It’s 11 am on a Monday at Nawoitorong village in Morungole Sub location, Turkana West Sub County. The sun is already too hot as Enterprise meets Peter Lochor, 80 for interview.
Mr Lochor leads us to one of the few surviving acacia trees for a shade. The acacias are in the midst of countless mesquite trees known scientifically as Prosopis Juliflora and locally referred to as ‘Mathenge’.
Mr Lochor is a member of the Morungole Environmental Group created to find ways to conserve environment and deal with the invasive tree.
The group's main objective was to protect indigenous trees by working with the local administration to ban logging and charcoal burning. However, turning Mathenge into cash is now their main economic activity.
Peter Palal, the chairman of the group, says that after an intensive training on environmental conservation through the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, Turkana County Government and Japan International Cooperation Agency, they have learnt how to turn the “evil” mesquite into a source of income through charcoal venture.
Mr Palal, 47, says he used to individually burn charcoal and sell to refugees at nearby Kakuma Refugee Camp who offer a ready market.
"After most of our land for agriculture and pasture for our livestock was invaded by the weed we decided to relocate but to look for a solution. Now for the past five years we have been burning charcoal from Mathenge," he says.
The efforts of the more than 30-member group has paid off. In 2017 they were trained by FAO on uses and benefits of modern kilns in making charcoal.
"The first time we collected more than 200 bags of charcoal and earned Sh200,000. The members are now able to pay school fees for their children, cater for hospital bills and provide ensure they have food," Mr Palal says.
The traditional method of burning charcoal was tedious and generated few bags of charcoal, he says.
At the moment, the group has two modern kilns that produce a total of 12 bags of 50 kilos in two days, compared to the old method that used to produce an equivalent quantity of charcoal in six days.
The group is now minting good income from the venture with a bag of charcoal going for as high as Sh1,000 during rainy season. However, during dry season the supply is higher than demand and the price drops to Sh500.
Mr Palal says that through charcoal burning they ensure that the mesquite is uprooted and cut into smaller pieces to control their growth.
"The spaces that are left are reserved for agriculture where we plant sorghum and vegetable intercropped with indigenous trees," he explains.
Alice Naroo, a group member, says the modern kiln produces less smoke and only one person is assigned to monitor it after being fed with wood.
The invasive plant was initially thought to be a saviour to the drought-stricken barren land. Mr Lochor says that before the plant was introduced in the region, there was a severe drought that wiped many of their livestock and even people. The area had few indigenous trees that couldn't withstand the drought. This is when the idea of introducing Mathenge came up. A senior regional research scientist at Kenya Forestry Research Institute Jesse Owino said the mesquite was first introduced in Kenya in 1973 for Bamburi quarries rehabilitation.
"In 1980s to early 1990s it was introduced in Turkana and other drought-prone areas like Baringo by Food and Agriculture Organization and Norwegian Agency for Development to address desertification by increasing the forest cover," Mr Owino said.
Mr Lochor recalls that the mesquite also called etirai in Turkana was planted using an aircraft. He says that the surrounding area become green, covered with many Mathenge trees and in case pasture was not enough, animals could feed on the pods from the trees.
The mesquite later became a nuisance for residents because of its invasive nature. It spread fast especially with the help of livestock wastes which had undigested seeds. Land near rivers such as River Tarach, River Turkwel and River Kerio became ideal for fast growth of the tree. It is quite evident that in areas where the residents are practicing agro pastoralism, the mesquite is a nightmare for them. In some areas, the plant has forced residents to migrate from their ancestral homes after depleting the sub soil water, making the land not viable for agriculture.
Mr Lochor says that in 1995 he was forced to move his family and livestock from Kalokol along Lake Turkana to where he is now, which is 200km away.
"I migrated in search of pasture and I settled in a place that had few Mathenge trees and it is there that I realised its disadvantages,” he says.
Before its advantages were realised, the tree was only a source of pain.
“If you are bare-foot and the thorns of the green tree prick you, you feel much pain and its poison can disfigure parts of your body," he says while showing me a disfigured index finger.
The seed pods are also deadly to livestock, especially goats, if they consume them in large quantities. Also, when donkeys or camels eat, it interferes with their digestion and can be fatal to them.
What irked the residents was that the tree was hard to destroy. When uprooted, it takes just a few days for others to sprout.
However, the residents are now embracing the tree as a key source of income. Apart from charcoal, locals are being advised to utilise the tree for construction poles and firewood.
FAO official, Dr. Daniel Irura says the tree is ever green, drought-resistant and deep rooted and if not controlled it invades the entire agricultural ecological zones. "FAO has empowered 15 charcoal producer groups along the Tarach River Basin in Turkana West Sub County. We gave the steel ring kilns which are modern kilns," Dr. Irura says.
The group members now have a reliable income from charcoal making.
"We are pleased to see changes where better management of prosopis juliflora is addressing some of the climate change challenges. County Integrated Development Plan had already provided guidelines of managing prosopis juliflora through making economic use of it," Dr.Irura notes. According to Kefri, some selected villages like Lokangai and Lokubae had 3,100 trees per hectare in 2018. This was an improvement from 2012 when there were 2, 660 trees per hectare.