Kenya: Farmers grow mukau tree as protection against drought (Trust)

| May 26, 2019

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Back in 2000, Jonathan Kituku Mung’ala was worried that a drought could wipe out his crops. At the time, he was working with Kenya’s power company and he remembered meeting farmers who were making good money growing a hardy, native tree they called mukau.

Mr. Mung’ala decided to plant 100 Melia volkensii (mukau) trees on his 65-hectare farm in Kibwezi, in southern Kenya. The 63-year-old now has more than 7,000 mukau trees.

The trees provide shade for his crops and the dew that falls from the leaves at night keeps the soil from drying out. The branches also act as a buffer against windstorms. And when he needs to, Mr. Mung’ala can earn extra money by selling the wood.

The Melia volkensii tree thrives in drylands and provides thick shade that protects crops from the sun. Farmers can earn a good income by selling the timber for more than three million Kenyan shillings ($29,000 US) per hectare.

Mr. Mung’ala says: “I never worry that my children will miss an education for lack of school fees. Nor am I bothered that when they fall ill, they will not get medical care.… This tree makes money for me all year round.”

As climate change intensifies and farmers struggle to make a reliable income from food crops alone, some farmers in arid parts of Kenya are turning to agroforestry, the practice of growing trees on their farmland. They find that mixing Melia volkensii in with their crops is one of the simplest and most effective ways to protect their farms and livelihoods.

Josephine Musyoki is a researcher at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute. She says that Melia volkensii is “a game changer.” She explains that, during dry spells, it helps crops to grow, and that the tree can revive soil damaged by extreme weather or deforestation. When its leaves fall and rot, they add essential nutrients back into the soil.

Lawrence Gitaari is a 43-year-old farmer in Marimanti, in central Kenya. He says the tree has brought life back to the land in his village. Ten years ago, most of the rangeland in this area had been cleared by villagers felling trees for charcoal. That led to soil erosion.

Mr. Gitaari says, “The Melia volkensii is changing this because it takes [only] about three years of the tree dropping leaves on the farm floor for degraded soil to become fertile again.”

But farmers can’t simply plant the tree around their farms and expect to get rich. Mr. Mung’ala says that farmers must care for the tree to see the full benefits. Melia volkensii requires a lot of pruning to ensure that it grows properly and to keep the trunk straight so that it can be sold for timber.

Farmers must also learn how to carefully extract the seeds from their kernels, as they are easily damaged.

Alice Akinyi Kaudia is co-chair of the Climate and Clear Air Coalition. She suggests that farmers not turn exclusively to growing Melia volkensii. She says they should continue to grow crops to feed their families and sell to their communities. She adds that farmers should not rely too heavily on the tree to support them through dry seasons, and should eventually transition to using irrigation, particularly in arid parts of Kenya.

Mr. Mung’ala has not needed to use irrigation since his Melia volkensii trees matured. The trees’ canopy does a good job of keeping his crops cool and conserving moisture. The tree’s growth can sometimes be so dense that no crops will grow under it, so he grows grass instead to sell as livestock fodder. Mr. Mung’ala grows enough grass to yield 100 bales per season and sells them for 300 shillings ($2.90 US) each. He also sells Melia volkensii seedlings to fellow farmers and some of his trees for lumber, charging 8,000 shillings ($78 US) per metre. He says that wood from other popular timber trees, such as pine and cypress, fetches only half that price.

Mr. Mung’ala says, “When I look at the trees, I see money. When I look at the grass on the farm floor, I see money. What else can a farmer want? … This tree is everything.”

This article is adapted from a story titled “The tree helping Kenyan farmers beat drought and poverty,” written by Kagondu Njagi and published by Thomson Reuters Foundation. To read the original story, go to: