By Sharon Atieno
In Kenya, like other countries in the world, deforestation is the major driver of tree cover loss. So big is this loss that between 2001 to 2020, Kenya lost 11% of its tree cover, about 361 kilo hectares, according to the Global Forest Watch.
To solve this problem, Kenya targets to increase its tree cover to at least 10% to reach the minimum global standards set by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Part of the interventions outlined by the government of Kenya to achieve this goal includes rehabilitating degraded landscapes, especially in the arid and semi-arid areas, where charcoal burning is an issue of concern, establishing commercial forests for charcoal production as well as planting trees and fruits in agricultural land, among others.
However, Dr. Jane Njuguna, Senior Deputy Director for Research and Development, at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), says part of the biggest problem in restoration efforts is caused by seed predators, such as insects and rodents, that eat the seeds before they could germinate when in their natural state.
To solve this, a local startup has developed the seedball technology whereby seeds of indigenous tree and grass species are coated with charcoal waste mixed with nutritious binders then thrown like balls into the planting grounds.
The coating, Dr. Njuguna explains, stops seeds from being lost prematurely and enhances their lifespan ensuring that when the rainfall amount is appropriate they can be able to germinate because it acts as a seed bank.
According to Ted Kinyanjui, co-founder of Seedballs Kenya- a joint collaboration between Chardust Ltd and Cookswell Jikos- the technology mimics natural regeneration of forests, whereby the seeds just germinate on their own due to favourable conditions unlike putting the seedling in a hole where they are also prone to predators.
Kinyanjui says they collect the charcoal dust from charcoal vendors, then they filter it to remove magnets. Afterwards, they add nutritious binders sourced from dead acacia trees which helps in holding the ball together.
They then pass the mixture through a special machine which has been invented by his partner. The machine coats the seeds -which have been KEFRI certified -with the biochar and produces a seedball worth 5 to 15 mm depending on the size of the seed.
After drying, the seedballs are then packaged into packets of varying sizes, including envelope size containing 8 seeds to a 25kgs sack . Each packet has its own price which ranges from Kshs. 150 (USD 1.5), for the envelope package, to K shs. 12 500 (USD 125) for a 25kg sack of seedballs.
On a daily basis, the machine can produce up to 500kgs but we normally just produce 100kgs on average depending on the client’s order, Kinyanjui says.
Before supplying the client’s order, they make inquiries on the tree or grass type that is prevalent in the client’s area. This increases the survival chance of the tree when it is grown in its original environment as opposed to introducing a foreign tree species which will not survive in that environment.
When the seedballs are thrown on the planting ground, they stay in the ball until it rains. The rain water dissolves the charcoal dust coating leaving the seed in its natural environment thereby triggering the germination process.
Since 2016, Seedballs Kenya has distributed about 18 million seedballs. Their clients range from individuals, children, schools, companies, churches , government agencies, and non-governmental organizations.
In 2018, a combination of seedballs and seeds were used by KEFRI in partnership with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), Seedballs Kenya and Farmland Aviation Kenya Ltd in the first aerial rehabilitation exercise of 1,400 hectares of the Maasai Mau Forest Block 1.
Based on their monitoring activities, KEFRI says, a good germination has been realized from the exercise.
Kinyanjui notes that though the uptake has been good, they have faced some resistance from people selling seedlings at Kshs. 50 (about half a dollar) each, who see Seedballs Kenya’s initiative as bad competition that is likely to push them out of business.
Also, he adds that some clients are too eager for the seeds to germinate quickly, not knowing that different tree species germinate at different time periods.
Seedballs Kenya is currently partnering with Kenya Flying Labs, a drone technology company, to help in seed distribution in inaccessible areas, to map and monitor performance of the seedballs and the resultant trees.
In an event hosted by Kenya Flying Labs and attended by Seedballs Kenya and KEFRI in Nairobi to launch the drones, Mohammed Akasha, a technical expert at Kenya Flying Labs said the specialized drones are fully fitted with seed dispensers and can carry a capacity of upto 7kgs.
Further, though they can disperse up to 5 seedballs at a time depending on their setting, they could cover 0.8 hectares in fifteen minutes- one flight.
Akasha noted that though helicopters and light wing airplanes can also be used for mass distribution of seeds, their costs are prohibitive. The tree planting service by Kenya Flying Labs will be at a rate of US$300 per hectare.
The combination of seedballs and drone technology will be used to plant indigenous trees in hotspot areas across Tana River County where land has been degraded due to unsustainable farming practices, wood fuel harvesting, deforestation, and the occurrence of an invasive tree species called prosopis juliflora (Mathenge).