Arid land wonder tree spurs new economic opportunities

Image Credit: Mukau trees in Kiambere Better Globe

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 many uses, and its timber is lucrative and in demand.  A hectare of mature melia volkensii trees, can earn a farmer over Kshs3 million (USD $30,000), according to the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), and harvesting can begin at 10 years in ideal weather conditions.      

Currently in the market, a foot of melia volkensii wood costs about Ksh60 ($0.59) to Ksh70 ($0.68), which is double or more, the price of wood from Grevillea robusta, cypress, and others. Also a recent survey carried out in Kitui town by KEFRI researchers, showed wood products made from melia volkensii timber cost 40 to 50 percent more, than those from cypress and pine wood. The wood is durable, and also termite and decay resistant, and can be used in interior paneling, and to make floor tiles, rafters, and frames.  

According to Albert Luvanda a Principal Research Officer with KEFRI-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 to 1,700 meters, and receive 300 to 800mm of annual rains that can sustain melia volkensii growth, according to KEFRI studies. “It requires very little water to grow, and if you plant at 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, Eastern Kenya, where KEFRI is working with local communities interested in planting the melia volkensii tree, droughts cycles in recent years have increased. Lately every two years, the region has a drought while in the nineties, it occurred after about 5 years according, to Luvanda. For KEFRI, melia volkensii is proving economically and environmentally viable to plant, as it cushions against climate change, and provides profitable timber, as end product. 

Jonathan Kituku a farmer from Kibwezi has witnessed the benefits of planting melia volkensii on sections of his 300 acre farm. After KEFRI trained him on melia volkensii in 2006, he started growing the tree on his farm. In five years as his trees continued to mature, grass also grew beneath the over 7,000 melia volkensii trees. The grass which matures in three months has turned into a secondary income source for him. From an acre during the rains, he gets 90 to 100 bales of grass earning him at least Kshs27,000 after selling it. “This grass makes me more money than maize and indigenous cows,” he said.  

Image: A KEFRI technician shows farmers how to break the dormancy of melia volkensii seeds

Kituku also sells the seeds and trains farmers on melia volkensii seed germination, nursery management, and planting on farm. A kilogram of indigenous seed he sells for between Ksh6,000 to Ksh7,000. 

The training on propagation he got from KEFRI has made Kituku one of Kenya’s most sought trainers on melia volkensii propagation. He charges Ksh24,000 ($235) per person for 21 day training, and has also trained Tanzania farmers, on melia volkensii propagation.

Resurgence of growing melia volkensii tree in Kenya is not only among individual farmers.  Along the seven forks dam belt on the border of Embu and Machakos counties, 2000 farmers with support from Better Globe Forestry (BGF), have each set aside 2 acres to grow the tree.  According to Jan Vandenabeele of BGF, melia volkensii is one of the best options to reduce droughts in dry lands. BGF is providing the 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 new melia volkensii growers to first seek advice as the seeds have to be extracted, cracked, and nipped to break the germination dormancy. KEFRI conducts trainings on breaking the melia volkensii seed dormancy, and tree management like pruning, and de-budding, in order to grow a straight tree suited for timber. 

In recent years, with support from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) KEFRI, has begun propagating melia volkensii seedlings faster and in large quantities, for Kenyan farmers. Seeds for those seedlings are improved and have superior traits as they are from KEFRI orchards, where trees with the best genetic characteristics are grown.  

Farmers with small pieces of land and can also practice agro-forestry with it. In the first three years of its growth, it can be intercropped with maize. Where growth spacing is 4 by 4 meters melia volkensii, can be intercropped with cereals like peas, green grams, and cowpeas for up to six years, without interfering with their yields, according to Luvanda. At about 12 years in ideal weather conditions, selective timber can commence according to Kituku. 

The tree also serves as fodder for livestock, green leaf manure, mulch, wind breaker, and can help prevent soil erosion when concentrated, heavy rains fall, by reducing the impact of rain drops, according to Vandenabeele.