BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — For Erasdus Jefwa Lazaro, a smallholder farmer and father-of-eight in rural coastal Kenya, the small stand of quick-growing eucalyptus and native malia trees on his land is better than money in the bank.
Three years on from planting their seedlings, the family have already thinned out the smaller trees and used the money to improve their house and install electricity.
“When I harvest the second and third time, my children will be ready to go to secondary school,” says Lazaro. “With the money I get from these harvests, I can pay for school fees without a problem.”
Farming in Kenya’s drylands has never been an easy task, and the challenge has heightened over time through a “vicious cycle” of environmental degradation and poverty. The land is poor and prone to drought, so crops often fail, and when they do, farmers are forced to find other forms of income.
Many end up chopping down native trees so they can turn the wood into charcoal, and sell it at local markets for a modest amount of cash. Cutting down the trees then degrades the land further, making future crop failures even more likely.
Wood consumption is Africa’s leading cause of forest degradation. Fuel wood provides 75 percent of primary energy needs within the continent. As a result, many countries, including Kenya, have lost over 80 percent of their tree cover in the last 40 years.
And demand for fuel wood keeps rising as populations increase, while supply remains stagnant: Kenya’s wood deficit is projected to grow 300 percent by 2030, to 35 million cubic meters per year, and $30 billion. Big plantations can’t expand to the scale needed to keep up given the increasing scarcity of large tracts of available land, and native forests are being felled at alarming rates to meet demand.
Enter Komaza: it’s a Swahili word meaning to promote development and encourage growth – and the name of a novel initiative aiming to address these issues by building a “virtual plantation” of fast-growing, drought-resistant trees across tens of thousands of smallholder farms, and selling them for a profit as high-quality wood products.
Smallholders like Lazaro have land and labor at the ready, and until now most have not had the inputs, knowhow or connections to be able to capitalize on this.
So, Komaza supports farmers with seedlings, training in effective cultivation and selective harvesting to maximize long-term profit, and connections to mills and markets, creating a forestry model that’s both lower-cost and more scalable than traditional large-scale plantations.
It means farmers can finally make money from their existing land, reducing the need to deforest other areas for quick cash. “By growing high-value wood with very poor subsistence farmers, we can generate really life-changing capital for them,” says Komaza’s founder and CEO, Tevis Howard.
“I think it’s a compelling model,” says Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) principal scientist Esther Mwangi. “It’s doing something that is good for the environment, but that also has good outcomes for people’s livelihoods, by providing them with an income.”
The organization began in 2008 with 50 farms, and have worked with around 7,000 farms to date, and planted over 2 million trees. Community benefits are beginning to emerge.
“People are changing from subsistence cropping to commercial farming, and becoming more self-sufficient and able to work for the community,” according to Anderson Kahindo, senior chief in Ganze Location.
As always, there are challenges inherent in trying to spread the benefits of programs like these equitably. As Mwangi points out, trees take time to grow to a point where they can begin to be harvested.
“And so the question is, what happens to the farmers as they wait for the trees to grow? Do all farmers have the resources to actually plant a tree and wait for it to grow, to be able to get that income? Also, what does it mean for food security if farmers abandon subsistence crops?”
Issues of land and tree tenure also come into play, and gender is a crucial factor. In many areas, says Mwangi, women can’t own land, and they may not even be permitted to plant trees as this can be considered establishing a claim to the land on which the trees stand.
Even when they’re permitted to plant, their labor is often exploited “to take care of the nursery, and tend the seedling until it grows,” says Mwangi. “Then the real owner steps in to harvest the tree and to reap the benefits.”
In a CIFOR-run workshop on forest landscape restoration and gender equality in December last year, Komaza’s adminstrative manager Janet Chihanga shared an example of exactly this phenomenon playing out in one of the company’s planting sites.
“When we planted the trees eight years ago, no one had any interest in this land. But now when it’s not even time for harvesting but just thinning, the men show up and assert their claims on the land,” she said.
Howard acknowledges that this may be an issue in some parts of the country, but says plenty of Kenyan women are putting money into their own pockets through the enterprise. “When it comes to gender dynamics, our strategy is to try and nudge people in the right direction, but we can’t control ultimately what people do,” he says.
Is the model scalable? Howard thinks so. “We want to be expanding throughout sub-Saharan Africa,” he says. “There are huge opportunities for this really anywhere you’ve got families living on drylands. And so what we see here is an opportunity to become Africa’s largest forestry company, creating a sustainable and environmentally friendly relationship with wood markets.”
“What keeps me going now is seeing that we might have a solution that could scale to a really meaningful size, and potentially make a real dent into two interconnected problems, rural poverty and deforestation.”
Mwangi, however, reminds us that there are risks in scaling up that need to be thought through, and that safeguards will be important to make sure that benefits are shared, and the less powerful are not further marginalized.
“History shows that once value is generated or a potential for value generation is obviated, it is often matched by pressure to capture and concentrate benefits,” she says.
“In most cases it is the powerful, well-connected elites who benefit the most. We can see this in the privatization of communal resources, or even at the household level in the example that Chihanga provides.”
Find out more about restoration initiatives throughout Africa at the Global Landscapes Forum GLF Nairobi summit, August 29-30, 2018. Click here