Worried that a drought could wipe out his crops back in the year 2000, farmer Jonathan Kituku Mung’ala remembered meeting agricultural customers in his previous job with Kenya’s power company, who were making good money growing a hardy, native tree.
Called mukau by locals, the melia volkensii tree is known for thriving in drylands, and provides thick shade that protects crops from the sun.
Farmers can also earn more than Sh3 million ($29,806) per hectare by selling its timber, according to the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI).
As climate change worsens and farmers struggle to make a reliable income from food crops alone, some in arid Kenya are turning to agroforestry — the practice of growing trees in their fields.
Reviving the land
They have discovered that mixing melia volkensii in with their crops is one of the simplest but most effective ways of protecting their farms and livelihoods.
Mung’ala, 63, decided to plant 100 Melia volkensii trees on his 65-hectare (160-acre) farm in Kibwezi in southern Kenya.
Ten years on, he has more than 7,000 trees.
While their shade stops the sun scorching his crops, the dew that falls from the leaves at night also keeps his soil from going thirsty and the branches act as a buffer against wind storms, he said.
And whenever he needs to, he can bring in extra money by selling the wood.
“I never worry that my children will miss education for lack of school fees. Nor am I bothered that when they fall ill, they will not get medical care,” he said.
“This tree makes money for me all year round.”
For communities feeling the pressure of prolonged drought, melia volkensii is “a game changer,” said Josephine Musyoki, a researcher at KEFRI.
Proper care is key
Not only does it help keep crops growing through dry spells, the tree can also revive soil that has been damaged by extreme weather or deforestation, Musyoki said.
When its leaves fall and rot, they add essential nutrients back into the ground.
Lawrence Gitaari, a 43-year-old farmer from Marimanti in central Kenya, credits the tree with helping bring life back to the land in his village.
Just 10 years ago, he said, most of the rangeland in the area had been cleared by villagers felling trees for charcoal.
That led to soil erosion, as the direct heat from the sun killed off many of the enriching organisms.
“The Melia volkensii is changing this because it takes (only) about three years of the tree dropping leaves on the farm floor for degraded soil to become fertile again,” said Gitaari, who has several of the trees on his farm.
But farmers cannot simply plant the tree around their farms and expect to get rich, said Mung’ala, the farmer in Kibwezi.
While growing melia volkensii is easy, only farmers who know how to properly care for it will see the full benefits, he said.
The tree needs a lot of pruning to ensure it grows properly and to keep the trunk straight, so it can be sold for timber.
Farmers also need to learn how to extract the seeds from their kernels carefully, as they are easily damaged, Mung’ala added. Even when farmers know how to grow the tree successfully, they should be wary of relying too heavily on it to see their farms through the dry seasons, said Alice Akinyi Kaudia, co-chair of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a UN-led initiative to cut short-lived climate pollutants.