Taking the brakes off forest farm development in Kenya

Kenya means business when it comes to supporting forest farms – partly because it needs to fix a wood demand-supply gap of 12 million m³ per year. So the launch of the Forest Farm Facility (FFF) in Nariobi on 6 November was timely.

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11 November 2014

Leaders of the Southern Aberdare Conservation Network (SACN) discussing support from the Forest and Farm Facility

Not far from the clamour of construction in Nairobi, something of a revolution is under way. The country's constitution and Vision 2030 commit it to restoring forests such that they cover 10 per cent of Kenya's land area while also improving rural livelihoods.

Since 80 per cent of Kenya's annual wood supply goes to meeting national demands for fuelwood and charcoal, much of it used for cooking, making forestry work is a food security issue.

With little public land available, the onus to deliver falls to people growing trees on-farm or restoring natural forests through community forest associations. The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) is responding proactively by moving to recognise the role of tree growers in policy and law (PDF).

Unusually, the bulk of wood in Kenya is outside state forests, mainly in farmlands and drylands. And counterintuitively, despite stiff competition for land use, wood production has significantly increased on farmland with high population densities.

Spiralling demand for wood (that demand-supply gap) is one driver – as wood prices have strengthened. But for many years production has been constrained by inadequate legal and policy frameworks for farm forestry development, and a lack of familiarity and confidence that tree farming could be a viable commercial business.

All that is changing. With the new policy direction and support, ever more farmers are putting some land into trees. A great example of this, Ms Njeri, a member of the Southern Aberdare Conservation Network (SACN), has just taken out a 10-year lease on some land to grow trees. She's looking for a solid return.

With little forestry experience, Ms Njeri joined SACN, itself a newly established tree growers' network. Across Kenya there are in the region of 10,000 forest farmers joining such groups. At least five other networks now exist. Frontrunners such as the Western Tree Planters' Association (representing western Kenya and parts of North Rift) and the South Coast Forest Owners' Association have now been joined by the Kisii Tree Planters' Association, the Meru Farm Forestry Association and the Community Food and Environment Group.

With support from the Swedish international Development Agency (SIDA), the International Family Forest Alliance (IFFA) and the Swedish cooperative NGO We Effect, those six networks have now founded a national level association known as Farm Forestry Smallholder Producers Association of Kenya (FF-SPAK) (PDF). Recruitment is booming. But there is much to do to turn networks into business and sustain the momentum.

The Forest Farm Facility (FFF) is there to help. Many Kenyan forest farm producer organisations gathered at last week's launch. There were private tree growers, but also community forest associations, bamboo entrepreneurs, and dryland gums and resin traders. It is business women and men such as these whose strength in numbers and field presence will be critical to implementing Kenya's vision of forest landscape restoration.

FFF is a multi-donor funding programme co-managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Its main business is strengthening forest and farm producer organisations just like those in Kenya.

Left, a nursery worker in Central Kenya meeting growing demand for forest-farm tree growing, and right, SACN member Ms Njeri has taken out a 10-year lease on land to grow trees (Photos: Duncan Macqueen/IIED)

As Kenya and the world struggle to adapt to and mitigate climate change, the FFF approach of investing in locally controlled forestry (ILCF) is critically important. It helps local people's resilience, diversifying farm incomes to adapt to a more changeable environment. Tree growing in forest farm landscapes also soaks up carbon and makes a significant contribution to mitigating climate change as the area under forestry increases.

Kenya, in common with many countries, is revisiting legal rights and responsibilities and devolving power over land use to the local level, in this case to county governments. The FFF aims to support this devolution bringing the forest to the people (helping define, secure and develop commercial forest rights) – and also bringing business to the people (helping register and structure forest farm producer organisations backed by effective support services).

Participants at the FFF launch prioritised a series of practical next steps:

  1. Broaden the membership base of forest and farm networks
  2. Register cooperatives and shape governance structures so that the networks can do business
  3. Assess market demand against what farmers together might supply
  4. Build management and administrative capacity
  5. Explore options for self-generating, or getting access to, start-up finance, and
  6. Strengthen government extension work and services at the appropriate level.

Encouragingly, the FFF is not alone with its vision. A new bilateral cooperation programme with Germany's Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) has such overlap in vision that it arranged a joint consultation mission before the FFF's launch. The two programmes have agreed a carefully complementary approach. 

With the full support of forest farm producers and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) everyone seems to be pulling in the same direction – the brakes are well and truly off.

Duncan Macqueen (duncan.macqueen@iied.org) is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group, working on forest use and policies.

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