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Nutritious Food Portfolios for Year-round Food Harvest and Nutrient Gaps

Diverse fruit trees on small family farms such that one is fruiting every month, providing micronutrients, complemented by an array of crops

Photo of Cathy Watson
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Arua district in NW Uganda covers 3236 Km2, is a mosaic of small farms, wooded grassland, hosts multiple ethnic groups including refugees

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

ICRAF has been active in Uganda for three decades. It began work in NW Uganda, Arua district,in 2016 as almost 1 million South Sudanese refugees entered the north of the country. We knew that a great strain would be placed on natural resources and ecosystems by the influx. We also knew that Arua was already one of Uganda's poorest districts. The country's main tobacco growing area for decades had brought little to the small farmers except the loss of trees on their land and from natural forests as most companies operating there left farmers to their own devices when it came to curing the leaf. Arua was also a labour reserve for the big sugar estates in the south. Today it is still possible to find families where the men go for 'sugar'. The wages they earned were also insufficient to develop the land they left behind. Then the area was ravaged in revenge for its association with Idi Amin, who was born in an adjacent district. Punitive action by soldiers who overthrew Amin forced almost the entire population into exile in DRC and Sudan. They returned in 1987. This gave them sympathy for the refugees from Sudan/South Sudan who sought shelter with them over the years. But more trouble lay in wait. The Lords Resistance Army did not reach the district but cut the road to the south for most for two decades, deepening Arua's isolation. The district capital received electricity only in the 2000s. In late 2016, ICRAF obtained funding from DFID via GIZ to carry out a project on “Sustainable use of natural resources and energy in Imvepi and Rhino Camp refugee settlements" to help host and refugees use their land without depleting it and meet their energy, building and nutritional needs. We over-delivered, set up a vast tree nursery and undertook myriad studies, including on nutrition. This led to more projects and gave us a deep relationship with the area. We have staff in situ and a large learning center. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Arua town is the district capital. Congolese women sell forest-collected honey and bamboo beehives. Very little is exported from Arua district. But honey is a rare success story. This fits our future vision: bees as pollinators, also traditional beehives in trees.

Small shops are run by Indians and Chinese, evidence of the low education levels. Just 5.3% of 18-year-olds have completed tenth grade (3.7% of girls); just 1.6% of 20-year-olds have finished high school (0.7% of girls). Less than 1% of households own a car; just 40% have one bike. Still, Arua district has three radio stations broadcasting in local languages that will be key to transformation. The market exhibits plenty: women sell indigenous vegetable seed, roasted white ants, fruit of Balinites aegyptiaca, and cured Nile fish. But it aggregates the best: traditional diets are eroding.

Over 90% of nationals are Lugbara; over 85% live in rural areas, growing beans, peanuts, sesame, and importantly pigeon peas (N-fixing legumes with a nutritious grain for humans, leaves that are fodder for livestock, and stems that can be used as cooking fuel). But leafy vegetables and fruits are lacking; the soil is poor. Trees are dominated by exotics like eucalyptus; indigenous fig trees (with edible fruit) are pollarded, their branches used for charcoal as is the case even with mangoes. Charcoal for cities is a key livelihood but maintains poverty. The tree removal degrades soil, decreases shade, increases wind speeds. The district has tried but failed to ban it. Local people cook on firewood, which is less wasteful. Rural households have on average 2.5 acres, enough to create a more treed environment, providing year-round fruit and other foods.

With no mechanization. Labor is entirely by hand and back-breaking. Animal traction is unknown and livestock keeping is minimal, contributing to dietary deficiencies; however, the increased intake of vitamin C from fruit that is part of our future-vision will increase the bioavailability of non-heme iron from green leafy vegetables. Cultural/social factors are 36% of women in polygamous unions with implications for nutrition; TFR is 6 children per woman; 30% of households are female-headed; just 47% of children live with both parents. In addition, 27% of men are thin; 22% suffer some degree of anemia. For women (15-49) almost 40% experience anemia and 16% of children aged 6-59 months are vitamin A deficient.

Refugee settlements have ten or so ethnic groups and are more densely inhabited, sited on clan land once used for hunting and wild product collection (e.g. grass, berries, firewood).

The rural population and refugees have vast plant knowledge. Not yet disconnected from botany or reliant on bought foods, it is an ideal place to promote the greater consumption of fruit and other tree foods, which in our future-focused vision will mitigate climate change, modulate microclimates, hold on to water, encourage groundwater recharge, increase soil health, provide fuel from pruning, bring more income into the home, and more.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The current environmental challenge is the degradation of the landscape as well as its homogenization. The biodiversity that gave the area resilience is diminishing. Economics drive degradation: Riverbanks are being collapsed by sand mining - charcoal and sand being among the natural resources being sold by youth for whom agriculture does not pay.  Perennial rivers are becoming seasonal. Soils are losing the fertility they once had as well as their ability to hold water. Culturally fertility is prized;  though women are starting to want fewer children, Uganda has one of the world's highest fertility rates. Policy issues loom large. Government agricultural, environmental and forestry services are well-intended and educated but poorly funded. Despite the total dependence of the district on natural resources, the district official in charge of protecting and managing natural resources has no functioning vehicle and just four rangers. There is also lack of policy vision and implementation. The population derives much of their micronutrients from wild fruit, but official programs and White Papers overlook this. This gap applies to the humanitarian sector as well, where very few actors promote more than one fruit tree species and are often unaware of the plenitude of indigenous fruit trees. In policy terms, diet and trees are entirely delinked though the evidence is that there are vital connections through multiple pathways. Promotion of exotic tree species like teak and eucalyptus remain the norm. Environmentally, Uganda's climate is becoming more extreme. Arua receives 900-1200 mm of rain a year but temperatures are rising, increasing evapotranspiration. Uganda's population is anticipated to reach an estimated 102 million by 2050, an almost tripling of the current population. Arua's population will, therefore, reach about three million. The average age of a Ugandan in 2019 is 15.9 years. It will not be much different in 2050; Uganda is far from experiencing the demographic dividend. Thus 2050 will see immense shortages of water, fertile soil, land to cultivate, woodfuel energy. Food shortage could be severe. More extreme climate events and overall hotter temperatures are almost certainties. 

But this seemingly inexorable trajectory towards this bleak future can be bent towards a better-fed population gainfully occupied in sustainable productive farming as well as in value addition of the many products they produce for the cities. Technology can help to link them to markets but also help through remote sensing to locate hot spots of degradation and map challenges more precisely. The challenge is to maintain and rebuild the resilience of the ecosystems, diversify diets and to work with the population to reach its vision. Encouraging is that this is a deeply rural population still culturally interested in farming and their cultural foods. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Food systems in Arua are unsustainable, low productivity and providing poor nutrition as they are. They draw down on soil fertility left from the woodlands and forests that were cleared. Energy comes from trees. Bricks are baked with trees from fertile soil. Biomass is exported as charcoal. Arua is decarbonizing, while malnutrition is high. Citing Wanzira et al (2018), "In Uganda, under-nutrition is considered of public health importance National estimates report that 3.6% of children suffer from Moderate Acute Malnutrition while 1.3% have Severe Acute Malnutrition. However, this prevalence is heterogeneous across regions. West Nile, the NW region of Uganda within which Arua lies, currently has the highest reported prevalence of Moderate Acute Malnutrition and Severe Acute Malnutrition in Uganda at 10.4 and 5.6% respectively, far above the target identified by the World Health Assembly which adopted the goal of reducing and maintaining the prevalence of wasting in children to under 5% by 2025." But we see a way out of this downward spiral. Our vision is to address the food system with trees, particularly "food trees" that produce not just fruit but also edible oil, leaves, nuts and other products. Many NGOs, agencies and governments address the lack of fruit by promoting one or two species, which leads to a glut and then a gap for the rest of the year. In contrast, we promote ten to twelve. This is our fruit tree portfolio, the fundamental idea of which is that families need at least one fruit tree fruiting at any one time to be sure of required daily micronutrients. The fruit also provides calories. This approach has been meticulously tested and piloted in Central Uganda and Ethiopia. It also brings income from unsold fruit, forages for pollinators all year, prunings of wood for cooking and other benefits. The causes of malnutrition are complex, however, a common denominator is a low-quality diet with insufficient consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, however, the production and consumption of fruits and other nutrient-dense foods are inadequate on average and in particular so in specific seasons. These tree portfolios, linked with crop portfolios, are derived from research that identifies location-specific recommendations by: • Determining food production diversity and seasonality. • Mapping harvest months of foods against periods of food insecurity. • Capturing individual-level food consumption data, to identify dietary gaps. • As well as filling food harvest gaps, addressing nutrient gaps by matching prioritized foods with food composition data. The ensuing greater diversity of foods address month-on-month food harvest and micronutrient gaps in local households’ diets. The portfolios provide an example of how agriculture may be used to promote nutritionally rich diets, particularly for rural smallholders who rely predominantly on foods from their own farms.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In Arua as in sub-Saharan Africa generally, inadequate micronutrient intakes contributed to by annual per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables far below WHO recommendations are a primary concern. Long dry periods in many locations on the continent and increased instability in weather patterns caused by anthropogenic climate change mean that securing seasonality of availability is of increasing importance. While the global supply of fruits and vegetables is on average 22% short of population needs according to established dietary recommendations, low-income countries on average fall 58% short. Globally, shortfalls in supply also reflect a focus in recent decades on food systems’ delivery of sufficient calories rather than a full spectrum of nutrients. This is exasperated in low-income nations as they transition to “more western” diets. We will and can change this with the better use of agricultural biodiversity. Not only will it support more nutritious diets but biodiverse systems are inherently more stable faced with stresses like global heating and other manifestations of the climate crisis, less vulnerable to pest attacks, and what is vastly important for this submission support more nutritious diets. At the highest level in this submission, we are talking about planetary health. A recent paper by ICRAF  (Rosenstock et al 2019) states that agroforestry positively alters microclimates, hydrology, biogeochemistry, and biodiversity and is a frequently suggested solution to intertwined food-, climate-, energy-, land-, and water-related challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Arua, we propose agroforestry systems based around fruit/food trees as a start to address the 'wicked' problem of malnutrition and a food system that is not working. This will address immediate micronutrient gaps but have larger impact on the entire system. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our full vision is for a sustainable resilient regenerative food system that offers abundant and diversified nutrition (Diets) that are rooted in local plants and have cultural resonance for the many ethnic groups in Arua, mostly Lugbara people but over a dozen others (Culture). This food system will provide regenerative rather than extractive livelihoods, particularly and youth employment (Economics) and will be protective of rather than damaging to biodiversity and ecosystems (Environment). This will feed up to district, region, government, NGO and agency policy and strategy. We would hope, for instance, that UN agencies and NGOs will as a policy no longer purchase fuelwood for feeding centers that consists of key high value sought after indigenous fruit trees. (Policy). Finally, grafting, remote sensing of soil fertility and vegetation, and other technologies will be deployed (Technology). However, Rome was not built in a day, and we intend to start building an improved food system through the entry point of a greater diversity and number of fruit and food trees in landscapes to meet micronutrient needs that are currently largely unmet. This begins with a Systems Focused Approach, something that comes naturally to ICRAF as one of the 'systems' centers in the CGIAR as opposed to a 'crop' centre. We look at the systems from family to field to village to landscape to district. We look at interactions, tradeoffs. At the plot level, agroforestry is all about balancing the use of water, space, and light for an optimal rather than a maximised system. When we look at larger scales, we ask questions such as can more fruit trees also satisfy household cooking needs through pruning? And what is the political economy of charcoal? what incentives can be used to protect riverbanks from losing large trees to satisfy the energy needs of cities? This project has enormous Transformative Potential, something we have tested in the district already, where fruit trees were in the highest demand of the functional classes of trees. Often you have to start with something that is wanted like fruit trees before starting to talk about more abstract concepts like biodiversity. Our work with hosts and refugees has been both "Community Rooted" as well as "Inspirational" from community to the highest level of donors. This blog was ICRAF's most read blog in 2017 - no mean feat on a saturated internet. Our work in Arua led to multiple invitations to speak. Authorities and stakeholders are looking for solutions not just to refugee settings (which are more concentrated faster moving versions of poor rural areas) but also solutions to the multiple problems that occur at the same time in villages (lack of fruit, poor soil, loss of landscape ability to regulate water, long walks for cooking fuel). We seemed to offer that. Taking a step back, this approach to food systems is not a difficult sell and becomes even easier by using the entry point of fruit. We need to stress that greater fruit consumption is a high priority for hosts and refugees in Arua, and that fruit consumption, regardless of type, is associated with significant reductions in undernutrition (nearly 2%). The average consumption of fruits, leafy vegetables, and nuts in sub-Saharan Africa is well below 50% of WHO's recommendations. This is certainly the case for Arua. Our research found that only twenty-six percent of the children that we surveyed achieved their minimum dietary diversity score of four or more food groups in a day out of seven for under two years and out of nine food groups for those aged two years and above. Furthermore, children's caretakers were also deficient. Only 12% consumed at least one fruit the day before the interview such as mango, tamarind or jack fruit, and most did not consume fruits because they could not afford to buy (84%) or fruits were not available during that season (57%). The portfolio approach is biodiversity-enhancing, promoting indigenous and underutilized tree species - perennial foods which have received little attention by researchers in the past, despite their potential for providing food and nutrition security. Indigenous fruit species may be available during ‘lean’ (food insecurity) periods and thus could provide a buffer between harvest seasons of commonly found and often farmer-favoured exotic species. Many indigenous species, in particular, have the potential to provide needed micronutrients. They often contain higher levels of important minerals and vitamins than mainstream exotic fruits. Where trees on farms and/or trees in wider landscapes increase the production and availability of, for example, micronutrient-rich fruits, leafy vegetables and other foods such as nuts, agroforestry can have a significant effect in reducing malnutrition. The ability of these types of food to fill gaps is particularly relevant given their increasing recognition in international frameworks and guidelines; a key justification for their promotion should lie in filling month-on- month nutrient gaps. The promotion of underutilized species in crop diversification is explicitly stated as a recommendation in the Framework of Action of the International Nutrition Conference (ICN2), as is the incorporation of these species into locally-adapted food-based dietary guidelines. This is most pertinent in regions and countries where fruit production and consumption are low, and where a wide range of indigenous species exist and are better adapted to local environments than introduced exotic species. Promoting the cultivation and use of indigenous fruit tree species on farms could also contribute to the adaptation of farming systems to anthropogenic climate shocks. The presence of trees is in itself regenerative, bringing soil carbon through leaf mulch and creating refugia for beneficial insects, birds and other predators on pests. Excitingly and we apologize for leaving this almost to the last to mention, ICRAF has ALREADY developed portfolios for Arua. In May 2018 we conducted a survey to determine the dietary practices of caregivers and children, morbidity prevalence of children, household food security status and coping strategies and nutrition knowledge of caregivers in refugee and host communities. We know the commonly cultivated crops and fruit trees, how often households purchase food from markets. We know that twenty-four percent of the households collected different kinds of wild foods and that these foods were mostly collected in natural habitats e.g. nearby forests, bushlands and river banks. We further know that the commonly collected foods were fruits (by 24% of the households) and vegetables (12%) and that these foods were mostly collected for household consumption. We know that sixty two percent of the households experienced food scarcity within 12 months before the survey, and that January to March were the months that most of the households were food insecure. Thirty eight percent of the respondents experienced food scarcity in their households within 30 days before the survey; 27% lacked food of any kind because of lack of resources to get food, 28% had a household member sleep hungry while 19% had a household member go a whole day and night without eating anything because of inadequate food. The frequency of occurrence of these events was mostly one to two times within the 4 weeks. The intentional mixing of trees and crops on the same land is what is known as agroforestry. Agroforestry systems (AFS) can increase productivity in the short and long term while promoting biodiversity and bringing social, environmental and economic benefits to the farmer and society. This will address many of the challenges described in the previous question. AFS are increasingly relevant today due to their multiple roles and services: biodiversity conservation, adaptation and mitigation of climate change, restoration of degraded ecosystems, and as a tool for rural development. At ICRAF we never describe agroforestry - or in this case an AF intervention such as fruit/food tree portfolios - as a magic bullet. Clearly women in Arua need support to have the number of children they want, children need education, youth need skills training, roads need to be maintained and electricity extended; and much more. But this intervention is nonetheless a critical part of beginning a transformation to a food system that can deliver care of the environment, more economic opportunities, that builds on local foods and culture, that has policy implications and can be scaled to be truly transformative. Kindly take our pitch seriously. We are an immensely innovative, serious and reputable organization. Our food/fruit tree portfolio is radically simple. Most people slap their foreheads once it is explained. It is easy, desired by communities, and promotes much needed dietary diversity. It is based on ecology.

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Attachments (9)

Forest and child nutrition - Science.pdf

Children living closer to forests in over two dozen countries have higher dietary diversity than those living further away.

Diversity of pathways through which forests support nutrition 2019.pdf

Essential reading on forests, trees and nutrition.

Restocking woody biomass in NW Uganda.pdf

A document showing some of the meticulous systems-thinking and research we have done in the 'place' where we want to work - Arua district. This also demonstrates that naturally occur wild fruit as well as exotic fruit tree species.

Copy of ARUA Food Tree Portfolios Finalised.xlsx

Excel sheet of the Arua fruit tree portfolios. This lists many of the important species.


The definitive document for East Africa on how the fruit tree portfolio approach works, with a harvest calendar included

ICRAF Food Trees Project Nutrition Survey Report Arua NW Uganda May 2018.docx

Our research in Arua district with host and refugee communities on their fruit and food consumption, hunger gaps, and more

Rosenstock et al 2019 A Planetary Health Perspective on Agroforestry in SSA.pdf

Our planetary health and agroforestry paper to show that we are thinking full vision and big


This is an attractive infographic on 'Nutritious Food Portfolios for targeting year-round food harvest and nutrient gaps'


The journal article that describes the food tree portfolio thinking. Our key scientific paper.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Rethabile Konopo

Welcome Nutritious Food Portfolios for Year-round Food Harvest and Nutrient Gaps to the Vision! What will the food system look like in 2050?

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi @Cathy Watson welcome to the Food System Vision Prize Community!
It is lovely to see a Vision supporting a healthy diet and diverse ecosystems through fruit farms.

Make sure you have reviewed your final submission through the Pocket Guide to support you through the final hours of wrapping up your submission. This will give you the most important bullet points to keep in mind to successfully submit your Vision.

Here is the link to the pocket guide:

Look forward to seeingyour submission finalised by 31st January, 5:00 pm EST.