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Trees for the Future - Kaffrine, Senegal: Forest Gardens as the Foundation of Quality Food Systems.

Forest gardens are the nucleus of a sustainable global food system that nourishes a healthy and productive consumer economy.

Photo of John Leary
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Trees for the Future (TREES)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Trees for the Future is not a multi-stakeholder entity however, we would like to clarify our Small NGO status above. Trees for the Future has 18 employees in our headquarters in Silver Spring, MD, USA. However, we are a registered NGO in Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda and we do have local field staff who work for Trees for the Future in those countries which total an additional 100 staff. Our revenues for all of this work and staffing total $5M in 2019.

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?

Silver Spring

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States

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

Kaffrine, a region in Senegal covering an area of 11,102 km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The department of Kaffrine, Senegal was John Leary’s (TREES' executive director) home while he served in the US Peace Corps in 2001-2003. John was an Agroforestry Extension Agent there, undertaking the challenge of growing trees and gardens on severely degraded and desertified lands. After the Peace Corps, John brought his vision to create a sustainable food system in Kaffrine to TREES. Most of the HQ-level staff at TREES has spent time working and living abroad and seen firsthand the decimating effects of food insecurity and poverty on individuals and communities and Kaffrine is especially vulnerable due to the colonial legacy of monocrop peanut farming. Since 2003, TREES has committed to long-term work in Kaffrine. We now have a Kaffrine team of 29 field staff supported by 18 HQ staff at our headquarters. Kaffrine lies in the central peanut basin of Senegal, which borders the Sahel. As the lands continue to desertify, TREES helps farmers plant Forest Gardens to counter the negative effects of a changing climate and a changing food system. TREES farmers are at the nexus of hunger, poverty and environmental degradation and have historically been losing the battle against all three. TREES works with the Forest Garden Approach (FGA) that takes farmers on a journey through agroforestry training over a 4-year period. Smallholder farmers employ agroforestry techniques on their plots of ½ - 2 hectares of land. TREES trains smallholder farmers on how to revitalize soils, cope in a changing climate, enhance on-farm biodiversity, grow what they can eat, sell, and trade to contribute to their local food systems and economies. Currently, there are 10 FGA projects in Kaffrine. TREES has planted 11,812,000 trees and helped nearly 37,000 people out of an estimated population of 566,992 and restored over 1,028 acres of desertified lands into Forest Gardens. Our goal for Kaffrine is to plant an additional 7,761,970 trees and restoring 1,970 acres by 2025.

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.

Senegal is one of the largest international hubs and economic centers in West Africa but much of its population lives in rural farming communities on less than $1/day. Income inequality is high and much of the country’s wealth is aggregated in urban areas and nearly half of all Senegalese live below the poverty line. Senegal is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 162 out of 187 on the Human Development Index. According to data from the UN World Food Program 2012, Senegal is chronically vulnerable to natural disasters (particularly drought and flooding). Its agricultural sector has declined in productivity over time. Strikingly, the country imports about 46% of its food requirements and it is vulnerable to food price fluctuations and spikes. Nearly 34% of people rely on agriculture and 11% lack food security in Senegal. In Kaffrine, that number increases with 90% relying on monocrop agriculture. The top three crops farmed are peanuts, millet and maize, respectively. Only surpluses get sold at local markets. People in the region have diets that lack diversity, and diabetes and high blood pressure are becoming increasingly common as simple sugars and carbohydrates dominate diets. Senegalese food is known in the world as a delicious and healthy diet (there is a regional debate as to the origination of “joloff rice”, or spicy fish and rice, and the Senegalese maintain that they cooked it first and still the best!). Traditionally, Senegalese food is rich in flavors and the national dish is fish and rice, a spicy dish rich in vegetables and cooked in a big pot that feeds families and extended families of 20+ people for lunch. People traditionally consume a millet porridge for dinner, which is rich in fiber and vitamins. However, these traditional foods and ways of eating are disappearing as hunger dominates, incomes are unstable due to traditionally low yields, and processed foods and sugary drinks saturate the markets. The FGA aims to change this by growing healthy food, rich in vitamins, that is the backbone of this food heritage. Kaffrine is a semi-arid department capital that sits on the national roadway at the heart of the Peanut Basin in central Senegal. The region has mostly Wolof people, but also Pulaar, Serrere, and Bambara ethnic groups, and Wolof is the lingua franca. Senegal is known for its hospitality and peacefulness, especially religious and ethnic tolerance among people. It is a region lacking in electricity, jobs, and natural resources. The area receives 500-800 mm of annual rainfall almost exclusively during the rainy season from June-October. Temperatures can range from daytime highs of 75°F in the cool-dry season (October-March) to 110°F in the hot-dry season (March-June). The majority of soils in the area are composed of clay or sand with certain areas comprised of loamy substrate. Agriculture in this semi-arid environment is very susceptible to the effects of climate change.

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.

TREES’ history in Kaffrine drives our passion and challenges us to solve the question of how we create sustainable food systems, empower communities while revitalizing the environment? Kaffrine is a microcosm of the world, embodying the challenges faced by over 3 billion rural people in developing countries who live on 475 million smallholder farms. As environments around the world degrade due to monocropping and industrial agriculture, chemical fertilizer usage, and deforestation; smallholder farmers are unable to provide themselves with the foods they need to maintain not only their heritage diets, but healthy and nourishing diets. This depletes the ability to trade and follow supply & demand economics due to the scarcity of basic needs to provide a holistic meal. It further depletes the labor force struggling with productivity while malnourished, hungry, and tired. These economic implications affect cultural norms, which traditionally center around an extended family convening around hearty meals to cultural norms of expecting the younger generations to migrate to cities to find work and send money home. Technology, access to information and tools for increased opportunities, productivity, and solutions are limited and there are few policies that incentivize land revitalization, sourcing locally for food, incubating entrepreneurialism, and creative financing for accelerating sustainable agricultural solutions. Further, where technology permeates, for example in consumer labeling of products, CRISPR, or recyclable packaging, are albeit well intended but lacking relevance for many illiterate smallholder farmers and does not revitalize the lands, which are often the only resources available to the millions of smallholder farmers across the globe. Also, systemic challenges lie in the unknown. Once farming communities in Kaffrine can locally produce food sufficient for consumption and sale in markets through environmentally sustainable methods, there does not mean they have a direct pathway to increased wealth that boosts local economic activity. Challenges include ensuring families and villages are creating circular economies based on local supply and demand while limiting multinational food and beverage companies’ penetration into these communities with processed foods and sugary drinks that lead to health issues like diabetes and heart disease. Finally, another challenge is integrating relevant technologies into these communities - from mobile money to building access to internet, and information and education that provides communities coming out of poverty opportunities to invest in themselves through knowledge and capacity building, education, institutional financing, and ideas that are locally appropriate for development, and that consider local climatic and market conditions.

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

TREES’ vision addresses the challenges of food insecurity and food system change with the Forest Garden Approach (FGA) at the nucleus. The FGA is a centuries-old, indigenous, locally-appropriate, multi-layered agroforestry system combining diverse varieties of crops and trees to provide farming families with sustainable sources of food, livestock fodder, fuel, and forest products to consume and sell at local, regional, and global markets. TREES' FGAs are implemented over a 4-year period in rural farming communities predominantly along established trade routes, in order to take advantage of relatively easy market access. At the onset of each Forest Garden Project, TREES staff members, who are local and deeply familiar with the communities, cultural norms, and diets and its challenges, work directly with farmers to design specially-tailored Forest Garden systems that meet the distinct needs of the family, community, and agro-climatic conditions. Crop and tree varieties are selected by farmers, and TREES' technicians train farmers to design Forest Gardens that maximize yields while also improving the overall quality of the land being farmed. Instead of imposing a program on unwilling or uninformed participants, the FGA supports the entrepreneurial spirit of the people with whom we work, allowing them to choose what they want to grow and empowering them to be active participants in the development of agricultural and food systems that will protect their natural resources, increase their land’s productivity, and provide them with sustainable and consistent food sources and income from year to year. The Forest Garden Approach addresses four important areas to lift farmers and communities out of poverty and provide food security: 1) Educating Kaffrine community members in new agricultural production methods that are proven to increase incomes, healthy food production, and sustainable land management; 2) Strengthening the community by decreasing food insecurity, and providing community members with practical agricultural skills and income opportunities which also allow young people to stay in their villages; 3) Improving the environment of the Kaffrine region by planting 1,250,000 more trees and shrubs on deforested land, and establishing sustainable, resource-efficient farming processes; and 4) Promoting healthier communities through increasing regular access to diverse and nutritious foods. Furthermore, the FGA assists farming communities with success on how to invest in their own futures and economies. As Kaffrine sees hunger and poverty eliminated, they are organizing in culturally appropriate ways to build institutions that allow them to generate wealth, infrastructure, technology access, education. Many of the women farmers are creating financing structures and community policies, including the organization and incorporation of Village Savings and Loans Associations that help the villages invest in their own livelihoods and future.

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.

TREES' vision sees a world where every farmer has a Forest Garden on their land as a reliable source of nutrition and income. This reality creates an environmentally-friendly and sustainable food system which ensures healthy diets and nutrition while allowing smallholder farmers to prosper. We are on a mission to provide smallholder farmers with pathways out of poverty and hunger by planting trees in Forest Gardens around the world. Our vision sees the Forest Garden as the foundation, the nucleus of a revolutionized food system that nourishes the health and productivity of a consumer economy. With healthy communities, leaders will create policies to enhance community building, incentivize entrepreneurship, technology, and innovation instead of development aid and preventing starvation, illness and war. In TREES’ short documentary, a young Senegalese farmer, Omar Ndao, declares, “Our way of farming is killing us...” Throughout the world, rural youth are sharing the struggles they face in growing crops on degraded land and the resulting poverty and lack of opportunities that lead many to emigrate. Omar grew up in a family of peanut farmers, whose hard work yielded $200 once a year. In the lean time, his family, like millions of other rural farming families, suffered from hunger. Desperate for opportunities, Omar considered joining thousands of others, making their way north to Europe. But then he began an experiment in transforming his peanut farm into a Forest Garden. Today, Omar makes $3,000 per year with his forest garden and finds enormous fulfillment helping others do the same. Through the FGA, people can take control of their land and future and build thriving communities in areas where communities are dying from lack of food and economic opportunity. This has profound effects on the local economies and food systems in Kaffrine and beyond. By 2025, TREES' FGA will bring 1 million people out of hunger and poverty by establishing 125,000 Forest Gardens.

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

By 2050 we envision healthy food and communities, unity, human rights, truth, protection of our Earth and respect for soil, water and all creatures.  No chemicals, no deforestation, no need for the world’s poorest people to send 60% of their profits to chemical and seed suppliers and pest control providers. No burning, no clearing, no wiping out of forests and biodiversity to feed ourselves. No advancing desertification. Less risk and better food and a lot more of it!  John Leary, TREES’ executive director writes in his book, One Shot: Trees as Our Last Chance for Survival, published in 2017. Inside Leary dedicates the book to the year 2117 with the aspiration, “Hopefully by then we’ve straightened all of this out.”  But why not sooner?

So, in 2050, TREES' Forest Gardens are the centerpiece of every community, with all individuals - from farming traditions or just individuals with land - contributing to feeding our population without destroying our environment in a closed loop system that sustains the health and wellness of their fellow community members. Individuals source what they need, for consumption from their own or neighborhood forest gardens and then aggregate the surplus for local markets. Various community members are brokers or serve as other actors in the food chain by providing transport or negotiating trade between communities to engage in supply/demand economics and creating a diverse marketplace of locally sourced food. Communities use technology to identify where gaps in food supply are being grown and inform various other communities on how they can help each fill those gaps. Food purveyors, restaurants, grocery stores focus on selling, on-demand items or dishes made by seasonal ingredients, and curating their demand and sourcing it through a supply inventory through technology applications that can adequately identify sources of food and organize on-demand transport to meet community needs. Local Chambers of Commerce or Village Savings and Loans Associations become network and community connectors - creating a hub-spoke community knowledge center to help identify and resolve local food needs and help create regenerative agriculture certifications and certify communities of farmers. They work with policymakers to ensure the pool of community investments are used to enhance the development and infrastructure needed for the food needs of their community as well as address gaps in needs that the community might have. Communities also use technology to manage waste and compost at scale developing industrial compost stations in lieu of current day waste management stations. Policies are created to incentivize the use of local compost created at these compost stations as fertilizer to sustain for every individuals' forest gardens. Policies are also created to always invest locally, in heritage foods, in dietary diversity and nutrient-rich foods and in the closed loop economy. Policies are created to invest in women and men, equally, as actors in the food chain and policies that determine how to prioritize needs that might be sourced elsewhere. Communities also come together to look at financial surplus and create their own financial institution that is co-authored by the community members and guaranteed by commercial banks that generate profit from transactions made with sustainable businesses and consumer products that benefit the health and wellness of the citizenry. Community leaders also come together to plan culturally relevant succession planning for land to be passed down and the leaders maintain Forest Gardens through generational change.  TREES' Forest Gardens are the beginning to creating a food economy that does not conform to traditional, "business as usual" capitalist economy. It is the beginning of creating a food economy that does not reward profit centered food products grown through industrial agriculture and benefiting multinational businesses but rewards local systems that invest in supply and demand economics, using technology to enhance on-demand local market needs and sourcing the logistics and supply chain required to meet those needs, locally. It does not reward middlemen who are part of the business of food. This food economy supports a food system that has the health, wellness, cultural needs of communities as the most important driver of all community action. As the health and wellness of the people allow for innovation, economic productivity, technological enhancements and policy creation needed to foster positive futures not futures that are gripped with alternative goals of profits, shareholder wealth and market domination and penetration. This is a food system with no CRISPR and keeps GMOs and chemical fertilizers out of production. The localization of the food system decreases and eliminates the needs for plastics and lowers emissions due to lesser degrees of transport required for food.  It is a food system that preserves cultures and stops seeing farming as a business but sees farming as quality food provision. Our vision gives full autonomy and power to the people living in their communities to provide for and create the market economy that benefits them and the environment allowing individuals to enhance the cultural norms and priorities of their communities instead of building cultural norms based on a deficit-based/needs orientation, for example emigration for work due to land degradation and soil infertility. The success TREES has had in Senegal, to date, unequivocally demonstrates how different and improved people's lives are. Severe food insecurity in program areas has dropped from 64.45% to 7.69% in three years. Household dietary diversity has increased from 18.16% to 71.79% in three years. Mohamed Traore, TREES’ West Africa Regional Director, states, “I have worked in rural development for 20 years, but the example of the Forest Garden in Senegal is my greatest pride of development, taking into account dimensions of food, economy, culture and the environment.” In the Summer of 2018, we spoke with a woman who spent her first 16 years of life eating nothing but millet. Since she started planting her Forest Garden, she is able to feed her family a diverse diet and see that her children are no longer hungry and nutrient-deficient. This is a big win for her family, and for others like her in the TREES' Forest Garden program. Empowering people to grow vegetables and consume healthy, diverse diets has positive generational impacts, especially for childhood development and long-term health of the population. Eating well and making heritage meals have not been forgotten, but people currently lack the resources to make it a reality. The FGA changes this. A story that encapsulates this dramatic positive change is the one of Bassirou, Khodia, and their son Modou. They live in Kaffrine, Senegal and participate in the FGA. In August 2018, the TREES survey team visited the field Bassirou had set aside for his Forest Garden, barren land previously used to grow peanuts and corn. Shortly after the first picture was taken, the family began to work diligently to protect and stabilize the precious soil of their Forest Garden by establishing a living fence along the existing ‘dead’ perimeter and planting trees throughout the field. When the survey team arrived 10 months later they found, “Walking through the gate was like entering a completely different world,” said Andrew Zacharias, TREES' Deputy Director of Monitoring & Evaluation. “Life was everywhere: trees planted in rows around and throughout the field, vegetables freshly watered, and birds singing as they flew from branch to branch.” The family now regularly eats nutritious and diverse home-grown meals, and are earning a steady income at the market. They are hopeful for the future and are confident they can handle life’s challenges. We measure these year-on-year changes through annual surveys with farmers, so we can understand the impact on their livelihoods, diets, and environments. This change is happening in individual families, but the families form a network of empowered farmers across a landscape.  Further, Forest Gardens are easier to maintain than traditional farms, because they mimic natural systems and because of dense vertical planting.  If TREES’ and trees can reverse the systematic deterioration of lands in Senegal due to the peanut based food system introduced by the French, trees can do it anywhere. Trees fertilize, they feed the animals, they regenerate the land to feed people. How will life be different? People will be self-sufficient, having food security and improved nutrition. Farmers will be able to earn money selling their excess produce and products, ensuring their financial stability and future. CSAs populate the food systems everywhere. In turn, children will be freed from farm work to attend school, increasing literacy. Women will be freed from spending hours searching for fuel wood, increasing their ability to assist in their families’ financial growth and security. Communities will grow and thrive as young people remain in their communities opportunities at home. Cultural traditions and the social fabric will remain strong, solidifying the future of these communities. This is how TREES and its FGA program have and will continue to improve people's lives, one farmer and one community at a time, resulting in a landscape-level change that will transform the environment and regional food system.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event


Join the conversation:

Photo of Mat Jones

Hi Jennifer, Thank you, I enjoyed reading your submission. Do you know to what extent FGA would be applicable in low and medium density urban areas in West Africa?

Photo of John Leary

Hi Mat,
Thanks for reading and replying and apologies for the delay in following up. We have created Forest Gardens through the FGA approach in plot sizes as small as a 1/2 acre in Kiambu County, Kenya in Ikinu and they have been extremely successful. Trees for the Future believes that the FGA is applicable across all landscapes though the species and varieties of trees and crops may vary due to climate, levels of land degradation, desired foods for consumption and desired marketable goods, and foods needed for dietary diversity will vary. As we have projects in Kaffrine, Koungheul and are expanding into Fatick in Senegal and we work in Western Cameroon - Mt. Bamboutos, Nlonako, and the Western High Plateau areas - we do see farmers in low density urbanizing areas as we look for areas that have access to trade corridors and markets accessible to smallholder farmers.
Thank you and don't hesitate to reach out if you have other questions!