Sven Verwiel – How to unlock the potential of syntropic agroforestry in East Africa

A conversation with Sven Verwiel of ForestFoods, a Kenyan based premium produce brand, about the potential of syntropic agroforestry in Kenya, and what we can learn from the over 40 years of experience in Brazil, what is needed to apply it at scale in the local East African context as well as why the African continent is the crucial and most interesting place to apply regenerative practises.


In this interview we also discuss the role and the place of annuals like cereals in syntrophic agroforestry systems and why investing in unlocking water is the most important thing to do.


According to Sven, without having to start all from zero, we can take a lot of the models from Brazil, their successful models, being that in the agriculture sector, the livestock sector, or the forestry sector, and localize them to fit into the East African or African context.

“If you take the map of Brazil, and you put it over the African map, you will find that there’s a huge amount of similarity between Central Africa, East Africa and parts of southern Africa.” – Sven Verwiel

“So, a lot of their climates, a lot of their biomes, a lot of their soils, are not too dissimilar from Africa. And so, by tweaking what they’ve already been doing very successfully for 40, 50 years, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we don’t need to start from zero. Whereas I think a lot of the temperate syntropic models that are being developed at the moment in the temperate regions, of course, the fundamentals are the same, but that tweaking, I would say, is a lot more severe than doing it here in Africa.” – Sven Verwiel

“It’s an aesthetic-changing dynamic production system. And I don’t think there’s one exact answer, there are fundamentals that can be followed, but there’s no exact recipe. Each place has its own recipe, and at the end of the day, the people in charge of that piece of land, or the project are ultimately in charge of what the design looks like in the end. So, as long as the fundamentals are followed, then the end result can be beautifully different, depending on what you want.” – Sven Verwiel


There’s a huge amount of idle land or unproductive land, across the continent and there’s a huge amount of community engagement that needs to happen, and a huge amount of capacity building, that is training hundreds or thousands, if not millions of people under the age of 35, to create careers in this. The agroforestry system allows for a career path because it is so complex and can last so many years.

“We have so many different biomes in Africa that anything’s possible, but I think that doing it through people, the education of the people from a production side is the most important thing.” – Sven Verwiel

“Kenya is covered by 65%, of semi-arid land, as a minimum, we can also go to the coastal regions, which I think is even more interesting because there’s very little agriculture there, and, whatever is there, it’s really an industry that needs to be brought to life again. And then, of course, there’s everything in between.” – Sven Verwiel

“Kenya is such a dynamic place and it’s changing so quickly, and the middle class is also changing or growing so fast, rather than I think there’s going to be enormous potential in having all sorts of crops grown”. – Sven Verwiel

“There are a lot of people living in urban cities that have land, in their ancestral home areas. And these people range from lawyers and doctors all the way to anything that fits into that sort of middle-class bracket, but they’re not really doing anything with their land, or it’s not really productive. And there are a lot of people who’d like to sign in on this model. I say that because most of the time, when we do our farm tours, and we have visits, people are actually like, wow, ‘we really want to do this on our land” -Sven Verwiel


Sven argues that the single most delicate and most fragile component in the agricultural and forestry space moving into the future is water. There’re massive concerns about the very finite resource of freshwater we have available to us in a liquid form on this planet, especially in Africa, with 98% of the agriculture being done in a rain-fed manner. Every rainy season we’re seeing massive change.

“If I had a magic wand, I would literally unlock water, because I think water will become the most expensive input in the future. It already is. Countries, companies, organizations, and regions that invested in water, in the last 20, 30 years, have done the best thing they could do.” – Sven Verwiel

“If we don’t do it, now, it’s only going to become more expensive. And it’s only going to become more difficult in the future if we don’t start doing it now. And when I say we, I’m talking about us as individuals, as organizations, as governments, as areas, like we need to unlock water. And it needs to happen. Now.” – Sven Verwiel


Not enough people are using rain and storing it. Rain is the best form of investing in water because it’s the only renewable form. We’ve also got aquifers, and there’s a lot of boreholes being drilled and, in some situations, water is safer underground, where it’s not being contaminated or being changed.

“But water is a very expensive infrastructure in this part of the world, whether you drill for it, whether you build reservoirs to capture it from the sky, or whether you abstract from rivers and lakes and ponds, which actually isn’t really allowed anymore.” – Sven Verwiel

“98% of the continent’s agriculture is still being done with rain, as in rain-fed systems, non-irrigated systems. So, when I’m talking about unlocking water, I’m talking about unlocking it for the use of irrigation, but of course, sensible irrigation.” – Sven Verwiel

“I’m such a fan of agroforestry, especially this syntropic way, because if you use irrigation to create profitable models, it’s very common to switch that off after four to five years or use it very sparingly after that, because you’ve built such a resilient system. And so my point is, let’s unlock it now and make it available and make it affordable so that we can create these systems on scale and on mass. Because unlike a conventional veggie patch, or conventional farm that uses irrigation to produce the same crops for 20 years, this system of ours allows you to switch it off after a while.” – Sven Verwiel

Koen and Sven also talked about

  • How these systems will create more water and more rainfall in the future;
  • Water will become the most expensive input of the future;
  • Requirements per hectare of a flower farm;
  • Rain is the best fertiliser on the planet.




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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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