Stephen Tumhaire rakes through the knee-high grass to get rid of fallen tree branches that might stop the grass from growing in his field. Sweat shines on his face, and he repeatedly wipes it with his palm.
In 1972, Mr. Tumhaire’s grandfather moved from western Uganda to the central Nakasongola district, an area made up of small farms created when farmers divided land among their children.
Mr. Tumhaire lives in Chamkama village in Uganda’s cattle corridor, 140 kilometres north of the capital, Kampala. As rural-urban migration increased in the area, demand for charcoal grew. This accelerated a vicious cycle of deforestation that began with clearing land for farming. Mr. Tumhaire says that charcoal burning became so lucrative in the mid-90s that some young men dropped out of school to focus on making the fuel.
He adds, “This place was good before charcoal burning took centre stage. There were very many trees; there was much grass and cows, [and] hence abundant milk.”
Now, farmers like Mr. Tumhaire are reviving trees through a scheme known as farmer-managed natural regeneration, or FMNR. Farmers prune and protect existing trees, and encourage new growth through felled tree stumps, sprouting root systems, and seeds.
The re-grown trees and shrubs improve the soil, prevent erosion and water loss, and increase biodiversity. For farmers, this translates into increased crop yields, more timber for firewood, and better incomes.
Mr. Tumhaire received training through an East African project. He recalls: “After the training, I pruned the trees and cleared shrubs on my land, and soon grass started growing. Pasture was usually a problem during dry seasons here, but through FMNR [farmer-managed natural regeneration], my cows have enough grass, and I have managed to sell a surplus of 39 bags of grass worth 331,000 [Ugandan] shillings [$91 US].”
He adds, “Milk production from my cows increased gradually … I sell seven litres per day, which fetches 9,100 shillings per litre, while the rest is consumed by my children.”
Tony Rinaudo is a natural resource expert and an FMNR pioneer in Niger. Mr. Rinaudo says the approach is cheap, based on community knowledge, and promotes the regeneration of indigenous vegetation.
He adds: “Between 25-30% of the world’s agricultural soil has been degraded. The very natural resource relied on for food supply is washing away. Hence the need for trees back in the landscape in order to maintain soil fertility and stop it from eroding.”
In East Africa, trees can be a valuable resource to restore a soil’s fertility and nutrients. Mr. Rinaudo says that many trees are nitrogen-fixing, meaning that they take nitrogen from the atmosphere and add it to the soil. He says that all trees drop leaves, which adds carbon and other nutrients to the soil.
In Kenya, thousands of hectares of farmland have become so degraded that they no longer produce adequate or regular crops or livestock pastures.
Jackson Mwangi stands between two acacia trees in his field of short grass and scattered bushes in Kenya’s Nakuru County. The 46-year-old recalls how drought ravaged livestock herds in 2000 in this often-arid land 130 kilometres north of the capital, Nairobi. Today, he also practises FMNR.
Mr. Mwangi says, “Human activities led to desertification here. I can’t believe that the piece of land that used to give me eight bags of maize three years ago is now producing up to 25 bags.”
For Tony Rinaudo, the benefits of farmer-managed natural regeneration go beyond the tangible. He says: “Apart from FMNR’s contribution in increasing milk production and doubling crop yields, its biggest transformation is restoring hope to vulnerable communities in East Africa.” Because FMNR increases grass production, the land can support more cows, each of which produces more milk than before. It’s a virtuous circle—and a big benefit for the farmer.
Like Mr. Tumhaire, Florence Namembwa also farms in Chamkama. For her, FMNR means that wood is easier to find for cooking and boiling water. And that has given her the gift of time.
She says: “I now have enough time for other economic activities, such as working in the vegetable garden and attending our women’s savings group. My children can now concentrate on doing their homework since they don’t have to look for firewood anymore.”
To read the full article on which this story is based, East African farmers rewarded for letting grass grow under their feet, go to: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/mar/18/east-african-farmers-rewarded-for-letting-grass-grow-under-their-feet 
Photo: Stephen Tumhaire and Florence Namembwa, both beneficiaries of the farmer managed natural regeneration scheme, attend to regenerating trees in their Chamkama village, Uganda. Credit: Robert Kibet