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Turning a prickly tree into a money making commodity

Prosopis has spread rapidly over the decades (© William Surman)
Prosopis has spread rapidly over the decades
© William Surman

The Afar region of Ethiopia is one of the most arid and inhospitable places on earth. With low rainfall and increasingly frequent droughts, few plants are able to survive. One such survivor is Prosopis; a thorny tree which was introduced into Ethiopia in the 1970s to stabilise the soil but has spread rapidly over the decades, eating up over 1.2 million hectares of the region's most essential resource - grazing land.

Although livestock find Prosopis pods hard to digest, they are partial to eating them straight from the branch, making livestock the main propagators of the tree. The further pastoralists go in search of new grazing land, the further Prosopis spreads as the seed works its way through the animals' digestive systems and onto the ground, ready fertilised.

Until recently the indigenous pastoralist communities, who are entirely reliant on grazing land to feed their livestock, would curse the prickly tree for pushing them to the edge of their already fragile livelihoods. But the government and NGOs have not only helped communities to clear large areas of Prosopis, they have also found ways to manage the trees and turn them into a new form of livelihood.

Liability into benefit

The demand for cattle feed is very high (© William Surman)
The demand for cattle feed is very high
© William Surman

In 2008, Farm Africa introduced a pilot scheme, as part of its Afar Prosopis Management Project, to collect pods, crush the seeds and sell the final product as an easy to digest, high protein animal feed. The NGO helped pastoralists to set up the Sedhafagae Cooperative and provided a crushing mill. Pods were purchased by the Cooperative for 0.50 Birr per kg and sold for 2.50 Birr/kg (US$0.15) after they had been crushed and turned into animal feed. In one year, the Cooperative sold over 10,000kg of animal feed and made a profit of 17,000 Bir (US$900).

The scheme has been so successful that other cooperatives have now been established in nearby villages to supply the Sedhafagae Mill. "The demand for cattle feed is very high, which means this could become a very lucrative business in Afar," says George Mukkath, Farm Africa's Director of Programmes.

In some areas, pastoralists have found it necessary to reclaim large tracts of land that have been lost to Prosopis: they cleared over 500 hectares of dense bush between 2008 and 2011 to make way for crops and grazing land. Others have trimmed branches to sell as firewood or to fashion into handles for tools and furniture. "I used to see Prosopis land and think it could not be productive," explains Hassan Seid, whose Serkamo community received a grant from Farm Africa to buy hand tools to clear 80 hectares. They also received training in rangeland and crop management, and have since adopted a more sedentary lifestyle, known as agro-pastoralism.

The next five years

The government and NGOs have helped communities to clear large areas of Prosopis (© William Surman)
The government and NGOs have helped communities to clear large areas of Prosopis
© William Surman

"Traditional pastoralism cannot survive when you look at what we are achieving," Hassan adds. "We are growing rice, sesame, maize, cotton and onions and can now afford to send our children to school." Access to a water source, however, is essential, and so the government and NGOs are digging storage reservoirs, installing water pumps and helping pastoralists to add an element of cropping to their livelihood. But there are still many without a reliable source of water.

Over the next five years, with funding from the Norwegian Development Fund, Farm Africa hopes to help an additional 20 Afar villages - 63,000 pastoralists - through its Prosopis Management Project to turn Prosopis into a new form of livelihood. The NGO is also working in partnership with the Afar Regional Government to develop a model of good practice that will be shared with other local governments and NGOs to help more pastoralists to simultaneously manage Prosopis and diversify their livelihoods."The government is vital to the success of the project," Mukkath emphasises.

As Ethiopia's new generation of university students discovers further uses for the seed, the future of Prosopis looks bright. One exciting development is the production of ethanol from Prosopis (9kg of crushed pods makes 1 litre of ethanol) which would provide communities with a sustainable source of fuel. "As you can tell," Mukkath enthuses, "it's not just a thorny bush."

Written by: William Surman

Date published: July 2012


Have your say

Happy to see in Afar region use of Prosopis pods as livesto... (posted by: Dr LNHarsh)

The Prpgramme is Successful because it is Farmer/Owner Initi... (posted by: Patrick M Makungu)

The article does not mention that Prosopis is a legume tree ... (posted by: Eduardo Schroder)

Great initiative! We also have a Prosopis problem in South A... (posted by: Prof Schalk Louw)


The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

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