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Pioneers in plantation forestry in Kenya’s ASAL
Jean-Paul Deprins, Managing Director of Better Globe Forestry & Wanjiru Ciira, Managing Editor of Miti magazine

Miti article at a glance

Discover the 10 year history of Better Globe Forestry Ltd and their successful implementation of commercial tree plantations in Kenya's arid and semi arid lands. This is the inner workings of a company with a mission to help small-hold farmers in East Africa.

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Miti issue no. 25 page 25-27 January-March 2015

Hear the audio of this interview:

Better Globe Forestry (BGF) celebrates 10 years of operations in Kenya this year. Miti spoke to the company’s Managing Director, Jean-Paul Deprins on the achievements, vision and mission and goals of the company. Below are excerpts from the interview:

When was Better Globe Forestry established?

Better Globe Forestry was incorporated in Kenya in November 2004. That makes the company 10 years old. We now have also set up the Better Globe Forestry Foundation with the aim of increasing transparency and efficiency in dealing with our corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme.

What is the vision of the company?

Better Globe Forestry’s vision is about people and trees. In fact, the vision of our Chairman, who is also the founder of the Better Globe Group, is to plant as many trees as there are people on this planet. It is an ambitious, long-term goal, but one that is worth working towards.

On the short term, our aim is to become the biggest tree-planting company active in arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL). For this we give ourselves 20 years. This goes together with a drive towards poverty eradication aimed at all the small-hold farmers in the areas where we operate.

Where does the company operate?

Better Globe Forestry has initiated pilot plantations in the Kenyan arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) where it has three projects for large-scale afforestation. We will certainly expand our field of operations to neighbouring East African countries in the coming years.

ASAL is where land is available for large-scale afforestation without putting food security in danger. Enormous portions of land are unexploited due to lack of possibilities and these areas are also confronted with huge poverty problems. Our projects are aimed at being a sustainable answer to these challenges.

The growing of mukau

John Njeru (left), a Better Globe Forestry staff member, discusses the growing of mukau on the farm of Mulandi Nzama (centre) in Mwingi District, as another farmer looks on. Better Globe Forestry will this year start an out-growers programme for contract farmers. (Photo: BGF)

What species have you planted and why did you choose these?

We have specialised in planting Melia volkensii, known as mukau in the local language. It is a hardwood from the mahogany family, but it has two principal characteristics that are important to us - the tree is drought-resistant and matures in less than 20 years. It also allows us to give good returns to the people who buy the trees upfront.

We believe that the massive poaching of hardwoods in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will come to an end due to logistical and political realities. That is when Better Globe Forestry needs to be ready with its large-scale mukau plantations.

In addition, we are doing the preliminary studies for planting Acacia senegal and Acacia seyal on a large scale. These acacias produce gum arabic and are therefore a cash crop. These two species will help us cover the short-term payback to the people who invested in the trees planted in East Africa, as we wait to generate returns from the processing of the hardwood melia. We have also set up a large-scale mango plantation.

Is there a relationship between the species you have planted or plan to plant and the rainforests of Africa?

We believe there will be, as today huge volumes of hardwoods like mahogany are poached from the African rainforests. Planting millions of domesticated mahogany in dry areas will have a tremendous influence in taking the pressure away from cutting trees in the rainforest.

What have been the company’s major achievements in the last 10 years?

The greatest achievement is to survive for 10 years in itself, without financial help from outside. We are pioneering large-scale afforestation in ASAL and the main species we plant requires a lot of research. In this dry environment, every possible error can be a setback. However, we have managed to establish procedures and protocols that take care of the technical difficulties we have been facing.

It also took some time to translate our vision into a practical and efficient organisation with a clear mission. The way to go is complex and it was essential to simplify our initial ways of organising ourselves, which we are confident we have done now.

Now, tree-planting is closely related to and dependent on the interaction with the human environment. We have gained the confidence of the farmers and other people in the areas we work. They see and know our projects and they understand where we are going. This is essential for the long-term success of our plans.

We would also like to mention Miti magazine, through which we have reached thousands of people in different countries and made them realise that tree-planting is good business. We would never have achieved this educational goal without the great support we receive from partners like the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), The Kenya Forest Service (KFS), The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the University of Nairobi and the Sawlog Production Grant Scheme (SPGS) in Uganda. We have working memorandums of understanding with all of them.

You talk of agro-ecology the BGF way. Please explain this.

An agro ecosystem is an interaction or a relationship between different components - people, living organism and the environment in a very broad sense. The inputs and outputs to such a system are quite complex. This means that agro ecosystems are different although their approach is long-term and holistic with different levels of inputs.

In the case of Better Globe Forestry Ltd, the people are small-scale farmers; the environment is arid and semi-arid lands, which makes the system very specific; and the crops are drought resistant, local trees which are intercropped with, for example, green grams. Other inputs are tree and water donations, micro-finance assistance, education and capacity building. Actually, the main input is the system itself as a tool to eradicate poverty.

melia volkensii

Gabriel Muthenge, a Mwingi farmer, standing beside a beautiful melia tree on a farm. Better Globe Forestry has entered into contract tree-growing with farmers. (Photo: BGF)

You are involved in micro-finance. Please explain how this fits into the BGF model.

Micro-finance is what allows farmers to get access to what is needed to provide their own inputs in the system. When for example farmers want to plant green grams to intercrop with the trees, they need some funds as a start. Micro-finance allows them to purchase what they need and consequently to make money. It also allows them to take small loans for school fees and other facilities that might be problematic to them in their daily lives. Better Globe Forestry has supported K-REP Fedha in setting up a “Village Bank” with that aim and it is a huge success.

What benefits do farmers derive from BGF’s model?

To eradicate poverty, whatever is implemented on farms needs to be profitable and sustainable for farmers. To achieve that goal, they need help, not only at the beginning of the tree-planting, but all the way until harvesting. We provide, or help with the provision of, seedlings, water, money through micro-finance, knowledge and capacity building through our agroforestry advisers.

Moreover, BGF provides a market for the trees because we make an agreement with farmers by which we commit to buy their trees at market rate when they mature, providing they have been maintained properly. The farmer’s biggest input is maintaining the trees. Undoubtedly, labour has its worth!

Water is a major concern in drylands and everywhere else. What is the source of water for your plantations and how do you manage the commodity?

Water is not only a major concern, it is our biggest challenge and a very expensive one. Before starting up a project, we study the hydrology of our sites carefully and of course seek not only expert advice but also advice from the local people. There are many ways to harvest and manage water. Our problem is of course the quantities needed to provide to young trees until they can survive on their own. In the years to come, farmers’ water problems are bound to become our problems. It’s up to us to find tailor-made solutions, and they exist!

What is the source of your funding?

Better Globe Forestry has a principal-to-agent agreement with Better Globe AS in Norway and from 2015, other companies as well. These companies have developed several ways of “crowdfunding” to finance the tree-planting. Some of our projects have also attracted real direct investment.

Basically, Better Globe AS and the other companies sell trees to people and companies from all over the world and commit to a secure buy-back deal over 17 to 20 years. Better Globe Forestry plants, maintains and harvests the trees on behalf of the customers of these other companies. Again, processing of the tree products will be done on site.

Mukau trees

Pollarding (chopping off of branches) of mukau (Melia volkensii) trees by farmers, to provide fodder to their livestock in the dry season. It is an unusual sight, although more widespread than people realise. If done in a structured way, the tree quality does not suffer, and it constitutes another incentive for tree-planting in an agroforestry setup. (Photo: BGF)

How do you make sure money goes where it is supposed to go? What checks and balances do you have in place to guard against misuse of funds?

For a start, we are audited yearly and the inputs in Better Globe Forestry have to match the outputs in the books of Better Globe AS. We also have very serious and senior people on the Board of Better Globe Forestry who ask the right questions.

Again, every year we receive a delegation of people who have invested in trees. They are mostly from Scandinavia and want to see what we do with their investment. For them it is important to have a feel that all is going in the right direction. It is also an occasion to interact with Management here and ask the many questions they have due to the distance between them and the project.

Internally we have good systems in place based on the ISO quality management system. We are very strict on that. Moreover, over the years we have fine-tuned our internal financial controls and today any departure from the procedure would trigger an alarm.

There is usually concern about development “imposed” on the people by outsiders. How does BGF guard against this and what is your relationship with the host communities?

Most of the available land in ASAL belongs to a community in one way or another. There is a very long process we have to follow before we can start planting trees. The process goes roughly as follows:

When it is our own industrial plantation, we start by writing a feasibility study based on the available knowledge at the time. We then establish contacts with the managers of the land and we need to convince them of our good intentions, the sustainability of the project and more important, the advantages for the community. They have to convince their members or/and the community and receive a mandate to go about the project with us.

A working party is then set up and regular meetings start. We then approach and ask for advice from other stakeholders like water authorities, the Forestry Service, the environmental management authorities, wildlife authorities and others. The project also needs to be approved by the District Development Committee of the area.

Moreover, if the government has a stake in the ownership of the land, any official document, be it a memorandum of understanding or a lease agreement, needs to go to the central administration or the Attorney General for approval, then back to the local officers for signature. Meanwhile, we bring representatives of the community to our existing pilot projects to convince them that tree-planting is possible in a sustainable way in ASAL.

An environmental impact assessment needs to be carried out. This document has an important social component that obliges us to interact with the community.

Only when we have gone through most of this long process can we start planning, budgeting and finally planting.

When working with contract farmers, the process is easier as there are no land issues involved. However, in all cases we need to involve and convince the people of the viability and benefits of our projects and we take the time to do this. So there is no way we could ever impose our ideas on the people.

Do you take into account gender parity in your operations?

Absolutely! Poverty eradication is impossible without taking women into account and working with them. We try to have 40 percent women in our workforce as a company policy. However, it is not always possible to achieve this as women have many chores and are not always available for work outside the home.

If you were to start again the establishment of plantations, what would you do differently? What lessons have you learnt?

We would probably start the way we started. As a pioneer, one needs to be hardy enough to take some risks and crazy enough to navigate in the dark. We needed all these years to get a clear grip on the technical and financial aspects of our operations, based on careful gathering and recording of information.

I would say that with what we know now, we probably would start working with contract farmers earlier. We might even start up new projects working with them. The biggest lesson we learned is that it all takes much more time than expected and, as you know, time is money!

Where do you see the company in the next 10 years? The next 20 years?

We will definitely be the biggest afforestation company in ASAL and an authority for that matter. In matters of forestry, 20 years is not long and by that time our main concern will be to get the wood processing right and to know, prepare and supply the overseas markets with our finished products. For this we will need also to prepare a new generation of managers that will take over from us, the old guard.

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