How commercial tree planting can help create jobs
Never in the country’s history have we stood on the edge as we do today.
With the increasing negative consequences of climate change, our short-term actions will now influence direction the country takes for future generations.
With a rapid growth in population, it is not tenable to focus tree growing on 10 per cent arable land, which puts trees in competition with food security, but we rather must look towards dryland forestry.
Commercial forestry remains one of our sleeping giants. The potential of commercial forestry to transform our GDP is mind-boggling, but we need to analyse it from a logical standpoint of sustainability and global best practices.
About 80 per cent of Kenyans rely on fuelwood as their primary source of energy yet we do not have a national charcoal policy. This is absurd, considering that we have vast tracts of idle lands in the arid areas of Turkana, Wajir, Marsabit and many others that can be used to sustainably provide this basic source of fuel. Enter Acacia tortilis. This is a type of acacia that has dual advantages of its biomass – high calorific value, making it perfect for charcoal production, and its pods being edible by livestock during the dry season. Additionally, it has the advantage of tree cover, bringing shade in the dry, hot regions, if done on a large scale, thus bringing in additional financial benefits of carbon sequestration.
Or take Acacia senegal, more commonly referred to as gum arabica, which thrives in the most hostile and arid of areas. Acacia senegal is not cut down, but tapped for its sap, which is a key component in making fizzy drinks. It is also widely used in the pharmaceutical and confectionery industries.
We have Melia volkensii, also known as Mukau or African mahogany, which matures in between 10 and 14 years and can be grown either on plantation model or for intercropping, owing to its excellent canopy. Melia’s timber is extremely beautiful, with the same grain finish as mahogany, and is used extensively in furniture making. It can also be used for flooring, roofing, or veneers.
Commercial tree growing would save us much-needed foreign currency from imports of raw timber and semi-finished products. Afforestation would also create employment by moving our nascent furniture industry into a formidable, full-fledged commercial sector with availability of locally produced cheap raw materials.
Whilst the current tree planting effort is laudable, it in no way will get us on to the path of harnessing our potential of commercial forestry as a country. At the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, we have partnered with the Kenya Forest Service to rehabilitate 10,000 hectares of degraded forest by planting 1.1 million trees.
However, it is imperative for the government to engage the private sector on a commercial basis. The private sector has access to capital but does not have sizeable chunks of land that would make commercial forestry a viable business. I would suggest exploring a framework of issuing medium-term leases of idle, marginal and ASAL lands to the private sector to enable unlocking of capital into commercial forestry.
While currently our leading furniture companies typically import veneers for making of furniture, they would now invest in growing the raw material and subsequently process it into veneer sheets, thus saving on foreign currency and creating employment and income via carbon credits, and most importantly, increasing our forest cover.
A different scenario would be private sector investing in our arid areas in line with a formulated charcoal and resins policy, in which Acacia tortilis and Acacia senegal would transform these barren wastelands into lands of great economic potential.
— The writer is chairperson of the Timber, Wood and Furniture Sector at the Kenya Association of Manufacturers