An acute shortage of Mondia whitei popularly known as mukombero has hit the western region, forcing traders to cross over to neighbouring Uganda in search of the herb.
Simon Ondula, a mukombero hawker in Kakamega town who imports his product from Uganda, fears that in the next few years the antidepressant will be extinct.
“I have been selling mukombero for 10 years after the collapse of Mumias Sugar factory where I used to work. We used to harvest the herb in Kakamega forest or people’s farms but uncontrolled harvesting led to its near disappearance,” said Ondula.
Ondula says mukombero started diminishing from the forest and other natural places when the harvesting process was left to non-experts who simply uprooted everything from the ground without leaving part of the herb for regeneration.
This he says has forced people to plant an imitation of the herb on their farms to deal with the diminishing original product.
The 49-year-old trader says what is largely sold on the streets is not a natural version of the herb and it lacks the original taste.
“People don’t like it so much, forcing us to go to Uganda’s Kamuli forest for the original version of the herb which sells like hot cake,” said Ondula.
“In Uganda the harvesting is controlled, people harvest it for commercial, not domestic consumption. I think that’s the reason for the controls.”
Ondula buys a sack of 120 kilograms of mukombero at Sh8,000 from Uganda and pays Sh200 to customs agencies at the border point to bring the commodity into the country.
In Kenya, he used to buy a similar quantity at Sh14,000.
When choosing the herb he goes for the yellowish herb claiming it is tastier than the white variety.
The renowned mukombero trader in Kakamega who also goes by the name ‘Waziri wa Mapenzi’ Ondula sells 1kg of the roots at Sh350 and a piece of about 30cm at Sh30.
He produces its powder for those who love to flavour their drinks with it at Sh100 per 50 grammes as mukombero seedlings go for Sh50.
John Atika, another mukombero hawker in western fears that if Uganda shuts its doors on Kenya customers of the revered herb would be left stranded.
“I urge the relevant authority to do something to save this traditional herb from extinction,” he said.
Daniel Muchesia, a researcher at Kakamega Natural Forest Catchment Conservation Organization acknowledges the scarcity of mukombero and agrees that most of the products sold in Western is sourced from Uganda.
“Poor harvesting methods including premature harvesting are the main causes threatening the extinction of mukombero in this area. The root takes two years and three months to mature but most people want quick money and harvest it as early as one and a half years,” he says.
“Mukombero is supposed to be harvested in a way that the mature or old root of the product remains so that after harvesting it produces a younger root. Unfortunately, our people harvest everything and even cut the mother stem.”
The researcher says what should be harvested are the young roots that are watery in form after two years of maturity leaving the old and hard roots for continuity.
Muchesia says two years ago, they entered into a deal with Man Fields company in France to supply 100 metric tonnes of the herb per year but due to the scarcity of the herbal root, the deal collapsed.