It’s early in the morning, but Benson Buiya and several other farmers are already waiting at the gate of the herb factory. Mr. Buiya is carrying several sacks of herbs on a motorcycle.
After he enters, he signs in and heads straight towards the weighing section, where a staff person weighs the sacks and records the number in a black book.
Mr. Buiya left his job as a carpenter in 2003 and started growing herbs near Kakamega rainforest in western Kenya. He and many of his neighbours are growing herbs to increase their income and protect the nearby forest, where they previously foraged for the valuable plants.
The herb he grows most and sells at the factory is ocimum, known locally as miuyi. The scientific name of the plant is Ocimum kilimandscharicum and it’s a member of the basil family.
Mr. Buiya says ocimum doesn’t require as many inputs as other crops grown by farmers in the area. He explains, “For maize, you need the seeds for planting and fertilizer for top dressing and pesticides. But for ocimum herb, you only need to plant and weed.”
He says that ocimum is the herb that people search for most in the Kakamega rainforest. It is traditionally believed to help diseases and conditions such as measles, skin problems, congested chest, flu, stomach problems, and many others.
People who don’t grow herbs seek help from Mr. Buiya, who provides them for free to prevent people from looking for traditional medicines in the forest and depleting forest resources.
He explains, “The community comes to my home and picks the [herb] leaves whenever their children get sick.”
Mr. Buiya and other farmers in the area formed the Muliru Farmers Conservation Group. The aim of the group is to protect the forest from deforestation by people who cut trees for charcoal production or to obtain timber, honey, and herbal medicines. The group members also grow herbs to generate income.
The group has a one-acre piece of land where farmers learn how to grow herbs. Mr. Buiya says that, because of trainings at this demonstration plot, many farmers are now interested in planting herbs and are abandoning practices that deplete the forest.
The group has received several international awards for successfully protecting Kakamega rainforest and for helping to improve the income of the communities around the forest.
James Ligare is the chairperson of Muliru Farmers Conservation Group. Mr. Ligare says: “We are happy that what started as a joke has become an international attraction centre. We currently have about 500 farmers involved in herbal farming and more are joining because they have realized the benefits.”
The area has a factory that buys herbs from the farmers. Agnes Mulimi is a local farmer who started growing ocimum in 2014 on a half-acre piece of land. She is the chairperson of a group called the Shamiloli Forest Conservation Group.
Mrs. Mulimi explains, “Since the factory came, we no longer go to the forest to look for herbs. Instead, we are conserving the forest.”
She says that members of her group are increasing their ocimum planting area because they have seen the benefits of the plant. Mrs. Mulimi supplies 2,000 kilograms of ocimum leaves per year to the factory.
She adds: “The money from the harvest is used to buy inputs for vegetables like kale, cabbage, indigenous vegetables, tomatoes, onions, beans, and others, because we intercrop them with ocimum, and therefore get more profits. We also use the money to pay school fees and for other household uses.”
At the factory, ocimum is distilled and used to produce a variety of products, including ointment, mosquito repellants, and oil, which is sold to pharmaceutical companies to produce various products.
Mr. Buiya makes about 15,000 Kenyan shillings ($146 US) a year from herb farming, which has enabled him to pay for his child’s secondary education and buy a dairy cow.