New money grows on trees in Mombasa

An ambitious scheme to replace Kenya's depleting forests by equipping farmers to plant trees for free, that earn Sh1500 or more when mature, is targeting the planting of 900,000 trees over the next five years in commercial micro-forestry.

The scheme, which is creating a source of income for the dry Eastern and Coastal province farmers, comes after the country lost 500,000 acres of its indigenous forests between 2002 and 2010, even after an official ban on logging.

But the micro-forestry project, developed by Komaza, a US based non-profit social enterprise, now seeks to create sustainable economic opportunities for farmers living in Africa’s semi-arid regions while establishing “Africa’s first non-profit forestry company”.

By working with village-based field staff, it is partnering with rural families to help them plant and maintain small-scale, income-generating tree farms.

The project, now in its fourth year has drawn in 800 farmers at the Coast who have over the years relied exclusively on logging and charcoal burning for their income. The logging, especially of endangered species of indigenous trees in the Coast, in 2001 led the government to institute a ban on logging that left only a small handful of companies operating in the country.

With the demand for wood still steady, Kenya began importing wood, while at the same time facing two continuing problems of an abundance of labour and an abundance of dry, unused land, mostly in the coastal regions.

Komaza's project's vision has therefore been to meet the needs of the local and regional demand for wood by developing a localised supply through its village-based extension network of small-scale tree farmers.

“Deforestation is a huge looming issue, especially in coastal Kenya, to such an extreme extent that it’s affecting weather patterns. Until we get deforestation under control, soil becomes less fertile, and rain becomes less, both in consistency and quantity,” said Meghan Bailey who has been working with Komaza.

Mahmoud Kite, a converted logger, said it had taken time for the project to pick up, but the overall benefits in terms of increasing the forest cover and enjoying frequent rains has been an incentive that had kept him and his family in the project.

“I actually used to be among the leading loggers in the area, and I think my abandoning the trade has actually drawn more to this Komaza plan, but it is not just the earnings that is keeping us here, of course part of it is, but I would also love to imagine that the best gift we will ever hand over to the next generation is a clean environment, just like it was handed over to us by our forefathers. I believe trees will help us improve our environment,” said the father of six daughters who dodged law enforcers for four years after carrying on with logging after the ban.

In working with small-scale farmers to plant half to one-acre tree farms in semi-arid regions of Kenya, Komaza’s direct impact is twofold. The group hopes to alleviate the deforestation of indigenous trees, at a time when only around 2 per cent of Kenya remains covered by forests, by reducing the need for the farmers to cut down the forests in the first place.

By working with each individual farmer to utilize their most dry, unused land to plant a drought-resistant strain of eucalyptus trees, the programme has also introduced farmers to a new way of generating a sustainable source of income. When the trees are cut and harvested, they continue to grow without needing to be replanted.

In order to receive planting inputs, each farmer joins Komaza for Sh50 and then attends free training sessions and prepares their land according to pre planting guidelines. Komaza then provides families with clonal seedlings, water-retaining polymers to cushion the farmers from the dry spells, fertilizers, and seeds for nitrogen fixing short term crops. With training and support from field staff, each farmer plants their own three quarter acre tree farm, which is about 200 trees. Field staff members provide farmers with regular on-farm and village training throughout the lifetime of their tree farm.

Each farmer in Komaza’s network retains ownership of his or her land and reaps the financial benefits of their time and labour, cultivating and maintaining the land. While the trees are ‘owned’ by Komaza, the contracts state that the profits are split 50/50, plus the cost of inputs like seeds and tools. This ensures both a significant increase in income to the farmer for their unused land, and a return that once scaled will hopefully make Komaza a financially self-sustaining enterprise. For half an acre of trees, the farmers alone can earn S257,400 to Sh514,000 (approx $6,000) over 10 years.

The larger the trees grow, the more valuable they become. So, in order to stagger the income of the farmers from the tree harvesting, and also increase the profits the farmers will yield, Komaza harvests a small percentage of the trees, around 20 per cent, after four years. They continue to harvest every couple of years, until about 10-12 years of growth, when they are large enough for telephone poles and can potentially be purchased by the Kenyan government to advance its rural electrification agenda. During the time of the tree growth, farmers also earn a small income from various short-term crops such as cowpeas and jatropha, provided by Komaza as well.

By 2017, Komaza expects a total of 2,800 microforests. These forests will produce an estimated 900,000 commercial trees, which will replace the equivalent of 49,800 indigenous trees per year. The government, in an effort to support this movement, has also vowed to plant 7.6 billion trees over the next 20 years.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter