Mount Kenya, known for its rich biodiversity and crucial water supply services, faces severe threats from forest degradation. The Misitu project, developed by EcoAct in partnership with Akili, has a focused mission: to collaborate with farmers to transform farming landscapes with agroforestry. By reviving agroforestry practices in this region, the project seeks to preserve the Mount Kenya ecosystem whilst also enhancing local livelihoods.
Mount Kenya, a precious ecosystem under threat
Nestled in the heart of the Kenyan highlands, Mount Kenya stands as an extinct volcano and is the second-highest mountain in Africa. Its landscape encompasses rugged glacier-clad summits and forested slopes, creating a unique ecosystem with impressive biological diversity of over 700 documented animal and plant species, including threatened elephants and leopards.
Mount Kenya is also a water catchment, acting as a vital area of land where water flows towards lower points. Alongside four other water catchments, Mount Kenya plays a pivotal role in providing 75% of Kenya’s surface water. This makes it an essential source for the country’s water supply. Forests contribute to maintaining the water cycle by enhancing infiltration, regulating water flows, and mitigating the negative effects of excessive runoff and evaporation. The intricate interplay between the forests and the hydrological system makes them indispensable for the overall health of the water catchment areas. Deforestation in Kenya between 2000 and 2010 resulted in a yearly decrease of approximately 62 million cubic meters of water availability. Water shortage exacerbates drought conditions and has wide-ranging impacts on agriculture, industry, and urban areas.
The cultural and environmental importance of Mount Kenya led to the creation of the Mount Kenya National Park in 1949. Over time, this area has earned recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. While Mount Kenya National Park receives well-deserved attention, it is essential to acknowledge the significance of the immediate surrounding areas as, together, these interconnected regions form one cohesive ecosystem.
The forests in Kenya are facing a pressing and imminent threat from rapid deforestation. Between 2002 and 2021, the country lost an additional 14% of its total forest cover, equivalent to around 5,000 hectares per year. The Trillion Tree initiative by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) revealed that within the last decade alone, approximately one-fifth of the ecosystem surrounding Mount Kenya has been deforested.
The main threats contributing to the loss of this precious ecosystem include uncontrolled grazing and agricultural expansion, timber extraction, charcoal production and inadequate forest management.
Agroforestry: An ancient land practice
Agroforestry is the deliberate combination of trees and shrubs with agricultural crops and/or livestock. While the term was coined in the 1970s, agroforestry is an ancient concept largely practiced by indigenous peoples for countless generations. Communities worldwide, including in Europe, relied on the merging of trees and farming for food, fuel and medicines. The Hanunoo people in the Philippines, for instance, practiced a form of shifting cultivation, where they cleared land for planting but intentionally left standing trees within the area. These trees served as a natural canopy, providing shade and moisture to the rice plantations during the latter stages of the growing season . This traditional knowledge has played a pivotal role in shaping the agroforestry approaches employed today.
In the 20th Century, agroforestry practices experienced a rapid decline due to the growing popularity of modern agriculture, particularly of monocultures systems and the extensive use of pesticides, fertilisers and irrigation. While these intensive farming techniques led to increased crop yields and helped sustain a growing global population, they also contributed to many of the environmental challenges we face today.
Agroforestry is now resurging as a promising climate solution. When implemented effectively, agroforestry presents a multifaceted approach to address a host of pressing issues. Besides curbing deforestation, trees and shrubs are natural carbon sinks that remove and store carbon in their vegetation and soils. Numerous studies show that agroforestry fosters a microclimate that improves soil and above-ground biodiversity and contributes to soil health and water retention.
From a farmer’s perspective, agroforestry presents optimal conditions for increasing yield production, securing a source of income and a diverse range of goods for consumption.
Reviving agroforestry in Mount Kenya
In Mount Kenya, farmers have traditionally grown tea and coffee in full sun conditions or have opted for planting exotic trees like eucalyptus. However, these practices fall short in supporting biodiversity and have led to detrimental environmental outcomes such as deforestation, soil degradation and water scarcity.
In response to these challenges, EcoAct and Akili, a carbon project developer and ecosystem restoration company, came together to develop the Misitu project. This ambitious programme aims to partner with more than 60,000 smallholder farmers to employ 14 agroforestry models with a shared focus on benefiting climate, biodiversity, and local communities.
By working closely with local communities, the Misitu team has carefully selected multipurpose tree and shrub species, to be intercropped with tea, coffee, annual crops and grasslands. This distinctive approach provides an array of benefits. Here, certain species contribute to optimising soil and climate conditions by fixing nitrogen, enriching potassium levels, and producing mulch. This, in turn, enhances the overall productivity of crops and helps to maintain a healthier ecosystem. The selected trees and shrubs serve as vital sources of shade for the coffee and tea crops. This natural shade helps protect the crops from extreme weather conditions, ultimately leading to improved yields and better-quality produce.
Beyond their agronomic benefits, these multipurpose tree and shrub species also bring additional advantages to the farmers and local communities. They provide alternative sources of fruits, nuts, and medicinal resources, expanding the range of products that can be harvested, consumed and sold. This diversification of income sources fosters more sustainable livelihoods and contributes to improved food security.
Altogether, the reforestation models aim to remove approximately 1.6 million tCO2e over a 20-year period.
Misitu staff will establish and maintain nurseries, in collaboration with farmers, to cultivate seedlings until they are ready for planting. To maximise genetic diversity in seed collections, Misitu will purchase high-quality seeds from Communities Forest Associations and the Kenya Forestry Research Institute.
Capacity building for success
A critical element of the Misitu project involves a capacity-building programme designed to empower smallholder farmers, enhancing their productivity and economic resilience. To achieve this, the project will employ a team of field officers and ambassadors, from among the engaged farmers, to oversee on-the-ground activities and advocate best agricultural practices among participants. Each Misitu staff member will be responsible for a designated group of farms, providing regular and seasonal guidance.
Annual gatherings will be organised, bringing together representatives from all farm groups to discuss past-year achievements, and set key milestones for the upcoming year. Moreover, digital communication channels will be enhanced to facilitate the efficient exchange of valuable information among project stakeholders.
Recent field visits conducted by EcoAct have emphasised the importance of offering regular and comprehensive technical training on essential aspects related to successful planting. As part of the Misitu project, agronomists will be hired to conduct monthly training. This training will cover essential topics, including seed collection, nurturing seedlings at nurseries, planting techniques, and post-planting monitoring.
Reforestation projects, like Misitu, are multi-faceted and the benefits they yield are often evident in the long run. To ensure long-term success, Misitu will provide ongoing support to farmers for seven years after the initial planting stages. This sustained support will enable continuous monitoring of seedling survival and the overall progress in improving forest cover. By recognising the importance of sustained assistance, Misitu aims to secure lasting impact and success in its reforestation efforts.
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1. Conklin, H. C. (1957). Hanunoo Agriculture, a Report on an Integral System of Shifting Cultivation in the Philippines (Forestry Development Paper 12). Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.