Myths about the baobab did not stop locals from uprooting trees

Kaya elders have over the years performed rites inside the over 30 shrines across Coast region to deter people from cutting down indigenous trees.

"Baobab trees are sacred. We use them when conducting special prayers, administering curses, or blessing people. It is as sacred to us as the Mugumo tree is to the people of Central," he said.

Safari Kadenge, a Kaya elder from Sabaki in Magarini, believes those who interfere with the baobab tree must be cleansed in order not to attract a curse.

"Careless felling of baobab trees is prohibited among the Mijikenda. This is where elders pray when the land is faced with calamities and those behind it need to be cleansed," he said.

The elders say that those who cut down indigenous trees must be cleansed inside the shrines.

The offender is fined a cow, sheep or chicken. The animal is slaughtered and eaten by the elders inside the forest. The blood is sprinkled on the felled tree to appease the gods.

These and other codes were used to keep illegal loggers, poachers and encroachers at bay. The rituals protected or guided the Mijikenda's way of life, particularly, how they related to the flora and fauna.

Today, however, most people in rural Kilifi believe that myths surrounding baobabs (and other indigenous trees) were tall tales meant to deter people from cutting down the trees.

To the new generation, baobab trees are a nuisance that stands in the way of development.

James Kahindi who owns 10 acres of land in Majajani village, along the Mavueni-Kaloleni road, says that his land is not appreciating in value because of the many baobab trees on it.

"Land prices along the road are increasing. A quarter of an acre goes for Sh2.5 million. But investors have shied away from my land due to the cost of uprooting these trees," said Kahindi.

The trees do not support inter-cropping because of huge branches and leaves, and farms with many baobab trees remain unproductive.

The baobab has a spongy trunk, meaning it cannot be used as timber or to make charcoal. One advantage it has because of its spongy trunk is that it can withstand harsh weather conditions like drought and floods.

Baobabs produce a dry fruit pulp that is highly nutritious. A baobab tree produces an estimated 4,000 pods, which translates to about 630kg of seeds and fruits.

Farmers claim they are exploited by brokers who purchase the seeds at throw-away prices. In the supermarkets, however, baobab powder retails at between Sh400 and Sh480 per 100g.

After drying the fruits, farmers pick a white pulp from inside the pods. It is made into a powder, packaged and sold in Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties.

At Mombasa's MacKinnon market, popularly known as Marikiti, the prices of baobab seeds are on a freefall. The seeds are eaten like sweets or used to generate superfood powder

Dr Joseph Tunje of Pwani University's Department of Environmental Science says most parts of the tree remain unexploited.

"People are not buying the seeds (mabuyu) like in the past. A drop in demand automatically affects the farm prices," says Aisha Ahmed, a trader at the market.

Baobab trees have been in existence for over 2000 years.

David Munga, the director of St Aminia Academy school, had for years agonised over how to deal with the giant baobab trees that dot his land in Tezo.

It is estimated that it costs at least Sh50,000 to dig up a mature baobab tree. On Munga's farm, there are eight gigantic baobab trees, which means it would cost him Sh400,000.

"It would cost me Sh400,000 to uproot the eight giant baobab trees on my farm," says Munga, adding that most farmers do not think much of the trees.

Sometime in 2020, Munga was among two farmers that approached Kilifi County Government to seek permission to uproot their trees. Munga wanted to create a playing field for pupils.

The Forest Conservation and Management Act 2016 bestows powers to regulate the cutting of trees on county governments.

In 2016, all 47 county governments signed a Transition Implementation Plan (TIP) framework with Kenya Forest Services (KFS) that devolved the forestry functions.

In Kilifi, despite farmers finding little economic value in baobabs, the county government protects the trees because of the environmental benefits.

A survey conducted by Kilifi County Government early this year revealed that in the last six years, Kilifi's forest cover has increased from 17 per cent in 2016 to the current 21 per cent.

"Two farmers wanted to uproot two trees for different reasons and we gave them the permits in 2020, but no tree was cut down until this year," said Kilifi County officials.

Munga admits that he was among the two farmers who got permission to cut down the baobab but he could not raise the money required.

In February, Munga went back to the county offices to renew the permit. But officials suspected something fishy after more farmers started to stream in to apply for the permits.

"We received applications from eight farmers and got concerned. We then placed an embargo," said the official.

Other reports indicate that by the time the county stopped issuing permits, eight giant baobab trees had been felled in Tezo.

"By the time they stopped issuing the permits, I had sold my trees to an investor. It was a good deal where he bought trees that could have cost me a lot of money to uproot," said Munga.

To sweeten the deal, Munga said the said investor, who the State has identified as a Kilifi-based Georgian tycoon, Mr George Gvasaliya, is building five classrooms for Munga school.

Georgia is located at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It is bordered to the north and northeast by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan.

Mr Gvasaliya's plan to traffic the baobab to Georgia has sparked a storm that has sucked in President William Ruto, and exposed state agencies and Kilifi County Government officials.

Tezo ward MCA Thomas Chengo, who is against the felling of the trees, said that he was not involved in the process and was also shocked by the information.

"They came for land owners because these trees grow in farms and I heard they had agreements. I must investigate the matter first before we allow such trade to ensure the law of nature is adhered to," he said.

As the debate rages locally, Ruto has ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to look into the ongoing uprooting of baobab trees in Kilifi County.

On his Twitter account, the Head of State said the activities should be within the Convention on Biodiversity and the Nagoya Protocol on the equitable benefit-sharing formula for Kenyans.

"Further, the exercise must be in line with the government's agenda of planting 15 billion trees in the next 10 years," said the president.