SLU news

Understanding the status, importance, access, and management of woody vegetation in the rangelands of East Africa

Published: 08 February 2024
White girl with African family

Another student has graduated in collaboration with the SLU-led project Drylands Transform. Anna has finalized both the field work and the report writing for her MSc thesis. But she will always remember a lot from the work in the drylands. The aim of her project was to contribute practical knowledge on the perceived ecosystem services from woody vegetation and associated species. She also wanted to identify current woody vegetation management practices, people’s access to ecosystem services from woody vegetation in the area and the status of woody cover. Now she will tell some of what she did.

Around 150 interviews

I did my fieldwork and data collection in two of the four Drylands Transform field sites in the Karamoja cluster. The first site was in Chepareria in West Pokot County in Kenya, and the second was in Rupa in Moroto District in Uganda. My main data collection method was interviews, and I used both focus group discussions and individual interviews.

I visited more than 20 different villages in each site and performed around 150 interviews in total. I used focus group discussions to identify important benefits from woody vegetation, these benefits were then listed and categorized into ecosystem service groups, for example food, fodder, medicine, building material, improved local climate, cultural practices, erosion control, beauty etc. I then made a questionnaire based on each of the ecosystem service groups that I used during the individual interviews.

Each respondent was asked to rank the importance of each ecosystem service using a Likert scale from 1-5, where 1 represents no importance and 5 represents highly essential. They were also asked to mention up to five important species associated to each ecosystem service when relevant. They were also asked to mention up to five unwanted species. To learn more about management and access to important ecosystem services from woody species I conducted another round of focus group discussions and additional key informant interviews.

How did you get in touch with Drylands Transform?

I had previous experience working in East Africa from an internship at the Swedish founded NGO Vi-Agroforestry (Vi-skogen). I really enjoyed working there and I learned a lot about the social and ecological importance of trees for sustainable development in the region. When it was time to plan for my master thesis I started looking for a project that could build on my previous experiences. I contacted Ylva Nyberg, the former trainee coordinator at Vi-Agroforestry, who is now a researcher at SLU. She told me about the Drylands Transform project and introduced me to some of the other researchers involved in the project. Together we found a suitable project for my master thesis.

What surprised you?

I was surprised to learn how essential trees and shrubs are for the everyday life and culture of the local populations in my two sites, and the high number of different ecosystem services trees and shrubs provided (see the Likert score figure), despite drylands naturally have a low density of woody vegetation compared to more humid areas. I was also surprised to learn that the most important and most multifunctional species were native species that have the ability to regenerate naturally if the conditions are right.

What were your most interesting results?

My most interesting results was that woody vegetation is critical to support the livelihoods and wellbeing of agro(pastoralist) communities in the Karamoja cluster, and that the local communities possess significant and detailed knowledge on woody plants and actively manage woody vegetation to support and protect it.

However, despite this the native tree cover, and thereby also access to essential ecosystem services is decreasing in both sites. In Chepareria the decline was attributed to land use change and increased grazing pressure, while in Rupa, it was attributed to a shift in livelihood strategies from livestock keeping to charcoal production. Different species were associated to different ecosystem services and to cover all essential ecosystem services a wide variety of species had to be available. Another interesting result was that, despite that most of the identified ecosystem services in each site was the same, the associated species often differed (see the heat map figure).

My results highlight how important it is to understand the role of trees and other woody vegetation in supporting (agro)pastoral livelihoods for successful restoration outcomes that respond to the needs and aspirations of the local people. Restoration should therefore preferably have a bottom-up approach and use tailored strategies for each location.

Any recommendations for other students?

I encourage future students to take the chance to do fieldwork for your thesis in another country. It’s a great opportunity to experience another culture, and it is an advantage if you want to work internationally in the future. However, it is important to plan the field work well before you go. Try to get as much information as possible about the area or country where you will do the field work. Find local guides to help you to navigate in the new country and to solve unexpected problems. Make sure you have all necessary research permits. It is also important to be patient and flexible and to not expect that everything will go according to your original plan and time table.

Interesting and challenging field work

Another part of my work was to find out more about the status of woody cover and how this could be affected by different management practices I used data from the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework. Data on tree species and density was collected in Rupa and Chepareria in 2021. I revisited all the data collection plots to collect additional data on management, for example distance to homesteads and surface water, type of land use (crop land, homestead, or livestock pasture) and whether the land was enclosed or not.  

The field work was interesting but also challenging at times. I had many long days in the field, many of the villages I visited were far away and I often visited several villages in one day. I mostly worked in areas where many people did not speak English, so I always had to bring an interpreter. Using an interpreter requires good communication and I had to be very clear and explain my aims and methods well to the interpreter to make sure that I got the right information and that my questions to the interviewees was understood and answered correctly.

Me and my interpreter used a motorbike in the field, and during rainy season it could get stuck in the mud. Other times we got trapped on the wrong side of a river that was dry in the morning but filled with flowing water in the afternoon. Sometimes it was too steep or too dense vegetation to use a motorbike, and we had to walk for hours to reach our destination. But it was always an adventure and we met kind people who did their best to help us. The best thing about the field work was to talk to so many people and to learn about their culture, everyday life, challenges, as well as plans and hopes for the future. I also really loved the nature and to learn about different plants and what benefits they provided.   


Logotype for the project Drylands Transform

Drylands Transform

Drylands Transform (DT) is a research project led by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in partnership with an interdisciplinary team from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Linnaeus University, Makerere University, Umeå University, University of Gothenburg, University of Nairobi, and World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

Visit the website for Drylands Transform.