By Krista Jones, Vital Signs Fellows &Scientists_DSSG 2017 ,Africa Innovations Institute,Tanzania Forest Conservation Group,Wildlife Conservation Society Rwanda,The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Ghana
This analysis is a result of the collaboration between the eScience Institute Data Science for Social Good Program and Vital Signs. Learn more about this program here.
Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) supplement the incomes of rural people throughout Africa. According to some estimates, NTFPs provide income for over two-thirds of Africa’s 600 million people . Some NTFPs, such as shea, are exported to international markets after being collected in local forests. Others, like fuelwood and building materials, are sold in local markets. Whether a part of the global economy or local economies, NTFPs are a major income source: a literature review of 51 case studies across 17 developing countries showed that, on average, forests provide 22% of a household's total income and that households with less income were most dependent on forest resources .
Many Vital Signs communities rely on natural resources in their daily lives, including both food (e.g., fish) and other items (e.g., building materials). These resources can potentially improve multiple aspects of wellbeing, including nutrition, finances, health, and housing . We examined self-reported collection of natural resources across Vital Signs communities in Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. While non-food items are highly valuable and often collected (particularly building materials and medicinal plants), in this blog we will focus specifically on collection of natural foods. These natural foods may provide supplemental nutrition (particularly when agricultural yields are low), expand dietary diversity, and allow individuals to save money they otherwise would have spent on purchasing food.
Nuts or seeds, bushmeat, and honey were the foods collected by the greatest number of households, with nuts/seeds being by far the most frequently collected. Overall, there was very little collection of natural food reported in Rwanda and Tanzania, perhaps due to stricter protection of natural areas in these countries. Of course, it must be considered that self-reporting of collection may be less reliable in areas where such activities are illegal 
We were interested in whether collection of natural foods saved people money, allowing them to spend more on non-food items. Due to the low volume of collection reported in Rwanda and Tanzania, this analysis focused exclusively on Ghana and Uganda. We looked at the relationship between the estimated value of collected natural foods (in USD) and the proportion of a household’s budget that went towards food. Here, the estimated value was based on how much individuals indicated they would spend on an item at a market if they could not collect it multiplied by the number of times they typically collected it in a year (e.g., 52 if they collected weekly). If an individual said they collected an item but would not buy it at the market, we used the average value placed on that item for that specific community. Thus, these values may be underestimates, as people might buy different items at market if natural foods are unavailable (e.g., goat meat may be cheaper than bushmeat in many markets). Yet, the data still showed a significant relationship, with households that collected a greater value of natural foods spending a smaller proportion of their budget on food. This finding may suggest that availability of such resources allow families to save money on food and increase investment in other expenditures (e.g., home improvements, agricultural tools). Alternately, it is possible that families that cannot afford to spend much on food (e.g., if a family member is sick and has extensive medical expenses) are more likely to seek out natural foods, which may help buffer against hunger in hard times .
Regardless of the underlying cause of this relationship, it is clear that natural foods are a valuable resource for many communities in Uganda and Ghana. These results were heavily influenced by a small number of households that gathered a particularly high volume and variety of natural foods. Use also varied greatly by location, with one Ugandan community collectively collecting more than 5000USD annually in natural foods, nearly 3.5 times the value of the next highest community. This particular community is adjacent the Mount Kei Forest Reserve, a protected area of more than 400km squared that allows for sustainable use of natural resources. Thus, the presence of such a natural area clearly proves to be an extremely valuable resource for the people living nearby.
However, both in this community and throughout Vital Signs landscapes in both Uganda and Ghana, the availability of natural foods was extensively reported to be in decline relative to five years ago. Thus, there is concern that current collection levels are unsustainable (whether due to overharvest or land conversion). As VitalSigns gathers more data over time, it will be helpful to better understand how collection of natural items is changing and what factors or practices can best predict sustainable use to ensure future availability of these valuable resources.
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Shackleton, Charlie, and Sheona Shackleton. 2004. “The Importance of Non-Timber Forest Products in Rural Livelihood Security and as Safety Nets: A Review of Evidence from South Africa.” South African Journal of Science 100 (11-12). Academy of Science for South Africa (ASSAf): 658–64.