MASINGA, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Njeri Njoka first became a housewife 20 years ago, finding firewood was hardly a problem. These days, however, she combs the floor of the furniture-making sheds that have mushroomed in her village of Igoji in Eastern Kenya, looking for wood chips. Seldom are any to be found.
Firewood has long been used as a cooking fuel in many homes in rural Kenya. But demand for timber is stripping the countryside of its mature trees, while charcoal making claims younger trees. Tea processing – which requires heat from fires to cure the leaves – also claims a share. And so the 42-yeard-old Njoka must look for alternative sources of cheap energy.
“Firewood is not easy to find these days,” says the mother of three.
Fortunately, she explains, the government is intervening to contain logging, and is regulating how much wood tea processors should use to cure the leaves. But policing charcoal burning, she reckons, may be a lost cause.
In lower Eastern Kenya alone, at least 12,000 bags with a 90 kg (200 lb) capacity are trafficked to Nairobi, the capital, every day, according to Kenya Climate Change Network. Many people turn to charcoal making when other jobs – including farming – fail to produce enough income.
A growing number of Kenyans, however, have discovered a creative substitute for charcoal making to increase their incomes – farming mangoes.
At this time of the year, Sila Mutisya would normally be preparing his land to plant food crops at his farm in Masinga, in lower Eastern Kenya.
Instead he is tending to seven-foot high (2 metre) mango trees whose fluttering reddish-yellow flowers already promise a bumper harvest.
Over the years, grain farming become extremely difficult for 63-year-old Mutisya and many of his neighbours due to increasingly erratic weather. Even drought-resistant crops can barely survive in the parched terrain, he says – and so he turned to charcoal making to supplement his income.
But it was not until Mutisya visited a friend – himself a mango farmer – in the coastal town of Malindi that it dawned on him that fruit farming could be another answer to his financial woes.
SWAPPING TO MANGOS
The friend explained that the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), a government-run institution, had introduced mango varieties that could grow in arid areas, mature quickly and produce bigger and sweeter fruit.
Joseph Njuguna, a fruit expert at KARI who works from the National Horticultural Research Centre, says the new mango breeds can produce 10 times more fruit than conventional varieties, yielding 1,000 to 1,200 mangoes per tree each season.
Mutsiya now is looking forward to harvesting his own mangos on his two-acre farm.
“January is when charcoal burning is highest, but I will be harvesting my ripe mangoes because, as you can see, they have already flowered,” says the father of five.
“I turned to charcoal burning because it is a common source of livelihood for many of us,” he says. “I did not know I was making the already unproductive land worse because of cutting trees.”
The Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) says mango farming fits into an “ecosystem-based” approach to farming that that retains nature’s regenerative ability while also testing new agricultural technologies that may contribute to food security.
Planting trees – including mangos – helps absorb climate-changing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the new varieties of mangos are becoming a reliable cash crop in an arid region struggling to produce staple crops like maize.
Mango farming “increases the forest cover,” says KEFRI dissemination officer Samson Mogire. “It is also a sustainable way to retain moisture in the soil, especially in arid areas.”
But mango farming alone usually cannot support families, experts say, noting that to survive Kenyan farmers will need to mix fruit cultivation with growing staple crops.
“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,” reasons Anne Maina, a consultant on food security in Nairobi.
“However, farmers should be cautious not to abandon staple foods because they still hold the key to good nutrition,” she warns.
Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.