Kenyans swap charcoal burning for mango farming (Trust)

November 04, 2013
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It is nearly planting season. Sila Mutisya would normally be preparing land to plant food crops on his two-acre farm in Masinga, in eastern Kenya. But this season, he is caring for his two-metre tall mango trees, whose reddish-yellow flowers already promise a bumper harvest.

In the past few years, increasingly erratic weather has made grain farming extremely difficult for 63-year-old Mr. Mutisya and many of his neighbours. Even drought-resistant crops are barely surviving in the parched terrain. And so he, like many other Kenyans, turned to charcoal-making to supplement his income.

Njeri Njoka lives in the village of Igoji. She is often forced to visit one of the many furniture-making businesses in her village to search for wood chips to use as cooking fuel. The mother of three says that, these days, firewood is not easy to find. Demand for timber is now stripping the countryside of its mature trees. Young trees not felled for furniture or construction often end up as charcoal.

According to the Kenya Climate Change Network, at least 12,000 90-kilogram bags of charcoal, or over one thousand tonnes, are taken to Nairobi for sale daily. Although the Kenyan government is intervening in an attempt to manage deforestation, according to Ms. Njoka, policing charcoal production may be impossible.

But a growing number of Kenyans have discovered a better and more lucrative way to make an income − by growing mangoes. When Mr. Mutisya visited a friend in the coastal town of Malindi, he saw that mango farming could be a better answer to his financial woes than making charcoal.

The friend explained that the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI, has introduced new mango varieties that grow in arid areas, mature quickly and produce large, sweet fruit.

Joseph Njuguna is a fruit expert at KARI who works at the National Horticultural Research Centre. He says the new mango varieties can produce 10 times more fruit in dry areas than conventional varieties, yielding over 1,000 mangoes per tree each season in favourable conditions.

This year, Mr. Mutisya, a father of five, is looking forward to harvesting mangoes instead of making charcoal. He explains, “I turned to charcoal burning because it is a common source of livelihood for many of us. I did not know I was making the already unproductive land worse because of cutting trees.”

The Kenya Forestry Research Institute, or KEFRI, says growing mangoes fits into an “ecosystem-based” approach to farming. Trees such as mangoes absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they are growing. Samson Mogire is an information dissemination officer at KEFRI. He adds, “Mango farming increases the forest cover. It is also a sustainable way to retain moisture in the soil, especially in arid areas.”

The new mango varieties are becoming a reliable cash crop in an arid region struggling to produce staple crops such as maize.

But mango farming alone will not support families year-round because of the seasonality of the crop, says Anne Maina, a food security consultant based in Nairobi. Farmers should be cautious not to abandon staple foods, she argues. However, adds Mrs. Maina, “Mangoes ripen during the dry season when farmers may not be having food, and so it is a secure way to earn them extra income.”