Kenyan farmers embrace commercial growing of oil-producing tree

New cash-generating tea tree that withstands harsh dry conditions is quickly gaining popularity among farmers in arid parts of the country. Demand for the climate-resilient oil-based tree has been surging, attracting many small-scale farmers.

“We have a total of 741 certified farmers and additional 5,000 trained farmers that are soon beginning to start growing the crop,” Earth Oil Extracts Project Manager Martin Wainaina told Xinhua during a recent interview. Wainaina said the tree crop grown in central arid parts of the country was introduced in 2007 and does well in extreme harsh dry weather conditions.

The tree that grows to two metres tall and has been changing lives of farmers in the region has natural oil in its leaves and bark that is used in health and beauty products.

Due to its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, tea tree oil is ideal for use in products like shampoos, creams, skin cleansers and lotions, soaps and deodorants. According to Livingston Gitahi, a tea tree farmer in Laikipia, the tree crop has replaced maize as it is resistant to drought and pests, two problems that have been affecting agriculture in the region. “I used to grow maize, potatoes and beans but chose to switch to tea tree because it is not attacked by pests and also it is harvested for 20 years after planting,” he said.

Moreover, the crop is not destroyed by elephants and baboons of Mt Kenya Forest that raid the surrounding farms in search of food. Gitahi, who has been growing the crop since 2007, earned Sh100,000 last year from his one and half acre piece of land where he used to harvest four bags of maize over the years.

The tree that is harvested twice a month is cut and transported to the distillation plant at the Earth Oil Extracts where essential oil is extracted from the leaves and bark by steam. The oil is then stored and packed into sealed drums ready for export to South Africa and Australia.

“The tea tree oil crop helps in addressing food security, and is a source of alternative income for people in the region that have traditionally grown maize,” said Nancy Chege, UN Development Program (UNDP) - Global Environment Facility (GEF)/Small Grants Programs (SGP) Country Program Manager.

The project was funded by the UNDP-GEF/SGP Program at a cost of $45,000 (Sh4.5 million) and is managed by the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN).

“Once planted, a seedling takes 15 months for the first harvest and henceforth harvested twice a year for a period of 20-25 years,” said Chege.

Amongst the tea tree oil farmers is Jane Muthambure, a farmer who has grown the crop for the past 10 years. “I have built an eight-unit commercial residential houses with money from tea tree that fetches me over Sh20,000 in rent every month.