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The promise of microforestry

Photo credit: Matthew Foerster A new KOMAZA farmer poses with a seedling he will plant before the rainy season in Ganze, Kenya.Photo credit: Matthew Foerster A new KOMAZA farmer poses with a seedling he will plant before the rainy season in Ganze, Kenya.A new KOMAZA farmer poses with a seedling he will plant before the rainy season in Ganze, Kenya.

In Africa, poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably linked. If we want to talk about long-term sustainable solutions, we cannot address one without the other.

I live in an area of rural Kenya where people cut down indigenous trees to process and sell as cooking charcoal. Every morning, I see men riding into town on rickety bicycles weighted down by large, overstuffed bags. These 50-kilogram sacks were once filled with food aid donated by Western governments but are now used to transport illegally produced charcoal into urban centers like Mombasa and Nairobi.

Known as the local “poverty industry,” the informal charcoal trade exacerbates East Africa’s dangerously high levels of deforestation and threatens agricultural livelihoods. For families living on less than $1 per day, the immediate need for income far outweighs the long‐term consequences of deforestation. In fact, the industry is only growing more enticing. As Africa’s population quickly rises and urbanization intensifies, there is a massive and increasing demand for wood products, making deforestation even more profitable in the short term for the world’s poorest communities.

Rural subsistence farmers living in semi-arid regions are among the most neglected, hardest to serve people on Earth. Low, erratic rainfall coupled with degraded, infertile soil presents near‐insurmountable challenges. Because soil quality is so poor and drought so persistent, traditional food crops often fail—forcing communities to rely on foreign assistance and charitable organizations. As we have seen in recent years, below-average rainfall can push these families to the brink of starvation; many villages in rural Kenya are still recovering from the severe drought experienced in 2009 after four consecutive deficient rainy seasons.

When trees disappear, biodiversity is lost at an astonishing rate—the loss of ground cover and root systems in these already fragile regions leads to soil erosion and, ultimately, desertification. Out of desperation, some farmers in these villages cut down roughly one tree per week. That is more than 2,000 trees destroyed over each farmer’s lifetime. Multiply this by the millions of people throughout Africa who are forced to make the same choice between plundering the land or earning less than is required for survival. Through this cycle of extreme poverty and environmental destruction, thousands of acres of indigenous tree cover have been lost. Farmland is becoming ever‐more infertile and natural environments are eroding.

From Science to Social Entrepreneurship

Before I continue, let me back up and explain how I ended up in Africa.

As an undergraduate student in neurobiology at Brown University, I engaged in a variety of scientific research projects. In 2002, my academic pursuits brought me to Kilifi, Kenya, a small coastal city of about 40,000 people, where I conducted malaria immunology research at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme. During my years at Brown, I frequently returned to KEMRI, splitting my time between Kilifi in the summer and Providence, Rhode Island, during the academic year.

As I spent more time in Africa, I began to better understand the root causes of its social and economic problems. When local residents spoke of their daily challenges, they would tell me they simply did not have enough money to purchase what most of the world takes for granted: food, water, shelter, education, and health care. It was always a matter of income.

Realizing the remarkable potential and entrepreneurial spirit of the community, I launched a nonprofit social enterprise in early 2006 called KOMAZA (Swahili for “promote development and encourage growth”). Based in Kenya, KOMAZA seeks to create income-generating opportunities for smallholder farmers living in infertile and drought-prone regions by encouraging small-scale tree farming—we call it microforestry. By integrating poverty alleviation with environmental conservation, microforestry eases market pressure on indigenous forests, restores degraded landscapes, and helps Africa’s farmers—the majority of whom are women—make life-long investments in their families’ futures.

Photo credit: Nancy Farese A man transports illegally harvested charcoal to sell for about $5 a bag in Kilifi, Kenya. In Africa, the charcoal trade exacerbates deforestation.Photo credit: Nancy Farese A man transports illegally harvested charcoal to sell for about $5 a bag in Kilifi, Kenya. In Africa, the charcoal trade exacerbates deforestation.I decided to focus the initial implementation of our microforestry model in areas with dry, semi-arid climates. In these regions, poor agricultural conditions have left families that have several acres of unused land with few options for productive farming. We have found a way to turn this unproductive land into a source of income, allowing Africa’s poorest families to lift themselves out of poverty.

Our solution is centered on helping rural families establish half-acre microforests of approximately 300 fast-growing trees. Currently, we provide farmers with drought-resistant varieties of eucalyptus and Melia volkensii trees. These trees transform previously fallow land into flourishing tree farms and provide an unprecedented source of income when harvested. To accomplish this, we are building a complete, vertically integrated forestry value chain—from seed to market. We work directly with rural farmers and provide them with agricultural inputs and tools on credit, such as seedlings and fertilizers; on-farm training and support; post-harvest processing; and market access opportunities.

In order to ensure the survival of our trees, maximize the value they create for our farmers, and protect the land where we plant, KOMAZA works with farmers to promote agricultural best practices throughout the entire planting, maintenance, and harvesting process. During our initial land surveys, we make sure that each potential plot is not being used for any other purpose and that existing trees will not be adversely affected. We strictly forbid KOMAZA farmers from clearing native forests to expand their tree farms. And our farmers’ trees must be at least 100 meters away from any wetlands so that they do not negatively affect water sources. Field staff members teach farmers how to produce and use compost and, while planting, to add fertilizer, a nontoxic pesticide, and a natural, biodegradable polymer to enhance the seedlings’ water absorption. Our farmers then create small basins around the bowl of each seedling and add mulch to keep moisture in the soil and prevent erosion. Farmers are also taught to weed only within one meter of their trees, thereby allowing other plants to grow and maintain topsoil. KOMAZA farmers quickly apply these soil amendment practices to their subsistence crops as well. Because of these and other farming practices, the vast majority of KOMAZA farms experience tree survival rates exceeding 90 percent.

In order to further refine agricultural practices for our dryland farmers, we operate three experimental farms with more than 180 research plots across 25 acres. We also collaborate with forestry experts at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) as well as the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI). This ongoing research has demonstrated the viability of tree crop production in semi-arid environments while helping us develop the experience and systems necessary to scale our model to eventually serve tens of thousands of farmers.

Most other agriculture development programs fail to consider entire value chains, making it difficult for their farmers to reach high-value markets. Even if growing conditions were ideal, rural farmers cannot afford quality crop inputs, are unfamiliar with agricultural best practices, and are completely cut off from markets for selling their yields. Recognizing this challenge, KOMAZA has created an inclusive model. We do not stop at providing crop inputs to increase production. In fact, the majority of our work occurs during the post-harvest, value-added processing, distribution, and marketing phases.

Microforestry is one of the few sustainable development interventions that can be highly successful in semi-arid regions. It is a low‐risk, high‐profit investment ideally suited for the environments where our farmers live. When sustainably harvested over a 10- to 12-year cycle, our farmers’ crops provide immediate increases in annual income and generate record lump-sum capital for families to invest in major life improvements. KOMAZA’s latest market-research estimates project that each farmer will double his or her annual income within 6 years, triple it within 8 years, and receive unprecedented annual income of nearly $3,000 by year 10. While that may not seem like a lot, consider the fact that most rural African farm families today make only $300 per year. Successful tree farms can open doors to improved health care, better education, and new economic opportunities. Since KOMAZA’s trees regrow after being harvested, a single planting will yield several decades of high-value trees.

Commercial trees planted in small, family-owned plots avoid the environmental consequences of the large, contiguous plantations that provide most of the world’s wood. By providing a model that is sustainable, profitable, and scalable, microforestry can reduce deforestation at the national and regional levels. Benefits even exist globally, since forests sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon, thereby playing a key role in the global response to climate change.

After spending several years in rural Kenya, witnessing how reliant communities are on their land and seeing how past development programs have failed, I believe that helping Africa’s farm families grow high-value crops and get them to the market is the single greatest intervention for creating and sustaining household wealth. It is widely understood that revitalizing global agriculture can also have a significant and positive impact on nutrition, environmental conservation, female empowerment, and overall economic stability.

Lessons Learned

While science initially brought me to Africa, social entrepreneurship has kept me here. To date, KOMAZA has helped 1,000 farmers—two-thirds of whom are women—plant more than a quarter million trees across semi-arid lands. And by intercropping leguminous vegetables, such as cowpeas and green grams, throughout the farms, rural families have earned the equivalent of over $20,000.

Although KOMAZA is in its early stages, we are now entering a critical time in our development. By the end of 2012, we plan to partner with nearly 10,000 smallholder farmers throughout coastal Kenya.

However, our microforestry model is not without its challenges. For most of the rural communities we work with, the idea of tree planting is initially confusing and sparks many questions, especially regarding harvesting, payment, and land rights. For this reason, we work closely with community leaders—such as village chiefs, subchiefs, and women’s groups—to gain their support early on, especially as we expand to new locations. Their approval is key to gaining the acceptance of the entire community.

Additionally, real-time communication, reporting, and evaluation can be challenging given that we work in remote areas. Field staff often have to travel long distances on roads that are barely drivable. Poor literacy also remains a major obstacle. To overcome these challenges, KOMAZA is exploring opportunities to adopt mobile-phone-based technology solutions, such as farm-level GPS mapping and SMS reporting, which would provide us a constant and accurate stream of performance data in both English and Swahili.

Our early-stage plantings have taught us that there are four critical components to successfully executing microforestry at scale: comprehensive operational systems and tools, active community leadership, proper logistical sequencing, and task ownership. However, the most important factor in KOMAZA’s model is what we call the Field Extension Network—a decentralized group of over 75 full-time local employees who form the backbone of our rural operations. Hired directly from the communities we work with, the Field Extension Network comprises staff at various levels—facilitators, field officers, field managers, and field directors—who meet with partner farmers on a regular basis to provide training and ongoing maintenance support.

A Nonprofit That Thinks Profitably

From Davos to Doha, there is an ongoing and increasingly vigorous debate among economists, politicians, aid workers, and even celebrities about how to improve the lives of the nearly one billion people living on less than $1 per day.

Too often, the top-down approaches to development created in Washington DC, New York, and London fail to consider the on-the-ground realities of the people they are trying to help. What is worse, decades of failed development policy have in some cases undermined the livelihoods of those in need by importing Western-designed strategies, thereby pushing local, small-scale farmers out of business, manipulating the true market price of food crops and other commodities, and creating an inescapable culture of dependency, where only a fraction of each dollar actually reaches the people it is intended to assist.

I believe there is a better way to achieve long-term, lasting development through social entrepreneurship, a nascent field of thinkers and doers who reject traditional models of development and embrace high-impact, evidence-based approaches that are both scalable (i.e., they can reach millions of people) and financially sustainable (i.e., they are not entirely dependent on charitable contributions or grants). Matthew Bishop of The Economist describes it as “philanthrocapitalism.” Bill Gates coined the phrase “creative capitalism.” Whatever you call it, there is a heightened awareness and growing consensus that efficient market-based solutions play a vital role in poverty alleviation. It is a guiding philosophy for how we operate KOMAZA.

We are scrapping the idea of handouts to “beneficiaries.” Instead, our microforestry model empowers some of the world’s poorest farmers to act as producers of high-demand wood products. We are bringing them completely into the process and designing a social enterprise around them.

To build a truly sustainable organization, we structure our not-for-profit intervention as a social business. Upon selling our farmers’ products, we recover our costs and earn a profit from each farmer we work with. By achieving per-farm profitability, KOMAZA will become a financially self-sustaining, permanent partner for development. And by reinvesting in program expansion, KOMAZA will become self-scaling—expanding to eventually reach farmers throughout Africa.

Tree farming is an inherently front-loaded investment with long-term, but very attractive, returns. For KOMAZA, donor funding and other methods of outside financing are necessary in the short and medium terms as we expand and build capacity, but we must ultimately become independent of philanthropic support. We have built this into our revenue model since our inception—at scale, KOMAZA will be able to completely and indefinitely fund its own operations and their expansion.

Guided by locally driven, market‐oriented solutions, KOMAZA applies the principles of the business world to the needs of Africa’s farmers. By reducing burdensome start‐up costs, helping smallholder farmers grow more productive, high‐value crops and connecting them with new markets, KOMAZA aims to transform the forestry value chain to make it work for the poor—a paradigm shift that replaces aid and charity with investment and entrepreneurship and that has the potential to generate large‐scale and lasting change for those who need it most.

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