Hussein Godana can afford a smile; he is a rich man. Though he comes from a pastoralist community living in Tana River County, his wealth is not from cattle. He manages to feed and sustain his family from exploiting a weed that has invaded much of the land in Bura.
Prosopis Juliflora, commonly referred to as Mathenge, was introduced in Kenya a quarter a decade ago by the government to mitigate desertification in arid and semi-arid areas.
“Mathenge is a money maker, I prefer to call it the black gold and not a weed,” he says.
Mathenge has been a great enemy to pastoralists as many of their livestock have lost their teeth and some died after eating the tree’s pods and leaves.
Godana recalls his father losing all his livestock to ‘‘the curse’’ and how he was put through school by selling charcoal from the tree.
“There is more to Mathenge than charcoal, if pastoralists were to embrace it they will find it a good feed source for their livestock,” he adds.
He teamed up with several youths in the village and formed the Biskidera Jabesa youth group which has for the last 18 months been using Mathenge pods to produce feed for their cattle and goats.
“The older generation did not understand how to live with the tree and did not know how to reap from it, that is why they lost their flock. ‘‘When flocks feed on leaves alone or when they eat seeds whole they tend to affect their stomachs, but when crushed they are safe,” Godana says.
When Biskidera Jabesa was formed in mid-2011 it had 30 members but the number has since grown to 120, which Mr Godana attributes to benefits of the ‘‘black gold’’.
Members are divided into four groups, each is assigned tasks to help boost their own socio-economic welfare and that of the community as well.
One of the groups focuses on charcoal burning, another oversees collection and storing of grass fodder, the third is involved with the creation of Mathenge syrup, while the last focuses on feed from the tree.
(Read: Origin of Mathenge weed)
The main component of the feed is the sugary Mathenge pod which is mixed with maize cobs and ground. According to Mr Godana only high quality pods, which are dry and have not been eaten partly by insects, are used.
“Women go out in the morning and in the evening to collect Mathenge pods. In most cases pods which have begun drying while on the tree and those that have just fallen to the ground are collected,” he says.
When women exhaust pods from trees near their village, men escort them farther into thickets to collect more.
A section of the fourth group is tasked with sourcing maize cobs from farmers at Bura Irrigation Scheme. Cobs are normally found in plenty during the maize harvesting season.
The cobs are then dried in the sun for a week or two and thereafter brought to the group’s milling house for grinding.
“We use a normal maize mill to make the feed, but we have replaced the sieve with a much smaller one to ensure that seeds are completely crashed,” explains Mr Godana.
Due to the adhesive nature of the juice produced from the seeds, the feed is mixed in the ratio of two cobs to one seed to prevent the juice from affecting the machine’s grinder.
The group is yet to fine-tune its value addition process. The final product is packaged in polythene paper bags and sold to group members and the rest of the community.
“During the rainy season when maize cobs and Mathenge pods are hard to come by the feed is sold at a higher price, while in times of drought we give it to members for free so that they can feed their livestock,” he says.
Members who use the feed as dairy meal say they have seen an increase in milk production particularly when animals are fed an hour before being milked in the morning and evening.
Biskidera Jabesa group members hope to upscale their feed production in order to eradicate loss of livestock during dry seasons.
They also look forward to competing with commercial animal feed companies in the near future. The group also uses Prosopis Juliflora pods to make syrup which members use as a spread on bread and for baking.
Dry pods are boiled for a few hours until seeds become soft then they are crushed to produce a sweet jelly-like substance.
The group is yet to begin producing edible syrup on a large scale hence it is made on order and packaged in used water bottles. Members buy the syrup at a cheaper rate than non-members.
Farming and grazing
“Many semi-arid and arid parts of Kenya are covered by Mathenge which has taken over farming and grazing land contributing to increased poverty. This can be changed if they can learn how to use the tree to make money,” explained Mr Godana.
For now charcoal is the biggest source of revenue for the group, which is licensed by the Kenya Forest Service.
Mr Godana said that charcoal burning is done in a systematic way in order to ensure that the weed is not destroyed.
Members who are in urgent need of money for school fees or hospital bills are allowed to harvest Mathenge, make and sell charcoal and pay.
The group sells charcoal to middlemen who come from as far as Mombasa, Garissa and Nairobi. Sometimes they get orders directly from hoteliers.
Last year alone the group produced 54,490 bags of charcoal with each retailing at Sh400, making a profit of Sh 20 million after paying Sh1 million revenue to the Kenya Forestry Service.
According to Dr William Mnene, a researcher at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari), similar community driven projects are found in Taveta, Hola, Garissa and Marigat where the weed is endemic.
“Though the tree has transformed the areas into an evergreen zone, it has very deep roots which suck water leading to the drying up of wells and bore holes,” Dr Mnene said
He explained that livestock lost their teeth because of the high sugar content in the seeds which can be removed by crushing the seeds. This, he added, also helps to slow down the spread of the weed.
“One of the greatest challenges we face is that there is no sustainable business engagement between local communities and commercial feed manufacturers.
‘‘If local communities can be organised into groups to supply certain amounts of crushed seed to manufacturers then the control can sustained,” added Dr Mnene.
There is more to Prosopis Juliflora than charcoal and animal feed. The tree’s stems and branches make high quality hardwood carvings which are rich in density and resemble artifacts made from Ebony.
“KFS is working to ensure that communities affected by Mathenge are licensed to harvest it and burn charcoal or for other uses,’’ he aid.
In addition, agronomists in Baringo country are exploring ways of using the stem of the weed, which covers over 30,000 hectares there, to produce electricity.
Comcraft Group, associated with business mogul Manu Chandaria, had proposed to set up the first commercial biomass power plant in Baringo which could generate 11.5 megawatts and sell the power to large corporations.
The project has since been bought out by Cummins Cogeneration Kenya Ltd which has started setting up a power plant in the area.