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Watch the trees grow

Tending a nursery of cloned eucalyptus trees (Stephen Mbogo)
Tending a nursery of cloned eucalyptus trees
Stephen Mbogo

It is fitting that the country that gave the world the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai, on the strength of her tree-planting campaign, should see its subsistence farmers developing trees as a major cash crop. Idle land in rain-starved areas of Kenya is being turned to productive use as farmers grow trees, not just for the traditional purposes of providing household firewood and building materials, but as a durable source of income.

The catalyst of this new interest in tree farming is a project that has introduced trees bio-engineered to mature quickly in parched areas without excessively shading the food crops with which they are interplanted. Cuttings of the cloned trees and improved tree seedlings are sold to farmers at an affordable price of 10-20 US cents.

Monica Nyawira, a farmer and mother of five children, is among those who have benefited. Three years ago, Nyawira planted her one hectare farm, scenically sited near the slopes of Mt. Kenya, with just cabbages for the local market and French beans for export. Since she learned about farming biotech trees, her family fortunes have improved. Having intercropped her French beans and other vegetables with the trees, Nyawira earned US$600 in February when the Kenyan electric company bought some of them to be used as distribution poles.

"Life has really changed for me," says Nyawira. "I'm making better use of my farm and am able to meet the financial needs of my family."

Hundreds of farmers benefit

District Forest Officer Joram Umwa reports that Nyawira is one of hundreds of farmers who have earned a combined 3.9 million Kenyan shillings (US$50,000) in Kirinyaga District in the last two months from the sale of biotech trees. "Residents have stopped encroaching on Mt. Kenya forests because they have their own trees that they use for constructing houses, as firewood and as a source of income," he says.

The initiator of commercial farming of biotech trees by Kenyan subsistence farmers was the Tree Biotechnology Project run by the Kenya Forestry Department, located in the Karura Forest, just outside the capital of Nairobi. The technique arrived via South Africa, where a company called Mondi Forests has been using it for the large-scale production of commercial timber.

In addition to distributing seedlings of eucalyptus hybrids, the project is adapting local indigenous tree species like Prunus africana and Melia volkensii. Whereas the naturally occurring African trees take 10-15 years to grow large enough for harvesting to begin, their tissue-culture offspring mature in 4-10 years. The lightly canopied trees can comfortably be interplanted with other crops without affecting their growth.

Public-private partnership

Benson Kanyi, the head of the Tree Biotechnology Project, describes it as a partnership of the private and public sectors. The technology is being transferred from the South African firm Mondi Forest with the participation of several Kenyan government departments, funding from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation of the United Kingdom, and project planning and brokering by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

Kanyi reports that, although the project has existed in East Africa for only four years, it has already demonstrated that trees can be used to preserve biodiversity, provide fuel and generate income. He adds that farmers in East Africa now appreciate the commercial value of trees and that is why "the response has been overwhelming".

The biotech trees are crucial to Africa, he argues, because the continent's growing population is triggering a rise in demand for firewood, building materials and forest-derived products such as paper. Hence the need to encourage the farming of trees that mature quickly. After two years, the new trees can be used for thatch and mounting honey beehives; at three years they make good firewood and charcoal, and at four years they are ready to be used as building poles.

The transfer of tissue-culture and tree-growing technology has come at a time when the Kenyan government is keen to stem deforestation. According to the Ministry of Environment, the country's small, fragmented forests cover less than three per cent of its land area and are under extreme pressure of encroachment and exploitation. By taking pressure off these remaining woodlands, the biotech trees make an important contribution to restoring some of Africa's depleted forests.

Written by: Stephen Mbogo

Date published: May 2005


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