NewsA devilishly good tree against hunger

A devilishly good tree against hunger

Created: 10/14/2022 Updated: 10/14/2022, 4:47 p.m

Knochentrockener Boden: Die Prosopis gedeiht auch dort, wo sonst nichts mehr wächst.
Bone-dry soil: The Prosopis also thrives where nothing else grows. © Klaus Peter

In East African Somaliland there is a drought, people and animals are starving. And since the war has been raging in Ukraine, no more wheat has entered the country. An invasive plant is now raising hopes of alleviating the need – but it has pitfalls. A report by Klaus Petrus (text and photos).

Summer used to be rain and the rain became our crops, tomatoes, cucumbers, wheat. But that was a long time ago.” Abdirahman Ahmed strides across a dry field, he brushes the flies off his face, stops, points to a dead sheep in front of his feet, the body a gnawed skeleton. The 35-year-old herdsman lives in the Togdheer region, 150 kilometers east of Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa. There has been a drought in the country for years. Abdirahman Ahmed’s animals stand close together in the shade of the trees, hardly move, pant heavily, lose weight. Three dozen sheep and goats, they’re all the man has left.

Soon he will have to sell them short at the markets in Hargeisa. For generations, members of his clan have been shepherds and farmers in Togdheer, but even the elders say it has never been as bad as it is now. Perhaps Abdirahman Ahmed will have to camp and move to the cities to look for work. He is worried about his three children. Abdirahman Ahmed wants to offer them a happy life, enough food, clothing, a little money for the essentials and sometimes for something they don’t need at all. His wife Saeda often asks him if all this is God’s punishment. Then he just says, “It’s hunger.”

The hunger. As if it were something abstract and not the hunger of those who perish from it. As if he didn’t belong to anyone, a force of nature that breaks in from outside, that is feared, fought and forced into figures: according to UN figures, there were 193 million people in 2021; in 2015 it was 80 million. They are acutely malnourished or chronically malnourished, they lack vitamins, protein, iodine and zinc. Many are small children, and there are also figures for this: for every five starving people there is one child under the age of five, and 2.5 million have died from it. A dead child every 13 seconds.

Abdirahman Ahmed also lost a daughter, that was four years ago. As soon as she was born, little Shukri had diarrhea all the time, she vomited a lot. It went like this for almost two years. “She could hardly swallow, she whimpered day and night, her skinny arms twitched and wriggled, at some point my wife said: There is no more life in her eyes.” A doctor said the child had been fed on one side, which is why it was not growing and could gain strength.

Abdirahman Ahmed mit seiner Familie.
Abdirahman Ahmed with his family. © Klaus Peter

“At that time our fields began to wither, we had hardly any vegetables, no fruit, the goats gave little milk.” He spent half the money on clean drinking water, which was brought to the region in tankers, says Abdirahman Ahmed. “Then, thanks be to the Merciful and Merciful, better times came, I had a job at a charity, made a few dollars a day, and my wife gave birth to another child.” Until a few months ago, food prices in the Skyrocketed, as if from one day to the next, and the money was no longer sufficient. The trucks with water also came less frequently because petrol became more expensive. “People were talking about a war somewhere in Europe that was to blame for everything.”

Throughout the years of drought, Somaliland has had to import a lot of food, including wheat, 90 percent of which comes from Ukraine. But since war broke out there and the port of Odessa has been blocked, hardly any goods have arrived in the Horn of Africa. The war in Ukraine is not the trigger of the current situation, but at best a catalyst.

In fact, even before the Ukraine war broke out in February, Somaliland and Somalia were at the top of the global hunger index; seven million people are acutely affected by hunger, that is almost half of the population in this region. Added to this is the uncertain political situation. Somaliland broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991 after a bloody civil war and the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre, but the international community has not yet recognized it as an independent state.

“Everyone thinks we have conditions like in Mogadishu: dictatorship, endless civil war, Islamist terror. The opposite is the case, we have peace and democracy. But nobody believes us. There are hardly any investors and only a few aid organizations,” says Guuleed Ahmad, snapping his fingers through the air. The 38-year-old Somali country, who spent his youth in Germany, is a “loudmouth with visions”, as he says himself. He wants to save his country from poverty, hunger and misery. And he knows the solution, which sounds complicated but is said to be very simple: Prosopis juliflora.

The World Food Day

828 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat – about one in ten, 193 million people are at risk of acute hunger. In view of these frightening numbers, World Food Day wants to draw attention to their plight. This day was introduced in 1979 and has been observed annually on October 16 ever since. The date commemorates the founding of the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, on October 16, 1945.

According to the UN, the Covid pandemic and its consequences have exacerbated global food insecurity, and climate change and violent conflicts are also making the situation worse. This is particularly drastic for fragile states such as the countries in the Sahel zone or in East Africa. People can no longer till fields, harvests fail. A world without hunger – this is the goal the world community set itself 22 years ago. Achieving it by 2030 is becoming increasingly difficult. osk

The Latin name stands for a tropical mimosa plant, also called mesquite, which originally comes from Mexico. The woody shrub covered with thorns quickly grows into a stately tree of up to twelve meters in height. Because the fast-growing roots dig 30 meters and more underground, it can still reach groundwater even in inhospitable areas and during periods of drought, while other plants have long since withered. So undemanding and drought-resistant, the Prosopis was deliberately planted in other parts of the world, especially in dry areas that make up 40 percent of the earth’s surface. In Somaliland it appeared at the latest during the famine in the Horn of Africa in the mid-1980s.

The new tree, called “Granwaa” by the locals, the unknown, should provide shade, break desert winds, stop desertification and erosion, provide firewood, but above all: feed sheep, goats and camels.

But unlike 40 years ago, Prosopis has now become a burden. Because the animals cannot digest their seeds and excrete them with their faeces, the invasive plant has spread at breakneck speed, overgrowing pastures, sucking up water and crowding out native species. According to the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Prosopis now occupies around 550,000 hectares of land in Somaliland alone; the annual increase in area is between five and 15 percent. The plant appears in the list of the world’s hundred most dangerous invasive species; since 2019 it has been forbidden to import them to Europe or to cultivate them in the EU area.

When Guuleed Ahmad returned to Hargeisa from Germany in 2017, he encountered Prosopis everywhere and asked himself, “What the hell is this plant all about?” At that time there was some research into the use of Prosopis, but hardly anyone putting it into practice. So I grabbed the chance.”

Prosopis juliflora, ein Mimosengewächs, stammt ursprünglich aus Mexiko. Ein Strauch kann zu einem meterhohen Baum werden.
Prosopis juliflora, a mimosa plant, originally comes from Mexico. A shrub can grow into a meter-tall tree. © Klaus Peter

Guuleed Ahmad, who is always one step ahead of his many ideas and projects, sold his car and invested the money in founding the company “LanderProsopis”. From the ripe, yellow pods of the Prosopis, which are rounded into a crescent and are about 20 centimeters long, he produced flour, which he mixed into a protein and sugar-rich animal feed. The demand was soon there. “Somaliland thrives on livestock farming. If our animals have nothing to eat, we die too. Prosopis can save us. As simple as that.”

As evidence, Guuleed Ahmad cites organizations such as Vets Without Borders or Welthungerhilfe, which have been active in Somaliland for years and work closely with cattle herders. Their field studies show that animals fed with Prosopis flour gain weight significantly within a month, and milk production also increases.

Investor Guuleed Ahmad.
Investor Guled Ahmad. © Klaus Petrus

But that is only one side of the story, the other is called: “Geed jinni”, the devilish tree. That’s what Abdirahman Ahmed, the cattle herder and father of a family from Togdheer, calls the Prosopis. “It continues to grow when everything else is dead, and yet it only causes damage.” His animals would get sick from the green, bitter leaves, because of the sugar in the ripe pods, all their teeth would fall out, and the thorns would pierce the tree their hooves or got stuck in their stomachs when they ate from the branches. Many of his sheep and goats have died in agony. But the worst thing is the greed of Prosopis, says Abdirahman Ahmed. “It robs us of all water, supplants every grass and bush.” Many pastoralists, who make up half of the 4.8 million inhabitants of Somaliland, share the opinion that Prosopis is a terrible evil.

Studies from the nearby Afar region of Ethiopia, where Prosopis has infested 1.2 million hectares of land in 35 years, have shown that 84 percent of pastoralists consider the tree harmful. This is not surprising for Nick Pasiecznik, an environmental scientist at the University of Lyon and one of the world’s leading prosopis experts. “Because it is a comparatively new and invasive species, there is a lack of traditional knowledge on how the plant can be used. The distrust is great, it takes time to overcome it.”

In 2016, the “Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa”, PENHA for short, for which Pasiecznik also works, started a pioneering project with the support of the FAO in the Togdheer region, which was intended to sensitize pastoralists to the economic potential of the Prosopis. But good will alone is not enough. To use the Prosopis profitably, you need axes and chainsaws to cut the tough trunks, furnaces to burn the charcoal, hammer mills to grind the pods, and trucks to transport the sacks.

Die scharfen Dornen sind für äsende Tiere gefährlich.
The sharp thorns are dangerous for grazing animals. © Klaus Peter

The processing of Prosopis into flour is repeatedly mentioned as an example of how the targeted use of the plant can not only help animals and people go hungry less, but also that the tree does not spread so quickly. Studies have shown that up to 50,000 seeds can be destroyed with a 25-kilogram bag of prosopis flour; extrapolated to a ton of flour, that’s two million bushes that won’t grow into a thicket.

However, whether the Prosopis can be sustainably regulated through use is controversial. Urs Schaffner from the Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International CABI, based in Switzerland, specializes in invasive species and has conducted studies on Prosopis himself. “There is no well-founded study that shows that the use effectively results in control of the Prosopis.” The spread of the Prosopis can only be reduced if more than 90 percent of the seeds are collected or destroyed across the board, which has been the case so far According to Schaffner, this was never the case.

Die Schoten werden zu Mehl verarbeitet, das protein- und zuckerreich ist.
The pods are processed into flour, which is high in protein and sugar. © Klaus Peter

A basic distinction must be made between the economic concept of utility and the ecological concept of control. In the case of Prosopis, however, utility often conflicts with control. Schaffner cites cutting off the branches as an example. This leads to the rootstocks sprout again and to further encroachment, since in this way fewer thick but more trunks would sprout. “In other words, the use condenses the existing stocks and thus increases the problem.”

For Schaffner, an integrative approach is needed: in addition to prudent use, the Prosopis must be combated with chemical, biological and mechanical methods – the latter includes the removal of the trees including their roots – and reforestation is also of central importance. “One way or the other,” Schaffner is convinced, “you can’t get rid of Prosopis in the Horn of Africa, it spreads too quickly.”

So the question remains: how to meet a hope that has become a plague? The answer to this will also decide whether Prosopis becomes a cure for hunger – or rather remains an evil in the Horn of Africa.

Guuleed Ahmad has no doubt: when he drives through Hargeisa in his white hybrid, he sees millions of dollars lying around everywhere, on the roadside, along the walls, between the houses and in the market, under the bridges and in the courtyards of the restaurants . “We can’t get rid of them, these Prosopis. But we can learn to use them for ourselves.”

Endlich den Durst löschen: Kamele werden an einer der wenigen Wasserstellen getränkt.
Finally quench your thirst: camels are watered at one of the few water points. © Klaus Peter

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