Roger Leakey: "We don't adequately use natural, human and social capital, or really recognise their existence."
For almost 30 years, Roger has dedicated his life’s work to alleviating poverty, hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. He outlines the importance of adopting a holistic approach to development programmes and the potential to transform the lives of the world’s most impoverished communities.
As a child, what was life growing up in Kenya like?
Kenya was a wonderful place to be brought up. My dad was a forester, so we went to all sorts of interesting places and almost inevitably, I developed a great love for wildlife, the countryside, for Africa and its people. That provided a strong foundation for my career. I have worked in most African countries and, indeed, many others in the tropics in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific.
What drove you to work in Agroforestry and Sustainable Development?
I grew up surrounded by biology, agriculture and the lives of African peoples. I didn't want an office job, so I started my career studying practical agriculture, then went on to do a degree in Agricultural Botany, before doing a PhD in the physiology of regeneration in perennial weeds. My first job was to apply horticultural techniques to the domestication of West African timber trees, eventually evolving to a wider set of tropical trees producing numerous food and non-food products. Throughout my career I have set up field projects around the world to implement such initiatives. I gradually became aware that the techniques and strategies we were developing for timber trees were equally applicable to the wide range of trees that have been overlooked by science. They are the ones which provide everyday products required by millions of poor communities in Africa and around the world.
About halfway through my career in 1992, I organised a conference about this in Edinburgh. Soon after, I applied for the job of Director of Research at ICRAF in Nairobi 'on a ticket to domesticate useful Cinderella trees for agroforestry systems.' I got the job, and I was then responsible for hundreds of scientists from a wide range of disciplines working on this in about 20 tropical countries. I was hooked! Then I applied for a job at James Cook University in Australia as Professor of Tropical Biology. This then changed to Agroecology and Sustainable Development, and I set up the Agroforestry and Novel Crops Unit. Just before I retired, I was chosen to be a Coordinating Lead Author for the "International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development" (IAASTD) to assess the sustainability of agriculture worldwide.
Could you tell us what inspired you to start writing your multidisciplinary research papers on Multifunctional Agriculture?
I noticed that many international leaders in Science and Development didn't understand the issues behind failing tropical agriculture and its impact on low crop production, poverty, malnutrition and social injustice - especially the need for a holistic approach rather than the predominant 'silo mentality' of one issue at a time. I was inspired to think about the moralistic approach to resolving these big issues. I see agroforestry as being about how you use trees to create functioning agroecosystems that then provide products, social and environmental services and economic benefits. This can have a huge impact on the lives of subsistence farmers who don't have any money. Emerging from this, we developed the programme in Cameroon.
We started by asking the farmers what they wanted from agriculture - they were surprised as they said most white guys normally tell them what to do and don't ask them what they want. We didn't want to run a standard top-down development programme, but rather work in ways that allowed farmers to develop the necessary skills and techniques to drive the project and benefit from their own initiatives. We started with 10 farmers in two villages in Cameroon and within 10 years it rose to 10,000 farmers in 500 villages.
From your research, could you highlight a few of the ways in which the lives of subsistence farmers in the tropics, particularly in Africa, could be improved?
In a nutshell, they need to have their day-to-day needs for food, income and social justice addressed. Dominant international policy has instead imposed 'foreign' ideas on what they need and should do.
After talking to African farmers, it was clear that they needed to establish appropriate techniques to improve soil fertility and the health of their small holdings. To address this, we developed a generic model, which can be adapted to any part of the tropics. The first step was to improve soil fertility. During colonial times, under the Green Revolution, people were encouraged to cut down their trees and grow monocultural crops. If they could not afford the fertilisers, they had to cut down more forest to access land to feed their families. So, as an alternative, we sought to help farmers restore their soils, without the need for money. The simplest way to do that was with leguminous shrubs and trees, which extract nitrogen from the air and put it back into the soil. This increased fertility then raised maize yields from roughly 1 tonne per hectare up to 3-4 tonnes per hectare.
The next step was to help those farmers living on the brink of the cash economy to generate income. We agreed to help them domesticate their trees using simple, low-cost, low-technology horticultural techniques, by establishing village-level training schools. The farmers could apply these skills to different species best suited to their particular family or community. With the money from the sale of plants and products, they could then purchase inorganic fertilisers and so raise maize yield still further – up towards its potential yield of around 7 tonnes per hectare. Once these farmers start to integrate those sorts of species into their farming system, you diversify the farm ecosystem, the diets of the family and give them a better lifestyle. This programme rapidly became highly successful in Cameroon. If we can get donors, development agencies, politicians and policymakers to see this different way of looking at the developing world, we could indeed have a great impact.
Could you tell us about your global programme to domesticate wild fruit and nut trees in developing countries and its impact on the well-being of people?
Based on the Cameroon experience, ICRAF initiated tree domestication projects in other countries. In order to be as successful as the Cameroon model, it is essential to follow a truly 'bottom-up' approach, driven by the farmers themselves so that they are the beneficiaries of their own work and initiatives. For historical and political reasons, this is not always recognised and understood by those seeking to go down this domestication pathway. Nevertheless, where it is appropriately implemented it is very successful and farmers can start to integrate a wide range of tree species that produce domestically useful, locally marketable and often highly nutritious products, that diversify diets and diversify the rural economy. From this, new cottage industries are emerging in local towns, trade has expanded, and it creates new employment opportunities. All of this is having important and highly beneficial consequences on livelihoods. I think we can say that we now have a highly adaptable, species diverse, generic model that, given the political will, could transform the lives of millions of impoverished people in rural communities around the tropics and sub-tropics.
In your experience how are 'socially modified crops' a gamechanger?
What I have just described is what I now call the 'social modification' of tree crops (SMO’s). It is done by small local communities in a highly decentralised and appropriate way to meet their specific needs. When GMO’s became very fashionable 10-15 years ago, they were sold to people as the answer to all the world's big problems. But if the issues are social and environmental, then tweaking the genetics of potential yield production will not have any real benefit. The problem is not to increase potential yield, but how to cultivate the crops sustainably – in other words it is all about the husbandry needed for higher yields. We generated this term SMO to illustrate a different approach.
Hunger-related issues kill 25,000 people daily and the UN estimates the number of chronically hungry is rising by 4 million per year. Globally, what are the most important steps we need to take to combat this?
The most important thing that has to happen, is to recognise that crop failure, hunger, malnutrition, poverty, social injustice, environmental degradation, climate change, illegal migration, social conflict, and even the emergence of pandemic disease, are all the consequence of a complicated set of intertwined environmental, social and economic factors. They arise from the failure of the international community to address the failures of tropical agriculture to meet the needs of the poorest people, by feeding them with nutritious and culturally acceptable local foods. These foods should be marketed to generate income and allow these communities to climb the ladder out of poverty and social injustice. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals illustrate the 'silo mentality', but we need to bring all of those together into a single issue. The approach that we've been developing in Cameroon has a positive impact on 14 of those 17 goals!
What is your advice to those who want to help fight hunger and poverty issues within their own communities?
This may be the most difficult question to answer, as these communities are not heard by international agencies who could provide the help outlined above. So, others have to advocate change on their behalf. There is now a growing network of organisations starting to do this, but it seems the political will to think differently and with a new mindset is still lacking at the international level. Having said that, there are small charities, like the one that I assist (the International Tree Foundation), which provides 'start-up' funds for community tree nurseries in Africa - currently it supports about 39 such projects.
How does climate change affect the lives of farmers in Africa?
Climate change, as increased prevalence of droughts, floods, famine and environmental disasters, is exacerbating all the negative issues we have addressed. I believe that we have to stop seeing it as a single problem. As I have said, its causes are part of a much bigger and more complex set of factors. The best way to address climate change is to take the pressure off trees, forests and woodlands by resolving the problems of failing agriculture which drives farmers to clear forests for fertile land to support their farming. We can produce much more food from much less land if we start to restore degraded farmland by planting useful food and non-food producing tree crops and by default simultaneously sequester carbon in tree crops, which also restore wildlife habitats.
How has COVID-19 impacted hunger, poverty and social issues in developing countries?
Interestingly, we don't hear too much about how COVID is affecting developing countries in the international press. People's lives in the tropics and particularly in Africa are seriously impacted by the environment. Many of these communities, because they don't have access to money for health services, suffer from all sorts of diseases, particularly because they don't have a nutritious diet. Undoubtedly, we need to take both short-term actions by proving vaccinations and health services; as well as long-term actions to address the agricultural issues already discussed.
Could you tell us about your upcoming projects for 2021? Have you set any specific goals?
After 15 years of retirement, my on-going work seeks to raise the profile of all that we have been talking about and hope that the powers are listening! So, I have several current writing projects in hand.
I'm currently writing two papers for the journal Sustainability, one of them is a review of progress over the third decade of tree domestication. That has been incredible, as I said earlier, we started with 10 farmers in two villages and a conference in Edinburgh in 1992. Looking at the last decade, there have been about 540 research papers relating to nearly 60 tree species from different parts of Africa, published by scientists from over 400 African University departments and research institutes. So, it's both being picked up by African academics and adopted by them and being done in a multidisciplinary way that looks at this holistic approach, which is extremely encouraging. The second paper goes on from there and looks at how we can encourage African governments to adopt all of this more actively. It looks at the importance of “African foods for African people”, through advocacy at the political and policy-making level. We are trying to see if we can encourage them to stand up for approaches appropriate to farmers in Africa rather than accepting pressures for industrial approaches from Europe and America.
Where do you hope to see governments and intergovernmental organisations putting their focus over the next 10 years?
I wish I knew! I hope they respond to the points that I have been raising above and in my writing. Some of these research papers and books get through to the people that are in positions of power. There has definitely been a shift over the last 15/20 years - The African Union has signed several agreements between African countries, for example one promotes the restoration of 100 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. That is a huge step. Things are changing but we need it to happen quicker.
Are you optimistic about the planet's future?
I believe that we do now know how to turn around our current failures to address the needs of the planet, its natural resources, its people, and its wildlife. Slowly, slowly, I now see positive steps in the right direction. So I have to be optimistic. But the depressing part is how slow it is to get people in positions of power to understand it. That is partly due to education and the popular view of agriculture as needing to have the intensive model in which trees are cut down to make way for monocultures. So, there is resistance and I guess the change will eventually come with the next generation where there is more interest and understanding of the environment.
If you were Bill Gates or Elon Musk, how would you improve the biosphere?
I think all celebrities have a responsibility to use their influence on the media, and on the public, to advocate for change along the lines of our discussion. It seems odd, but they are listened to while others, perhaps more knowledgeable about the detail, are not.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
One point would be to do with capital. There are five forms of capital that we recognise: financial, human, natural, physical and social. Most of the world is interested in financial and to a lesser extent physical/manufactured. We don't adequately use natural, human and social capital, or really recognise their existence. The more holistic approach I have outlined tries to bring all of the five forms of capital together to see how we can develop better forms of land use in a way I have called 'land maxing'. It seeks to sustainably maximise the benefits – “profits”, if you like - from those five forms of capital. This is an important point to get across to people - instead of exploiting natural and social capital, we need to make them work for the planet and its people.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Roger Leakey, Vice Chairman at International Tree Foundation