By Treezer Michelle Atieno 

Even though Kakamega forest has an extensive variety of birds, reptiles and insects that make the biodiversity hub unique, large mammals are now rare. The forest, a tropical rainforest situated in the Kakamega and Nandi County of Kenya, northwest of the capital Nairobi, has been reduced to grassy clearings and glades.

The forest initially covered about 230Km2. Less than half of this area currently remains as indigenous forest. According to the Kakamega Forest Ecosystem Management Plan 2012-2022, the forest cover had declined to 11,848 ha in 2004 from 24,798 ha in 1933 during its gazettement. 

The continued encroachment of the forest is mainly as a result of population increase and rising poverty levels. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) documents that due to high poverty levels, the community living adjacent to Kakamega forest depends largely on the forest’s resources for daily needs and income.  The products derived from the forest include timber, firewood, herbal medicines and building materials.

The first exploitation of Kakamega Forest as recorded in history took place in early 1930s during the Kakamega Gold Rush after gold was discovered in the area and many parts of the forest opened up for gold prospectors. It was then that the destruction of the eastern-most relic of the Guineo-Congolian lowland rainforest began. 

“During my early days in this area, the forest was very thick. That has really changed, we have lost a number of very important trees like the Kumulembe tree that was used to treat a number of diseases including ulcers,” says Agnes Mulimi, founder and chairperson of Shamiloli Forest Conservation Green Growers (SFCGG) group. 

The community based organization has 30 members 19 of which are women. The group, according to Mulimi, consists of dedicated women who have for a long time helped in conserving the forest. The group was founded in 2000 and registered in 2015. Their main aim was to conserve the forest by reducing the overreliance of the locals to the forest through introducing alternative sources of income.

The members grow two varieties of the ocimum herb-Ocimum kilimandscharicum and Ocimum Suave. Another herb that the group members grow is Lippia Javanica. “All these herbs are in the forest. Initially we could go for them in the forest. As time went by we realized that the quantity of the essential herbs was reducing and soon we would be left with no herbs,” says Mulimi. 

Agnes Mulimi in her farm

The women then formed a group in 2000 and decided to pick the seeds of the herbs from the forest and prepare small portions of land each for growing of the herbs. They wanted to conserve these herbs as well as divert their attention from exploiting the forest. Today the herbs are a major source of income for most of the members of the group. 

“Apart from growing herbs, the group members also plant tree seedlings and distribute them for free to community members for transplanting.” We have had several tree planting projects with Net Fund, The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), World Agro-forestry Centre, Kenya Wildlife Services, Kenya Forestry Research Institute and other organizations with the aim of increasing the forest cover. We have also planted some trees inside the forest,” Mulimi says. 

She adds that the Plantation Establishment and Livelihood Improvement Scheme (PELIS) program was also introduced in the area but they later abandoned it after the trees became too big making the plants to receive inadequate sunlight. 

David Mulimi, husband to Agnes and one of the biggest supporters of Shamiloli group says that the Blue Gum and Cyprus seedlings in their home was planted by the group members for free distribution in the community to support reforestation and PELIS planting. “We give people these seedlings for free and also offer planting advice to the community members. We are against wasting of even a single tree,” says Mulimi. 

Agnes and another member of the group at the Ocimum herb seedbed

Maridah Khalawa, another woman conservationist who is one of the founders of Muliru Farmers Conservation Group (MFCG) says she saw the need to protect the forest when she realized that some important tree species that are highly beneficial to them were disappearing. 

With an interest in using the two species of ocimum and lippia herbs for manufacturing of soap, ointments and creams, icipe partnered with MFCG in 1999. The major work of the group was to collect raw materials from the farmers, extract oil from them and sell the oil to icipe for processing. 

“MFCG is the umbrella of all the other groups that grow herbs. We have a total of 30 groups with over 500 members. Women constitute of 55% of the total members and 70% of the leaders. Some groups under this cooperation are SFCGG, Mukulusu Conservation Women group and Iteny Conservation group. 

“Currently, most farmers in these 30 groups grow the herbs in large quantity. Shamiloli and Iteny groups are our biggest suppliers. We buy the herbs from them at Ksh. 12 per kg. We then extract the oil and sell it to Icipe in Nairobi. From there the oil is used to manufacture Naturub products,” says Benson Shiundu, the treasurer of Muliru Farmers. 

Shiundu explains that oil from the herbs are extracted using a special distillation machine that is subjected to high heat. The herbs have to be dried in a shade for days before this extraction can take place. During the extraction process, both water and oil are recovered. The two are then separated and stored differently. The oil is sold to icipe while the water is sold to the locals. 

“The oil from the three herbs are mixed in different quantities to come up with Naturub products. The products include Kamfour Soap for treating skin rashes, Naturub ointment which is a relief to joint and back pains, Naturub cream which is a mosquito repellant among others. The water that is sold to the locals is effective for treating skin diseases, relieving chest congestion and treating cold,” says Shiundu. 

Bee keeping is also a major income practice among women in the sub groups under MFCG. The women keep stingless bees and harvest honey after every three months. While the herbs must be sold to Muliru Farmers for oil extraction, the bee farmers directly sell their honey to locals and outsiders at a price range of Ksh. 300 (about USD 3) to Ksh. 500 (about USD 5) for 500 grams.

Shitiki Borders Women Group from Muhonje village and Valonji Women Group from Mituli village in Shinyalu Constituency are conservation groups that are conserving Kakamega forest in a different way. These groups of women are currently making and selling clay jikos with ceramic to preserve heat and reduce use of firewood unlike the three stone stove that the residents are used to. While cooking, the stoves also allow for air circulation therefore less smoke is produced. As a result, indoor and outdoor air pollution is reduced.  

Rosemary Ongachi(right) , member of Shitiki Borders Conservation Group with some of the jikos they have made

“The main reason for starting this project was to conserve the forest through these jikos that use less firewood while cooking. Women were increasingly invading the forest to cut tree branches for cooking. This was a big threat to the forest. With the stoves, women can cook with the little firewood from their homes or the fallen dried wood collected from the forest without having to cut down trees and branches of trees in the forest,” says Rosemary Ongachi, one of the members of Shitiki Borders group. 

The jikos according to Beatrice Ibenze, are made in partnership with ECO2Librium (ECO2). After making the stoves, the women sell them to ECO2 for Ksh. 220 per stove. ECO2 then resell the stoves in different parts of the country. “We are not able to directly access the market and sell these stoves outside our area because we are very far from Kakamega town and transport to the town with the stoves is very costly,” adds Beatrice. 

Muhonje village is approximately six kilometers from Kakamega town, a journey that is majorly done across the forest. The women currently have more than 400 complete stoves for sale since ECO2 has not come to buy the stove for three months now.

The conservation efforts by people living around Kakamega forest especially women are in line with one of UNEP’s key focuses which is achieving a significant reduction in deforestation rates while enhancing agricultural productivity.

“This forest is important to the people around it especially women. We have very many reasons to conserve the forest as women. The forest ensures constant rainfall to the area. This is good for farming. The medicinal value of most of the trees is high but there is a procedure to harvesting the barks of trees. If we must, we only harvest from mature trees so as not to interfere with growth of trees. The forest also supports commercial bee keeping and some of our beehives have been in the forest until recently when we were forced to remove them due to a ban that is currently placed on the forest,” says Mulimi. 

The conservation efforts by women around Kakamega forest are coupled with a lot of challenges with the major one being inadequate funds to expand their project activities. The groups claim that they are not under any financial support scheme from the county government of Kakamega or the national government. The women say that lack of financial support has really affected the growth and expansion of their projects and slowed down their conservation efforts. 

The oil extracting machine owned by Muliru Farmers

Mulimi says that the availability of one oil extracting machine for the herbs they grow is a very big problem. The machine, which is managed by Muliru Farmers is the only one that extracts oil from the herbs. This means that all farmers growing Ocimum and Lippia must sell their produce to Muliru farmers at a price of Ksh. 12 (less than a dollar) per kg which they claim is too low. 

“Some farmers became so discouraged with the low prices to the extent of prematurely cutting and removing ocimum from their farms and opting for maize farming instead. Currently, most farmers have completely abandoned ocimum farming and there are only few farmers left. If this trend continues, the important medicinal plant species may be lost in the future,” says Mulimi. 

According to her husband, prices of these herbs can only increase if the largest growers who are from Shamiloli group and Iteny group are supported by the county government to procure another oil extracting machine. This way, there will be competition for the raw materials and the prices will increase. Additional support to the farmers like acquiring land for the groups is also needed since most farmers now have inadequate land for growing herbs and have resorted to leasing land for the herbs for as high as Ksh. 15000 (about USD 150) for half an acre. 

Valonji and Shitiki borders women groups also claim that they have not received any funds from the county or national government to upscale their conservation efforts. Their major problem is accessing the market to sell their jikos for better prices. 

One of the aforestatipn projects of Shamiloli Conservation group

During the 66th session of United Nations Mission on the Status of Women meeting in March this year, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen emphasized the need to put women at the heart of climate and environmental decisions making.

“We have had enough of male-dominated solutions. Enduring a just transition to a green, sustainable future requires gender-responsive approaches to reorienting finance flows and economic models and investing in resilience and capacity-building,”  Andersen said.

The Glasgow twenty-sixth Conference of parties (COP26) Declaration on Forest and Land also emphasized ecosystem integrity, a system of not just conservation but also protection of forests. Gender responsive measures of dealing with climate change were also discussed with most countries vowing to make women more resilient to climate change. 

According to the World Bank, forests are very important in addressing the impacts of climate change. They absorb greenhouse gases, regulate water flows and additionally provide migrating plant and animal species routes to resilient habitats.

It is therefore very worrying that these women living around Kakamega forest and conserving it are not receiving the recognition and funding that they deserve to continue with conservation. More involvement by the county government in these projects is needed to make them successful. This will enable for proper collaboration in conserving and protecting this forest that earned the title United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 2010.