The tree helping Kenyan farmers beat drought and poverty

Agroforestry - the practice of planting trees in fields - can protect both crops and soil from harsh weather

KIBWEZI, Kenya, March 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Worried that a drought could wipe out his crops back in 2000, farmer Jonathan Kituku Mung'ala remembered meeting agricultural customers, in his previous job with Kenya's power company, who were making good money growing a hardy, native tree.

Called mukau by locals, the Melia volkensii tree is known for thriving in drylands, and provides thick shade that protects crops from the sun.

Farmers can also earn over 3 million Kenyan shillings ($29,806) per hectare by selling its timber, according to the Nairobi-based Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI).

As climate change worsens and farmers struggle to make a reliable income from food crops alone, some in arid Kenya are turning to agroforestry - the practice of growing trees in their fields.

They have discovered that mixing Melia volkensii in with their crops is one of the simplest, most effective ways of protecting their farms and livelihoods.

Mung'ala, 63, decided to plant 100 Melia volkensii trees on his 65-hectare (160-acre) farm in Kibwezi in southern Kenya.

Ten years on, he has more than 7,000 trees.

While their shade stops the sun scorching his crops, the dew that falls from the leaves at night also keeps his soil from going thirsty and the branches act as a buffer against wind storms, he said.

And whenever he needs to, he can bring in extra money by selling the wood.

"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," he said.

"This tree makes money for me all year round."

Farmer Jonathan Kituku Mung’ala takes stock of his Melia volkensii trees at his farm in Kibwezi, southern Kenya, on February 5, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi.

REVIVING THE LAND

For communities feeling the pressure of prolonged drought, the Melia volkensii is "a game changer," said Josephine Musyoki, a researcher at KEFRI.

Not only does it help keep crops growing through dry spells, the tree can also revive soil that has been damaged by extreme weather or deforestation, Musyoki said.

When its leaves fall and rot, they add essential nutrients back into the ground.

Lawrence Gitaari, a 43-year-old farmer from Marimanti in central Kenya, credits the tree with helping bring life back to the land in his village.

Just ten years ago, he said, most of the rangeland in the area had been cleared by villagers felling trees for charcoal.

That led to soil erosion, as the direct heat from the sun killed off many of the enriching organisms.

photo:by Kagondu Njagi | @DavidNjagi | Thomson Reuters Foundation

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