Farmers in Nyeri county are making millions of shillings not from cutting trees but from farming in Gathiuru forest as they conserve it.
Gathiuru Community Forest Association vice secretary Daniel Muhito, 40, has been at it for 12 years. From making mandazi and tea in his small kiosk, Muhito now owns three personal cars and is putting up a five-storey building in his hometown in Jua Kali area.
Muhito completed his college education in the hospitality industry in 2004. He later worked for three months in hotels on a casual basis and worked for one month in a tour company as a chef, but he was not a happy man. He says he felt incomplete and wanted to do something that would pull him out of poverty.
He decided to venture into farming and started by farming maize, wheat and potatoes, and although at first the yields were poor, what he got was better than the little he was earning form the casual jobs.
“After one season, I harvested 19 bags of potatoes in a quarter acre of land and got Sh13,000, with which I bought a bicycle,” Wahito said.
He has been farming in the forest thanks to the Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme (Pelis), which replaced the shamba system that Prof Wangari Mathaai lobbied to be scrapped by the government, terming it a big impediment to forest conservation.
In 2005, Muhito began planting potatoes in one acre and kept adding the portion he was planting. After three seasons, he had enough money to buy a car for transporting his produce to the market.
In 2012, he bought five more acres and built a modern house for his family. He kept farming and saving whatever money he was getting. In 2015, Muhito bought a second car at Sh780,000, and in 2016, he bought a plot and has now begun building a five-storey building for renting.
Muhito adds that many of the farmers in the community relied on relief food during the drought period but they are now self-sufficient and have been able to improve their livelihoods.
His advice to the youth was: “Don’t look down on any job, work hard and your efforts will pay off.”
Jane Waruguru says she started farming in the forest in 2008 and has been able to educate her children up to secondary school, while her lastborn son is in an academy. She grows potatoes and beans on a one-acre farm. Waruguru has also been able to buy land and build a permanent stone house for her family of four.
“In the first harvest, I got Sh30,000, and I expect to harvest 25 bags in the coming season. With a bag of potatoes going for Sh3,000, I am hoping to fetch about Sh75,000,” she says.
Eustace Muturi is a beekeeper but he also started with farming potatoes and beans from 2005 until 2008, when he was able to buy 13 acres.
“Once I bought land, I quit farming to concentrate on beekeeping. I have an apiary in my farm and I sell honey to the local community. I have about 80 beehives and one hive can produce 40kg of honey,” Muturi says.
The farmers are part of community members who have made more than Sh840 million in six years. The CFA members also get to benefit from grazing, collecting firewood at designated areas, and selling prunings from the forest.
Muchiri Mathinji, the Kenya Forest Service conservator in Nyeri county, said more than 4,000 farmers have benefited from the established forest plantations in Mount Kenya and the Aberdare forest.
He said under Pelis, farmers grow food crops like potatoes and beans, as they assist in tree production.
Speaking to journalists under the aegis of the CSE Media Fellowships Programme in Gathiuru forest in Nyeri, Mathinji said the scheme was introduced after enactment of the Forest Act, 2005.
“It is a governance scheme that seeks to help increase forest cover and restore degraded forests. Communities adjacent to the forest benefit from the scheme, where they are allocated plots upon which they plant seedlings, take care of them until the area forms a closed canopy, while they practise agriculture on the farms,” Mathinji said.
FIRES AND DROUGHT
However, he cited challenges such as forest fires, which he attributed to the current severe drought in parts of Kenya.
“This condition has an impact to the forests because once you have prolonged drought, the water volume comes down and there is ready material for fire. The prolonged dry spell also impacted on the seedlings that were planted in January and there was minimal survival,” Mathinji said.
This year, he said, priority will be given to 17,000 acres that were affected by the fires in Aberdare forests.
He said with the current rains being experienced in some part of the country, farmers should be able to replant tree seedlings and recover what they lost.
Under the scheme, farmers get about half an acre, where they grow low crops as they plant and take care of the tree seedlings for three years. Each farmer pays a fee of Sh250 to KFS every year.
Mathinji added that the scheme is good for forest plantation and the farmers get to benefit, and it has proven possible that indeed, communities can conserve the forest if it benefits them.
He said this initiative has helped increase forest cover in Nyeri to 38 per cent, and their target is 42 per cent forest cover.
“An increase of four per cent will require this county to have not less than 30,000 hectares. This land may not necessarily be under gazetted areas but much of the land is in the farm land,” Mathinji said.
The forest cover in Mt Kenya and the Aberdares, both key water towers, is 128,000 hectares, with 115,000 being from the gazetted area.
“We have done educated our farmers and also students under the school greening programme because we believe that schools have got areas for planting trees and they get to be self-sufficient in terms of getting firewood for their use,” he said.
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