Home garden agroforestry practices in the Gedeo zone, Ethiopia: a sustainable land management system for socio-ecological benefits



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS)


  • 25/08/2016

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Africa


  • Ethiopia (South Nation Nationalities and People Regional State)


  • Current agricultural intensification approaches focus on the narrow objective of boosting yield and tend to neglect the socio-ecological value of home garden agroforestry systems. Unlike other agroforestry systems, Gedeo agroforestry has myriad unique features. It is not a supplementary production system in which only fruit and vegetables are grown to supplement field grown staple crops. Instead, it is a principal livelihood system in which all forms of crops, including staple, cash, and supplementary crops grow together. The system also supports a population of close to 900 persons/km2. The main component crops, enset (Ensete ventricosum; a herbaceous monocarpic banana-like plant) and coffee (Coffea arabica L.), are the pillars of food security. The Gedeo agroforest hosts diversity as high as 50 woody plant species belonging to 35 families in each plot of 100m2. Its uniqueness also emanates from its exclusive reliance on indigenous knowledge (IK). IK allows the perpetuation of both production and protection functions. Recently, wrong perceptions of agroforestry productivity, erosion of IK, and expansion of monocrops driven by market forces have challenged its survival. If these are not quickly and properly addressed, Ethiopia will lose the indigenous Gedeo agroforestry system, leading eventually to a great loss of agro-biodiversity and socio-ecological benefits.


  • Agroforestry, Gedeo, Home garden, Diversity, Ethiopia


  • Sileshi Degefa, UNU-IAS

  • LINK:

  • https://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:5769/SEPLS_in_Africa_FINAL_lowres_web.pdf

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


[Note: this case study was originally published in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes (SEPLS) in Africa“]

Agriculture in natural ecosystems has gradually evolved into more resilient and dynamic systems where trees and crops coexist on the same unit of land (Geist & Lambin 2001). Most of these agroforestry systems have evolved from forests. Rainforests are closed systems with high species diversity. In contrast, commercial agriculture is an open system with low species diversity. An agroforest is a continuum between closed forest and monocrop agriculture with intermediate complexity and species diversity. Agroforestry practices stand for the intentional integration of trees, crops, and livestock on the same unit of land. Agroforestry is an integrated approach using benefits of interaction between agriculture and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy, and sustainable land use systems (Tewabech & Efrem 2014; Daizy et al. 2008).

Agroforestry is a widespread practice throughout the tropics. It is also a long-time practice in all regions of Ethiopia except the semiarid lowlands of Gambella, Somale, Benshangul Gumuz, and Afar. According to Brandt (1984) cited in Negash, Yirdaw & Luukkanen (2011) agroforestry began with agriculture 7000 years ago in Ethiopia. In another study (Tadese 2002) the beginning of agroforestry was traced back to 5000 years ago. The model of agroforestry in Ethiopia depends on geography and locality. It can be practiced on the whole agricultural landscape or only on farmer homesteads.

Cultivation of planned and intensively managed trees, crops, and livestock in the home garden is home garden agroforestry. Home garden agroforestry is a more complex multi-stratum than other agroforestry systems (Zebene et al. 2015). It is known for its diversity, ecosystem balance, sustainability, household food security, and rural development in Ethiopia (Tesfaye, Wiersum & Bongers 2010; Tadese 2002). At present, home gardens maintained by 20 million people in the south and southwest represent one possible strategy for biodiversity conservation (Kindu 2001; Kabir & Webb 2008). The Gedeo home garden agroforestry is unique from many perspectives. According to Bishaw et al. (2013), Gedeo agroforestry is the most structurally complex agroforestry system in Ethiopia. Unlike other agroforestry systems, Gedeo agroforestry is not a means of supplementary food production but the principal means of livelihood (Ayele, Ewnetu & Asfaw 2014). Although the Gedeo agroforestry system is often cited as a model for land use, the system has not been described in detail. This short review paper summarizes the unique features of the Gedeo agroforestry system, identifies the components, describes their interactions, and discusses the management aspects, and the underlying indigenous knowledge (IK).

Figure 1: Gedeo zone location map. Source: Sileshi Degefa

General description of Gedeo zone

The Gedeo zone is located 369 km from the capital, Addis Ababa, and 90 km from the regional capital Hawassa, to the south on the main highway from Addis Ababa to Moyale toward Kenya (Figure 1). Administratively, it lies in South Nation Nationalities and People Regional State (SNNPRS) one of the nine self-administering regions in Ethiopia. Geographically, the zone is located north of the equator from 5°53’N to 6° 27’N latitude and from 38° 8’ to 38° 30’east longitude. The altitude ranges from 1500 to 3000 m above sea level. The Gedeo highland receives both equatorials and monsoons, the two most important trade winds in the region (Tadese 2002). It has a subhumid tropical climate and receives a mean annual rainfall of 1500mm. The mean annual temperature range is 12.6–22.4°C (Bishaw et al. 2013).Gedeo is one of the major coffee (Coffea arabica) and enset (Ensete ventricosum)- producing zones of the region. Coffee and enset are the dominant perennials in the Gedeo agroforest. This agroforest is also the home of the internationally recognized organic coffee “Yirgachefe.” The land use of Gedeo comprises 80% cultivated, 19% pasture, and 1% forest (Bishaw et al. 2013). According to (Gebrehiwot & Maryo 2015) the agroforestry area covers 89,239.7 ha, approximately 69.3% of the total area of Gedeo zone.

Photo 1: The dominant crops enset and coffee on a high slope of a Gedeo agroforest. Photo credit: Gebrehiwot & Maryo 2015

The genesis of the Gedeo agroforestry system

The origin of the Gedeo agroforestry system is uncertain, but Tadesse (2002) stated that it descended from shifting cultivation 5000 years ago. But it is clear that the geographic and demographic situation of the Gedeo landscape led to the agroforestry system. As the population increased, farmers had too little land to continue with specialized production of staple crops, cash crops, and supplementary crops cultivated separately. Unlike in other home garden agroforestry systems, the Gedeo people do not use their home gardens for supplementary crops such as fruits and vegetables alone. Instead, all forms of crops for example, staple crops such as enset and maize; cash crops such as coffee (Coffea arabica) and chat (Catha edulis a stimulant plant); fruits; and vegetables are cultivated together. Trees are also another important resource for the livelihood of the farmers. With the increasing population, the communal forest system used previously is not sustainable for Gedeo farmers. Thus, trees are also integrated with the crops on the same unit of land. Livestock is also a component of the Gedeo agroforestry system. Crops such as enset and banana and trees such as Millettia ferruginea are used as feed sources (Birhanu, Getachew & Adugna 2013).

The present complex system cannot be constructed simply by combining the components. Instead, through empirical observation by farmers, the integration process reached evolutionary maturity, with beneficial interactions enhanced and hostile interactions nullified. The optimization of spatial and temporal arrangement of the components is embedded in IK, which is transferred orally along the chain of generations (Abiyot 2013). The cultural and archeological amenities in the area are the living
witness of long time human–nature intervention. Among them, the Chelba Tutti, Sede Tuttefella, and Sakarosodo megalithic sites and the Odola Gelma Ancient Rock Engraving Site can be mentioned. The Gedeo has also a traditional structure of ranks and age classes called Baalle, similar to the egalitarian Geda system of neighboring Guji Oromo (Abiyot 2013; Tadese 2002). The Geda system is the oldest living traditional socio- political, religious, cultural, and environmental institution for managing commonpool resources (Derara 2015). The similarity between the two systems shows the role of Baalle in natural resource management.

Categorization of home garden agroforestry in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is one of the tropical countries in which home garden agroforestry is ubiquitous in the highlands. Agroforestry is the major component of Ethiopian farming systems. On the basis of the components, Gedeo agroforestry is categorized as the agrosilvo pasture type (Nair 1993) where trees, crops, and animals are part of the system. The three common types of agroforestry practices are home garden, parkland, and woodlot (Aklilu et al. 2015). In the cereal crop-based farming system, staple food crops such as barley, teff (Eragrostis tef, a small grain), wheat, and maize are grown in the outer farm with trees while vegetable species and fruits are grown in the home garden. This type of agroforestry system is known as parkland agroforestry. Parklands are the traditional agroforestry systems of central and northern Ethiopia where naturally growing, valuable trees are protected and nurtured on cropping and grazing lands. The second type of agroforestry system is perennial-crop based home garden agroforestry systems, in which perennial crops, fruits, spices, vegetables, trees, etc. are grown in the home garden. The prototype perennials are enset and coffee. Such a home garden agroforestry system is common in the south and southwestern highlands. The third type of agroforestry system in Ethiopia is woodlot agroforestry. An example of woodlot agroforestry is the bamboo-based agroforest in the Dawuro zone (Madalcho & Tefera 2016).

The Gedeo agroforestry system can be categorized into perennial-based agroforestry with special aspects. The unique aspect of Gedeo agroforestry is that all crops including staple food, cash, and supplementary crops are integrated together. The shortage of land does not allow Gedeo farmers to grow specialized crops. For instance, in the Guraghe zone and the central highland of Ethiopia, perennials are grown on the homestead while staple food crops such as teff, wheat, and barley are grown in outer fields. In this kind of system, the mainstay of the farmers is cereal crops grown in outer fields, while crops in the home garden are supplementary.

The Gedeo agroforest is also further categorized into three types (Negash 2007; Negash, Yirdaw & Luukkanen 2011; Negash 2013) based on the dominant component species. Enset and trees dominate the agroforest at the altitude of 2000 masl. This type of agroforest is an enset–tree-based agroforest (Photo 2). At middle altitudes, coffee and enset co-dominate the forest. This type is categorized as enset–coffee–tree-based agroforest located in altitude ranges of 1600–2000 m (Photo 4). At lower altitudes, enset is rarely seen, and coffee and fruit occupy the most space. This type of agroforestry is coffee–fruit crops–tree-based agroforest, located at altitudes below 1600 masl (Photo 3).

Photo 2: Gedeomultistory agroforestry system. Photo credit: Bishaw et al. 2013

Characteristics of Gedeo home garden agroforestry

Home garden agroforestry represents a high degree of compositional, structural, and functional diversity playing key roles in on-farm conservation and ensuring environmental well-being while contributing to livelihood support systems (Habtamu & Zemede 2011). Mainly indigenous tree species such as Ficus spp., Cordia africana, Croton macrostachyus,and Millettia ferruginea and fruit trees such as mango (Mangifera indica) and avocado (Persea americana) form the upper story. Dominant species such as coffee (Coffea arabica L.), an evergreen shrub, and enset (Ensete ventricosum), a large non-woody evergreen perennial herb, form the middle story, as illustrated in photo 4. The low story is often occupied by vegetables, spices, and herbs. The coffee component decreases with altitude, but enset is found at all altitudes (Gebrehiwot & Maryo 2015). The architectural design of this system helps to use space effectively in such a way that the combination enhances beneficial interactions and nullifies adverse ones. In some cases, productivity of crops in an open field is far below productivity in the combination. For instance, coffee can be grown in an open field as a monocrop in some parts of Ethiopia; however, the quality as well as quantity is considerably lower than that of the coffee on an integrated farm. Indeed, the other typical characteristic of Gedeo home garden agroforestry is its productivity on slopes as steep as 80% (EPA 2004), which is steeper than the optimal slope for agriculture.

Photo 3: Coffee-based agroforestry in Gedeo zone. Photo credit: Bishaw et al. 2013

Ecological benefits of Gedeo home garden agroforestry

The ecosystem services and ecological benefits of agroforestry are often masked by farmers’ mere expectation of maximum yield from the monocrop farm (Shibu 2009). The home garden as a traditional agroforestry system in many regions has shown great value in maintaining high degree of diversity. In country such as Ethiopia where the deforestation rate is extremely high, agroforests serve as a refuge for many plants and animals. For instance, Negash, Yirdaw & Luukkanen (2011) identified 58 woody species belonging to 49 genera and 30 families on 60 agroforest farms of the Gedeo zone. Similarly, in a study conducted in Gununo Wolayita, 32 woody species belonging to 19 families were recorded (Bajijo & Tadese 2015). A total species of 50 plants of 35 families was recorded (Negash 2013) in a home garden of size 100m2 in the Gedeo zone. In general, the Gedeo agroforest is endowed with nationally and globally significant biodiversity and genetic resources.

Many factors enable the Gedeo agroforest to host maximum diversity. Among them is the upper story species, providing supplementary habitat for shadetolerant species (Photo 5). As an example, coffee (Coffea arabica) is well adapted to growing under the shade of indigenous tree species. Home garden agroforestry enhances land use efficiency. As the agroforest land is individually owned, the indigenous tree components are buffered from the pressure on communal forest land. Furthermore, the agroforestry systems have created a connectedness as a movement corridor for different species, facilitating gene flow.

Photo 4: The upper- and middle-story species in a Gedeo agroforest. Photo credit: Negash 2013

The diversity of plants in the home garden, associated with other organisms, contributes to the formation and maintenance of soil structure and the retention of moisture and nutrient levels and promotes the recycling of nutrients (Verchot et al. 2007). This is particularly important in hillside farming, where agriculture may lead to rapid loss of soil. According to Tadese (2002) for instance, agroforestry land use is suited to the mountainous Gedeo area, as it protects against erosion. The agroforestry system plays a significant role in soil fertility maintenance. A study by Madalcho & Tefera (2016) in Gununo Wolayita showed that the chemical property of the top soil is significantly high in home garden agroforestry. Its nitrogen content also far exceeds that in other types of agroforest.

Furthermore, the slow-growing upper story serves as carbon storage (Bishaw et al. 2013). For instance, Ficus sur is the most dominant species in Gedeo agroforestry system. Furthermore, whole tree harvest is uncommon in the tree management tradition of Gedeo people. Twigs are removed for domestic uses and most carbon remains in the trunk.

Photo 5: Supplementary habitat provided by upper story of Ficus spp. Photo credit: Tadese 2002

Socioeconomic benefits of Gedeo home garden agroforestry

There is a very high population density in the Gedeo zone, whose mainstay is agriculture. For instance, there are 956.2 persons/km2 in Wonago district (Bishaw et al. 2013) and 652 in Yirgachefe (Ayele, Ewnetu & Asfaw 2014) far exceeding the average of 122 in the SNNPR. The high productivity of this agroforest helps the community to be food secure although there are many other factors which affect food security in the area.

Gedeo agroforestry is economically more viable than other land use systems because of the constituent high-value cash crops and staple crops (Tesfaye 2005). It is also the best-performing among agroforestry systems in Ethiopia. A study conducted in Yigachefe (Ayele, Ewunetu & Asfaw 2014) described the high economic performance of the coffee-enset-based Gedeo agroforestry system as compared to parkland agroforestry. It offers multiple products including construction materials, food for humans and animals, fuels, fibers, and shade. Women in Ethiopia actively participate in home garden management than other farms. They selectively domesticate useful species in their homesteads. The products of home garden agroforestry are highly used by women (Galfato, Gabiso & Tewodros 2015).

Current challenges and future prospects

There is a very high population density in the Gedeo zone, whose mainstay is agriculture. For instance, there are 956.2 persons/km2 in Wonago district (Bishaw et al. 2013) and 652 in Yirgachefe (Ayele, Ewnetu & Asfaw 2014) far exceeding the average of 122 in the SNNPR. The high productivity of this agroforest helps the community to be food secure although there are many other factors which affect food security in the area.

Gedeo agroforestry is economically more viable than other land use systems because of the constituent high-value cash crops and staple crops (Tesfaye 2005). It is also the best-performing among agroforestry systems in Ethiopia. A study conducted in Yigachefe (Ayele, Ewunetu & Asfaw 2014) described the high economic performance of the coffee-enset-based Gedeo agroforestry system as compared to parkland agroforestry. It offers multiple products including construction materials, food for humans and animals, fuels, fibers, and shade. Women in Ethiopia actively participate in home garden management than other farms. They selectively domesticate useful species in their homesteads. The products of home garden agroforestry are highly used by women (Galfato, Gabiso & Tewodros 2015).

Current challenges and future prospects

Recently, home garden agroforestry has been challenged by demographic, economic, technological, and social pressures (Habtamu & Zemede 2011). The growing population pressure in Gedeo has destroyed the agroforestry practices (Bishaw et al. 2013). The population size is beyond the carrying capacity of the system, creating an imbalance between consumption and maintenance. The population burden leads to the degradation of forest species, which are the backbone of the system.

Under pressure from land fragmentation and environmental and societal change, many Ethiopian smallholders are in the process of transforming their farming strategy toward market-oriented monocropping to meet their needs for household food security and income. Bishaw et al. (2013) stated that cash crops have affected the production of food crops in Gedeo Zone. The stimulant plant, khat (Catha edulis) is expanding at the expense of dominant crops such as enset and coffee.

In the management of agroforestry, IK plays a crucial role. IK includes different sets of complex practices. Tadese (2002) described two kinds of agroforestry-related IK. The first is knowledge of the selection of component species (core and subsidiary) and the second is knowledge of how to arrange the species in space and time. The spontaneous combination of different elements may not help to achieve production and protection objectives. The IK helped Gedeo people to create an ideal agroforestry for socio-ecological well-being. The erosion of the IK is among the factors accelerating the deterioration of the Gedeo agroforestry system.

This IK is transferred to generations with some modifications. But the rate at which this IK of agroforestry is transferred is slowing (Madalcho &Tefera 2016). Young people who attend school are no longer interested in becoming farmers (Abiyot, Bogale & Baudouin 2013). They place more value on the knowledge obtained from formal schooling. However, still there is a practice of gathering together to acquire knowledge from elders. The local knowledge and management practices shaped over centuries can be lost unless thoughtful attention is given and proper documentation is put in place (Habtamu & Zemede 2011).


Agroforestry systems have contributed to biodiversity conservation and production of diverse products to maintain the livelihood of the farming households in Ethiopia. In particular, it has served as a mainstay in the highly populated Gedeo zone. The influence of markets, land scarcity, and population pressure has accelerated a shift from subsistence home garden agroforestry to market-based farming. With the expectation of producing more food to feed the rapidly growing population using high inputs and monocropping systems, farmers are inclining toward producing one or two crops in a monocropping system by abandoning the traditional agroforestry system. In addition, little attention has been paid to IK. The rate at which IK is transferred from elders to the younger generation is slowing down. The pressure from untested and ever-expanding monocrop farming systems and the dying out of IK together have facilitated the decline of the agroforest in quality and quantity. If this decline is not quickly and properly addressed, Ethiopia will lose a traditional agroforestry system, ultimately leading to great losses in agrobiodiversity and to socioeconomic calamity.


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