Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network
Badal Ahmed Hassan

The Importance of Tree Resources in Rural Livelihoods in the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa is mainly a dryland ecosystem where rainfall is scarce and erratic and which is prone to drought. As the drylands offer little opportunity for crop farming, pastoralism is the common mode of land production system in the Horn. Moreover, the region is rich in plant resources that play a vital role in the livelihoods of the pastoral communities.

People use tree resources for almost everything including food, energy, medicine, fodder, construction, furniture, baskets, mats, dyes, agricultural implements and utensils. These resources provide not only products, but also ecological services which are relevant to the livelihoods of the people, i.e. soil protection, soil fertility, water regulation, micro-climate and carbon sequestration mitigating global warming.

Hence, livestock and tree resources constitute the livelihood basis of the marginalized pastoral communities in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, tree commodities contribute not only to the household level, but also to the national economy by providing employment and import substitution for foreign exchange.

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Contribution of tree resources to rural livelihoods

The pastoralists as well as the settled (poor) households harvest, process, transport and sell both wood and Non-Wood Forest Products (tree commodities which are not necessarily wood) locally, because those activities are well suited to their capacities. The resources are often freely available as common property in the fragile environments where many poor people live.

Tens of millions of rural households in the Horn of Africa rely heavily on forest products for subsistence and to supplement their cash income. Particularly the vulnerable households, often led by women and children, generally depend on tree resources during crises and when food is scarce.

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Pastoralist mobile house.

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Somalian women holding up dhiil.

The households derive sustenance from forests mainly through harvesting and use of Non-Wood Forest Products, i.e. fruits, honey, bush meat, gums and resin, medicinal plants etc. This diversifies the economy and potentially minimizes the risks associated with the frequent crop and fodder failures due to recurring droughts.

There are various tree resources which produce nutritionally important wild fruits for the local people, particularly during the drought seasons. They include, for example, Cordeauxia edulis (Syn.Yi’ib shrubs), Dobera glabra, Ziziphus mauritiana, Cordia sinesis and different Grewia species.

These commodities are harvested in different seasons. On one hand, for example, the fruits of Cordia sinesis and some Grewia species are gathered during the rainy season mainly by the children. On the other hand Yi’ib nuts, Dobera glabra and Ziziphus mauritiana fruits are gathered by women during the dry season. Women travel long distances to harvest, known as arah in Somali. These fruits are not only for household consumption but they are also sold for cash income, i.e. the Yi’ib nuts, Ziziphus mauritiana and Grewia tenax fruits.

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Boswellia frereana.

Cash commodities

It is not only fruits which the rural communities harvest, but there are also other commodities for cash. Such cash commodities include frankincense from Boswellia species and myrrh from Commiphora species which play a vital role in the household economy. For instance, collection of frankincense and myrrh contributes US$ 80.00 per household per year in the Liban region in Ogaden (eastern Ethiopia) which is equivalent to one third of the pastoral household’s annual subsistence.

Similarly, in Wajir district, north-eastern Kenya, myrrh collection contributes US$ 380 per household annually. In the north-eastern Somalia frankincense from Boswellia Frereana and Boswellia sacra are important export commodities for foreign exchange and a source of employment for many women-headed poor households.


Approximately 90 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa including the Horn of Africa relies on firewood and charcoal as sources of energy. Firewood and charcoal also provide employment and income generation. In the mid-1980s the charcoal industry was employing some 40.000 part-time charcoal makers in Nairobi alone; today the figure probably is much higher.

In Addis Ababa the firewood industry employs over 10.000 women and children who supply one-third of the wood-based energy consumption in Addis Ababa. A similar situation may be found in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, i.e. in Zambia where the charcoal production employs 41.000 people, mainly women.

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Women selling charcoal.

Resources degradation and environmental changes

For the past two decades significant environmental and land-use changes have taken place in the Horn of Africa. Deforestation (land conversions for; crop production, grazing land, energy), overgrazing and droughts are the major driving forces for the land-use and the environmental changes in the Horn of Africa, due to poverty, conflicts and economic difficulties.

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Table 1. Major causes for resource decline in north-eastern Kenya (Hassan 2008)


As part of the pastoralists’ economic strategies they keep large numbers of livestock and make excessive use of the limited fodder resources in the silvopastoral areas, which are communal resources, freely available for everyone. Livestock and other wildlife are mostly browsers; they damage the barks of woody perennial trees leading to outbreak. Land tenure arrangements are a disincentive to conservation, i.e. fencing off some areas is not acceptable at the individual level. In Wajir district, north-eastern Kenya the situation is worse due to overgrazing which continues to adversely affect the quality of the pastures. The situation in that part of the region is exacerbated by the influx of livestock from the neighboring districts as well as from the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Somalia. This influx continues to exert increased pressure on an already fragile ecosystem.

Drought and Deforestation

It is not only human-induced environmental changes, but also nature-induced environmental changes that take place in the region. With its low adaptive capacity, the region is one of the most vulnerable to climate change and climate variability, a situation aggravated by the interaction of ‘multiple stresses’, occurring at various levels. Thus, as common in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, major livelihoods of the people in the Horn of Africa are vulnerable to current climate sensitivity, with huge economic impacts. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the existing developmental challenges such as endemic poverty; developmental and political segregation; limited access to capital, including markets, infrastructure and technology; ecosystem degradation; complex disasters and conflicts.

Droughts endanger the livelihoods of the pastoral communities that lose approximately 40 percent of their cattle and 30 percent of their sheep in each drought event. The effects of the drought are not only limited to the loss of livestock, but comprise also food deficiencies, food quality, high rate of land degradation, loss of life and a drastic reduction of the water resources.As rain-fed agriculture in the drylands is exposed to the vicissitudes of an irregular rainfall pattern or frequent drought, it leads to uncertainty and a decrease in the relative production which further affects the livelihoods of many poor and marginalised farmers.

Another problem in the Horn of Africa is deforestation which occurs in two forms: land conversion for other uses, mainly crop production/building up (urbanization), and cutting of woody plants in search of extra incomes or household consumption, i.e. for energy, construction, fences etc. Moreover, as a new invention the herders fence up woodlands under free-hold tenure system for commercial purposes, i.e. fodder production, resulting in vegetation fragmentations, conflicts and a shortage of pasture land. Such a development can be considered as a reduction of the carrying capacity of the rangelands.

Conclusion and recommendation

The present situation in the drylands of the Horn of Africa is a complex one. The dilemma facing the population of these countries is a result of a combination of factors that have their roots in the economy, social organization, policy and ecology. The region is endowed with natural capital, especially livestock, land, and potential tree resources which can sustain the livelihoods and economy of the people in the region. However, mounting pressure on the region’s natural resources has resulted in a large-scale degradation of its environment and ecosystem, calling for immediate attention for seeking newer approaches in the farming system to meet the basic needs of its present and future generations.

Such environmental changes will adversely affect the livelihoods of the pastoral/rural communities in the Horn of Africa. At worst the end result may be massive crowds of environmental refugees and a tremendous decline in the biological productivity of the ecosystem. Therefore, to improve the livelihood, the economic condition and the environmental sustainability of the region, improved agroforestry system − combination of crops, multipurpose trees and pasture − is an apt option. This system has potential to stabilize the production of food, forage, firewood, and timber, and to protect the environment. The failure to develop an appropriate sustainable natural resources management, policies and investment in the forest sector will increase poverty, environmental degradation, resources-based conflicts and illegal activities including piracy and other organized crimes.


Badal Ahmed Hassan

Doctoral Researcher

Department of Forest Sciences, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 27,     FI-00014, Finland

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Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network