Elijah Kamau teaches biology at Maina Wanjigi Secondary in the Eastlands area of Nairobi. Eastlands is home to almost seventy percent of the slums in Nairobi. Elijah is involved in a project sponsored by the Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE) to promote the planting and care of indigenous trees and crops in secondary schools particularly in the Eastlands area.
“It has come to our realisation that there is proliferation of exotic trees in the city. If you look at the recent beautification campaigns by the city council of Nairobi, you will quickly see evidence of this in progress. The city is full of exotic trees,” laments Elijah. Proponents of exotic tree species claim the trees are fast-maturing compared to the indigenous ones. A fact Elijah does not of course agree with entirely.
“If you look at an indigenous tree like the famous ‘Mugumo’ (Fig tree), it does take almost fifty years to mature but one has to look at the non-consumptive benefits from the tree that can be enjoyed as early as five years after planting the tree,” he adds.
Some of the exotic trees are what Elijah calls allelophatic – they do not allow other plants to grow within their vicinity. “This is not good especially for inter-cropping and it results to a huge waste on the land resource,” he adds. The Eucalyptus spp on the other hand is known to interfere with the water cycle. “But when you look at a tree like Muringa (Cordia spp), the benefits are many. To start with, it is a good source of shade and other vegetation can thrive well around it making it a good candidate for landscaping,” adds Elijah.
The school project now in its fourth year, has since expanded to four other schools in the area. “These are St. Teresa Girls, Kayole secondary, Ndururuno, Embakasi and Ruaraka high,” Elijah adds. The project has within this period realised over one thousand seedlings which have been distributed to various schools. “At Maina Wanjigi, we have managed to plant about 200 trees,” Elijah says.
Some of the indigenous tree varieties used in the project include Podocarpus, Cordia, Grevillea, Markhamia and the legendary Meru Oak. “The Meru Oak has proved a bit challenging to sustain. It is quite a difficult variety to develop,” adds Elijah. The project uses the small parcels of land allocated to the high school candidates for their examinable agricultural projects as well as members of the school’s agricultural club. “Most of the time,” explains Elijah, “the parcels are not in use by the school so we thought this would be the ideal place to establish our tree nursery and do demonstrations. So far the initiative has been very successful and it has received a lot of goodwill from the school administration.”
According to Elijah, people are not aware of the many other benefits indigenous trees have to offer besides their aesthetic appeal. “They are a vital ingredient in maintaining the water cycle alongside providing a rich source of food and herbal remedies,” he says. Elijah is quick to offer a warning, “the availability of planting material for these trees is a challenge and the little that is available may not be viable. We are working closely with ICE on this but we realise it may be quite a while before we can establish a sustainable supply to meet the rising demand.”
Coupled with scarcity of planting material is the fact that Eastlands area has the dreaded black cotton soil which is not conducive for the proper growth of these trees. “We have to import red soil from elsewhere and this comes with its own challenges of increasing cost through high overheads on transport logistics not to mention the student culture and perception that trees are not the in-thing to be involved in,” Elijah laments.
At Maina Wanjigi, the students have made significant strides in growing indigenous food crops on the school compound. “Our primary goal for the indigenous and traditional food crops component is to explore avenues of introducing these food crops into the school’s diet,” Elijah points out. The project has been experimenting with Githigu, a traditional maize variety common among the Kikuyu community of Kenya that is normally planted during the long rains. “The results were very encouraging and we have since followed that up with the introduction of green Amaranth, Sesbania Sesban and Lucern.
“We have discovered that there is a tendency among most indigenous food crops to take up minerals much better than their exotic varieties and I think this explains why they are that nutritious. In partnership with the national museums of Kenya, we will embark on undertaking more research to characterise and better understand these food crops,” he adds.
Elijah’s dream through this component is that he may one day witness everyone in the locality maintaining a kitchen garden of indigenous food crops. For now his main task is to ensure strategies for continuity are in place to take this initiative to the next level. He is glad that leaders and the world at large are beginning to take notice of the impact the environment has on livelihoods. He only hopes that there will be more to look forward to beyond Copenhagen 2009.