Farmers see promise and profit for agroforestry in southern Kenya

  • In Kenya’s Rift Valley, rural communities are implementing agroforestry to boost incomes and forest cover.
  • Native plants like enset, a type of wild banana, and trees are being cultivated in combination with crops, which benefit each other and provide a diversity of produce.
  • “Farmers are looking for new ways to widen their farm revenue as food markets become unpredictable. They are finding these answers in agroforestry,” says an official with the Kenya Forestry Service.
  • Agroforestry is also a main facet of Kenya’s goal to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris climate treaty, since it sequesters a large amount of carbon in woody plants both above and below ground.

KERITA, Kenya — It is high noon at Samuel Rono’s farm in Kerita village in southern Kenya, but the cool breeze blowing through gives visitors a sense of nature’s comfort.

Even the six youthful workers helping the 67-year-old tend his quarter-acre (1,000-square-meter) tree nursery seem to be enjoying their tasks as a flock of weaver birds cheer from above.

They are nursing a variety of young indigenous tree and plant species including African cherry (Prunus africana), Cordia Africana (a flowering tree in the borage family), Mzambalao tree (in the genus Syzygium), and enset or Ethiopian banana (Ensete ventricosum), among others.

In between issuing orders to the workers, Rono, a member of the Kalenjin indigenous community here, pauses and says, “Trees are my moneymaker besides creating a good environment for people, wildlife and other plants.”

It is easy to understand why. Milk sales earn him 150,000 shillings ($1,500) and maize harvests 200,000 shillings ($2,000) annually. But the tree nursery fetches him up to 700,000 shillings ($7,000) annually.

Samuel Rono in his agroforestry tree nursery in Kerita, southern Kenya. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

There is a scientific explanation, too. As arable land shrinks because of the effects of climate change and an increasing population, Kenyan farmers are being forced to adopt agroforestry — a method of farming that combines trees, shrubs and crops in a productive system that mimics a forest — as a way of maximizing returns from their farms, according to Laban Gitiba, the local representative of the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS).

Even those with large farms like Rono’s 4 hectares (10 acres) are finding it hard to make good returns from food crops alone, he said, adding that cheap imports from outside Kenya are choking the prices of cereals like maize and wheat.

“Farmers are looking for new ways to widen their farm revenue as food markets become unpredictable. They are finding these answers in agroforestry,” Gitiba says.

But as income-generating answers flood in, farmers are also keen on boosting the aesthetic and environmental value of plants, he said.

At Rono’s farm, a curious visitor notices the line of trees fencing the already ripe maize. The grazing paddocks seem to be echoing the towering trees on their edges with lush green pasture. Even the stream cutting through his farm toward a 2-hectare (5-acre) swamp at the eastern part of his land is dotted with a rare plant species: enset. “It is a wild banana grown along wetlands and rivers to help stop soil erosion and degradation of river catchment,” says Rono, a father of nine.

Agroforestry farmer Samuel Rono takes a look at young enset plants in his tree nursery. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Alfred Lang’at, another indigenous Kalenjin man whose farm sits some 88 kilometers (55 miles) from Rono’s land, in Kaptumo, knows the wild banana has other uses.

Apart from environmental conservation, it is also grown to beautify homes and provide shade to young food plants, while the leaves can be fed to cattle. “It also produces a fruit that is very sweet and can be eaten during periods of drought,” said Lang’at, who has also farmed enset along river catchments. 

Indigenous species preservation

Rono registered his agroforestry project with the local authority in 2001. Its aim, he says, is to ensure it has filled the farm with indigenous trees and rare plants like enset, and for a good reason.

Conservationists have raised the alarm over the fast rate at which indigenous plant species are disappearing in Kenya. They link the loss to illegal harvesting, climate change and forest encroachment.

Such concerns have troubled Kenyan conservationists for decades, especially seasoned ones like Robert Gituru. The solution, he says, may be in farm-based agroforestry.

At the Sino Africa Joint Research Center (SAJOREC), based at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) outside the capital, Nairobi, Gituru has a botanical garden. Established in 2014, the facility aims to conserve these plants.

Farmer William Chepkonga explains the uses of Afrocarpus falcatus at his farm in Ilula village, southern Kenya. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

“Working with communities, we bring medicinal, indigenous and rare plant species [to] the botanical garden so that we can study their unique traits and pass the knowledge back to the public,” says Gituru, the garden’s founding scientist.

Medicines and bees

It is this knowledge that lights up Josphat Macharia’s furrowed brow when he recalls the treasures he has been reaping from his farm on the edge of the Mau Forest in Ndabibi village.

A member of the Kikuyu indigenous community here, Macharia’s 2-hectare farm is a rich mix of staple foods like maize, potatoes, greens and a host of medicinal trees like African cherry, which is used to treat prostate ailments.

“The herbs are free. I only need to walk through, get the right plant, and then prepare medicine from home,” says the 54-year-old.

He is pleased the medicinal plants serve his family with free medicine. But they also give nature a home, while ensuring pests that raid his crops are controlled naturally.

In between branches, he has placed handmade vessels to accommodate all kinds of insects and birds living at his farm.

“The bees pollinate the plants while the birds feed on the caterpillars and mice,” says Macharia, a father of two, adding that agroforestry has ensured he does not use chemicals at his farm.

A beehive at William Chepkonga’s 2-hectare agroforestry farm in Ilula village. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Climate concerns

But why else are Kenyan farmers increasingly being attracted to agroforestry?

Scientists advising the Kenyan government have linked the erratic weather responsible for periods of prolonged drought in the last couple of years to the loss of tree cover, both on forestland and farms.

It is from this insight that the government has banned tree harvesting in Kenya’s forests since 1999. But the 2010 constitution extended the ban to rural farms unless one has an official permit.

Starved of their natural source of firewood, communities were forced to find new ways to continue obtaining firewood for free, says Kunga Ngece, an independent conservationist.

“Firewood is still [the] biggest source of fuel in many poor homes,” he says. “Agroforestry could provide this resource.”

Continued education about the benefits trees can give to rural communities, like herbal medicines and natural manure for food crops, also inspired a new appetite for agroforestry about a decade ago, Ngece says.

“Agroforestry can be a game changer,” says JKUAT’s Gituru, adding that close to 60 percent of Kenya’s land surface is poorly botanized, meaning it has not been explored for unique plant species.

Kenya, he says, is sitting on a gold mine in terms of biodiversity, where a large component of pharmaceutical products originates from plants. He highlights the need to conserve and study these plants for further added value, because it can take over 60 years for a scientist to discover a new plant species, in his experience.

Giant bamboo stands tall at Isaac Chereger’s farm in Ilula village, southern Kenya, where farmers are also embracing agroforestry to boost food security. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

“There is hunger for conservation,” Gituru says. “Scientists, politicians and communities are beginning to realize that there are no two ways. It is either we conserve or perish.”

Missing Water

Agroforestry appears to provide great benefits for conservation, but there is a cloud obscuring its luster, says John Wachira, a KFS officer working in the Rift Valley region.

Wachira is not pleased with range farming in this part of Kenya, which also hosts the country’s biggest water catchment, the Mau Forest Complex. Farmers here grow huge swaths of either maize or wheat, hence the term range farming, he says.

This has left little or no space for planting trees, a situation that could lead to land degradation in the future because of a lack of a natural energizer to boost biodiversity, he says.

It is easy to see why he is concerned. Birds that used to live here, like the African sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus), have migrated away, leaving only those birds that feed only on grain.

Even the swampy wetlands that ring the town of Eldoret in the heart of the Rift Valley have started to decline due to the lack of trees to breathe life into their existence.

And as the population increases and gets richer, so will the need for better lifestyles that provide communities with fresh air and a beautiful environment, Wachira says.

“Tree life has been left to the mercy of pockets of forests that cover this agricultural land,” he says. “It is no wonder the region is experiencing storm floods and [sporadic] weather.”

Official agroforestry

To offset the forestry deficit and balance it with staple food farming, the KFS is trying an integrated, agroforestry-type system in collaboration with the community, especially smallholder farmers, says Gitiba.

Kenya Forestry Service officials and a group from Kabianga University visit William Chepkonga’s farm in Ilula village. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Such a system, he says, allocates farmers a chunk of land within public forestland — an acre (4,000 square meters), for instance — where they can grow food crops while also gardening various tree species. Here, the farmers are expected to take care of the trees until they reach a certain level where they can sustain themselves, despite challenges like prolonged drought and invasion by pastoralists.

The farmers then vacate the land to allow the trees to thrive on their own and are allocated another KFS plot, Gitiba says.

“But it is not working,” says Simon Kamonde, chairman of the Muguga Ecosystem Research Community Forest Association (MERCFA), a community organization protecting acres of forestland on the fringes of Nairobi.

“The farmers are only there for about three years and cannot take care of the trees until they reach a ripe age,” he says, adding that plantation establishment is very different from agroforestry, because in the latter, farmers own the resource.

Besides, the trees that farmers have helped establish are known to be exploited by unscrupulous forestry officials, he says. The KFS says it has received such reports, and that its officers are in the process of investigating the allegations.

Such government-led investigations could take years to produce results, says Kamau Ngugi, executive director of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD).

The price of the delay is the continued loss of Kenya’s tree cover and loss of indigenous plant wealth, Ngugi says. “Indigenous communities have for years been relying on the security of forests for their food, fuel and medicine,” he says. “This is critical knowledge we are losing as a society.”

Lumber is another product of agroforestry for William Chepkonga. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

The only sustainable solution is through agroforestry, Ngugi says, adding that farmed trees provide families and communities with microclimates.

Liz Alden-Willy, an independent international land tenure specialist, agrees, telling Mongabay that local communities must be allowed to manage and own natural resources to ensure that they flourish.

Agroforestry observations and innovation

Back in Kerita village, Samuel Rono says he was motivated to invest in agroforestry because of his concern for a better environment and income generation through sales of seedlings. But agroforestry has also enabled him to do beekeeping, another moneymaker.

“Mature trees also garden themselves by releasing seeds on the floor of the farm when they ripen,” he says, pointing to seedlings that have sprouted from the ground. “These germinate and grow naturally without the tedious work of maintaining a tree nursery,” he adds. And recently, he says, he learned that Afrocarpus falcatus, a prominent tree at his farm, can cure foot-and-mouth disease among livestock.

In his reflective moments, he reckons farmers should share agroforestry knowledge among themselves to encourage innovation.

Samuel Rono shows off his cabbages growing among other crops in his agroforestry system. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

He is not sure whether enset, the wild banana species, can meet the agroforestry needs among farmers in Kenya. But he is hopeful that some of these rare plant species can be a great aid to rural Kenya, if only the government assists the farmers in marketing farmed tree products.

“Agrofrestry can help mitigate the effects of climate change,” he says. “But we also need markets for our trees so as to get economic value from them sustainably.”


This article is part of an ongoing series on agroforestry worldwide, see all the features here.

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