Agroforestry systems, which combine annual crops with trees, are used widely in semi-arid regions to reduce wind erosion and improve resource (e.g. water) use efficiency. Limited knowledge is available on optimizing such systems by the choice of crop species with specific physiological traits (i.e. C3 vs C4, N-fixing vs non-N-fixing). In this study we quantified the light interception and utilization efficiency of trees and crops in agro-forestry systems comprising apricot trees and a C3 species (sweet potato), a C4 species (millet) or an N-fixing legume species (peanut), and used measurements in the sole stands as a reference. A significant delay in leaf growth was found in millet. Maximum LAI of millet was 17% higher in agroforestry then expected from sole crop LAI, taking into account the relative density of 2/3, while a 25% decrease in maximum LAI compared to expected was observed in peanut and sweet potato. The total light interception in agroforestry was 54% higher than in sole tree stands and 23% higher than in sole crops. The millet intercepted more light and produced more biomass in agroforestry than peanut and sweet potato. The LUE values of the crops in the mixed systems were higher than those of the sole crops, as was the photosynthetic efficiency of individual leaves, especially in plants in the border rows of the crop strips. High light capture in agroforestry made a greater contribution to productivity of understory crops than the increases in light use efficiency. We conclude that agroforestry systems with apricot trees and annual crops, especially millet, can improve light utilization in semi-arid climates and contribute to regional sustainability and adaptation to climate change.