In Kenya’s semi-arid regions grappling with climate change, rural communities are turning their attention to growing the drought tolerant melia volkensii (mukau) tree.
This fast maturing hardwood tree — dubbed the mahogany of the dry lands — has multiple uses and its timber is in high demand and lucrative.
Currently, a foot of melia volkensii wood costs about Sh60 to Sh70, which is double the price of wood from other species.
A recent survey carried out in Kitui town by researchers from the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) showed wood products made from melia volkensii timber cost 40 to 50 per cent more than those from cypress and pine wood.
The wood is durable, termite and decay resistant, can be used in interior panelling, and to make floor tiles, rafters, and frames.
According to Albert Luvanda, a Principal Research Officer with Kefri in Kitui, melia volkensii’s wood is comparable to Elgon teak or camphor.
That has made the tree be over-exploited in forests, and created the need to replenish it, in its indigenous ecologies.
Kitui, Tharaka Nithi, Embu, Meru, Taita Taveta, Makueni, Marsabit, Kibwezi, Isiolo and Mandera are some ecological regions the tree is suited to grow.
These regions are at altitudes of between 350 and 1,700 meters, and receive 300 to 800mm of annual rains which can sustain melia volkensii growth, according to Kefri studies. “It requires very little water to grow, and if you plant it at the onset of the rainy season, you don’t need to water it,” said Luvanda.
Melia volkensii is also suited to growing in soils that drain water properly, like the sandy loam soil.
In Kitui, where Kefri is working with local communities interested in planting the melia volkensii tree, drought frequency has intensified in recent years.
The region experiences a drought every two years while in the 1990 it occurred after about five years, said Luvanda.
For Kefri, melia volkensii is proving economically and environmentally viable as it cushions against climate change and provides profitable timber.
Jonathan Kituku, a Kibwezi farmer, has benefited from planting melia volkensii on his 300 acre farm. He started growing the tree after being trained by Kefri in 2006. As his trees continued to mature, grass grew beneath the over 7,000 melia volkensii trees.
The grass, which matures in three months, has become a secondary income source for him. He harvests 90 to 100 bales of grass per acre during the rains, earning him at least Sh27,000.
“This grass makes me more money than maize and indigenous cows,” he said.
Weapon against drought
Kituku also sells melia volkensii seeds and trains farmers on planting and tending the tree. He sells a kilogramme of the seeds at between Sh6,000 to Sh7,000.
Skills gained from Kefri training have made Kituku one of Kenya’s most sought after trainers on melia volkensii propagation.
He charges Sh24,000 per person for a 21-day course and has trained farmers from as far away as Tanzania.
Kenyan farmers are rapidly embracing growing of the melia volkensii tree. Along the Seven Forks Dam belt, on the border of Embu and Machakos counties, 2,000 farmers with support from Better Globe Forestry (BGF) have each set aside two acres for the tree.
Jan Vandenabeele of BGF said melia volkensii is one of humanity’s best weapons to fight drought in Africa.
BGF is providing farmers with technical advice and seedlings.
“With melia volkensii you can create some wealth sustainably in dry rural areas, and also protect the environment,” said Vandenabeele.
Experts’ recommend that new farmers of the tree should seek advice as the seeds have to be cracked and nipped to break their germination dormancy.
Kefri conducts trainings on breaking the melia volkensii seed dormancy and tree management such as pruning and de-budding in order to grow straight trees suited for timber.
In recent years, with support from Japan International Co-operation Agency (Jica), Kefri has begun propagating melia volkensii seedlings faster and in large quantities to meet farmers’ demand.
The seeds from Kefri orchards, where trees with the best genetic characteristics are grown, are improved and have superior traits.
In ideal weather conditions selective harvesting of melia volkensii timber can begin when the tree is about 12 years, according to Kituku. The trees can be inter-cropped with maize in first three years of growth.
When well spaced, the species can also be inter-cropped with cereals like peas, green grams, and cow peas for up to six years without interfering with their yields, according to Luvanda.
The trees also serve as fodder for livestock, green leaf manure, mulch, wind breakers and can help prevent soil erosion, according to Vandenabeele.