By Stella Mwangi
For many years the exotic thorny mathenge plant that grows in arid areas has been viewed as a villain that only wreaks havoc on plants that dare venture where it grows.
However, in Bura District, Tana River County, where the plant thrives, locals are turning the challenge into an opportunity. Here, the prickly plant is a cash crop of sorts.
Many families eke a living by harvesting wood from the plant, which is scientifically referred to as prosopis juliflora.
Mwangi Macharia is one of such farmer. On a fair day, Macharia hews five grown mathenge plants and harvests about a tonne of fuel wood, which can fetch up to Sh500.
The 43-year-old father of four ferries his merchandise on his bicycle to the Bura Township where he sells the cargo.
Macharia and his ilk sell a sack of the charcoal at Sh150. Buyers are mainly brokers who load it onto lorries and ferry it to Nairobi, where each sack fetches as much as Sh700 from the final consumer in the city’s Eastlands.
"We know the middlemen make a fortune from this trade. However, there is nothing we can do because none of us can single-handedly fill a lorry with charcoal to make transportation affordable," he says.
Macharia says trade in mathenge products has been his daily activity for the last ten years.
"This is my only source of income and it fully takes care of the needs," says the father of five.
However, Macharia says, this is not the kind of life he expected to lead when his parents resolved to migrate from Murang’a to live in the newly-established settlement scheme founded by the State in partnership with the World Bank in 1983.
When they arrived in the middle of that year, young Macharia with his family expectantly settled in Village 10, one of the sprawling schemes in the defunct Bura irrigation Scheme.
Life went on smoothly as his parents engaged in cotton production, he recollects.
"However things started falling apart bit-by-bit and eventually the local cotton industry collapsed," he notes. He wheels through the thicket full of the plants without fear of being pricked because unlike the mathenge species that grows in Rift Valley’s Baringo District, the type found in Bura does not tote poisonous thorns.
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On the contrary, residents and even animals living in Baringo where the plant grows abundantly do not go anywhere near the mathenge tree, lest one gets thorn inflictions.
Such wounds rarely heal and in some instances, have resulted in physical incapacitation.
Sued the government
Three years ago, some residents in Baringo District sued the Government, demanding compensation for what they claimed to be malicious introduction of the plant in their midst.
The complainants had a goat in tow to demonstrate how the plant was wreaking havoc on livestock and humans in Baringo.
Their contention was that when animals or humans consume the sugar-coated seeds of the plant, they would be poisoned and lose all or most of their teeth, besides suffering other health complications.
It was also claimed that smoke from mathenge fuel wood caused chest problems.
However residents of Bura Tana say the plant species in their midst is different from what is growing in parts of Rift Valley.
Indeed, there are more than 30 different species of mathenge and Allan Vindonyi, the area agricultural officer confirms that the species growing in the area is different from what’s found in Baringo.
"Whereas I’m not very sure of the various species of mathenge trees growing in Kenya, I’m pretty certain that the type thriving here is safe for both animals and people to exploit in every manner," says the agriculturalist.
Mr Vindonyi challenged local botanists and experts from Kenya Forestry Services to conduct a research to establish which of the 30 species of mathenge grows in Kenya.
In Bura Tana, mathenge tree is the only cash crop. Every day Macharia delivers a load of 15 fuel wood pieces to Bura’s Manyatta Shopping Centre, where he disposes the merchandise at Sh15 each. Later in the day he goes back to prepare a kiln to make charcoal from the wood.