solution Journalism Africa fellowship of the Solution Journalism Network.