The eight-year civil war in northern Uganda ended in 2006, but the region is still suffering from the economic, environmental, and human consequences.
Gulu was once a thriving centre in East Africa, with an abundance of fertile soils, biodiversity, and a lively social-cultural fabric. The civil war resulted in huge human losses, trauma, and a reduction to the area’s rich forest cover, as warring groups depleted resources and damaged biodiversity.
Only in recent years have efforts been made to restore the region’s environmental losses. Recognising the potential for economic recovery through forest restoration, Partnership for Forests (P4F), a UK-Aid funded program managed by Palladium and Systemiq, launched an agroforestry project in 2019 to restore the landscape and promote economic growth.
The project is implemented by Lush Investments, part of the Lush Sustainable Investments Fund. This fund focuses on developing ethical agri-businesses that provide Lush cosmetics with high-quality ingredients for their products – a commitment that began in 2014 when they started investing in regenerative farms through agricultural projects and agroforestry.
“Agroforestry is a sustainable land management practice that involves integrating trees with agricultural crops or livestock systems,” explains Gelila Alemayehu, Palladium Senior Associate, and member of P4F’s East Africa team. “It’s an approach that improves soil fertility, increases biodiversity, and enhances resilience to climate change. In Gulu, it offers the opportunity for local farmers to expand their activities and add four new revenue streams to their business model.”
They did this by introducing mixed system hardwood trees, softwood trees, food crops, and commodities like cocoa and vanilla to the area. By cultivating trees alongside their existing agricultural practices, farmers diversified their income sources, mitigated climate risks, and established a more sustainable livelihood.
Lush, which has partnered with Alumalum Rural Investments Limited on similar projects since 2016, teamed up in Gulu to introduce sustainable agroforestry practices and provide on-hand training to farmers. “The program’s goal was to transition 1,000 farmers away from annual subsistence crops towards perennial agroforestry systems, which are more resilient to climate shocks like unpredictable rainfall,” Alemayehu says.
Alumalum’s mixed agroforestry system has demonstrated that it’s possible to harvest cocoa while restoring the landscape. By planting shade trees necessary for cocoa growth, farmers ensured that the ground was ready for cocoa to thrive in a degraded landscape. “As a result of these collective efforts, the first batch of fermented cocoa from the partner farmers in the network is expected to be processed in 2023,” adds Alemayehu.
The project also educates farmers on the benefits of agroforestry over conventional farming. Through training and by providing seedlings, the team equipped farmers with the knowledge and resources to succeed. In 2019, Alumalum worked with 150 farmers to kickstart the project and by 2023, they had reached over 1,000 farmers to support the expansion of the partner farmer network.
Alemayehu adds that the final key to the initiative was engaging with Community Forest Management (CFM) initiatives in Gulu. “The CFM organises community members into groups that protect and restore local forests. The model allows its members to engage in various activities within the forest reserve, such as beekeeping, collecting non-timber forest products, and developing tree plantations in degraded areas.” This approach empowers communities to become stewards of their own landscapes, fostering a sense of ownership and long-term commitment.
Individual farmers and CFM groups were invited to sign up to the agroforestry program in 2020 through outreach and community engagement led by Alumalum’s extension workers, with the goal of empowering them with an understanding of the future benefits of planting trees.
“For now, this is a pilot that’s being scaled up by P4F,” explains Alemayehu. “However, Lush and other offtakers are committed to exploring Alumalum’s cocoa once the cocoa threshold is met in 2026, which is a really exciting potential.”
Agroforestry and broader landscape restoration must be part of Gulu’s journey towards economic recovery. This is how Gulu can reclaim its position as a thriving hub of livelihoods while preserving its natural heritage for future generations.
Key lessons from the project have been captured in a new report produced by P4F: Building trust and long-term commitments in historically disadvantaged communities.