Kitui farmers reap from nature umbrella thorn acacia tree

Ngaa pods

Grace Kavuvu feeds her goats on dry acacia pods at Mbondoni Village in Kitui County. She is among the prominent traders in the commodity which is used as livestock feed. 

Photo credit: Pius Maundu I Nation Media Group

It is harvest time at Kangooto, a sleepy village in Kitui County. The yield is neither maize, the region’s staple food, nor green grams, a cash crop promoted aggressively by the government and development agencies for its drought resistant and high value characteristics.

It is ngaa, the local name for the fruits of umbrella thorn acacia trees which dominate the area.

“This tree alone has yielded 12 bags of ngaa,” Tom Ukulo says while shaking the branches of an acacia tree standing at the centre of his farmland to harvest the remaining pods.

The pods are a valuable livestock feed supplement in this arid and semi-arid county. As thousands if Kenyans and their livestock reeled under the effects of a prolonged drought that has lasted three years now, Mzee Ukulo and hundreds of his neighbours as well as their livestock flourished thanks to ngaa.

Kangooto is one of the spokes in the ngaa distribution system with a hub at Kabati Township.

When the Nation team visited towards the end of the ngaa season, the market was awash with stories of achievements by residents following a boom in the business.

Three local men were said to have acquired trucks for their businesses, as others set up commercial and residential houses in the area.

Also, a majority of farmers and traders could afford food for their families and expanded their livestock herds due to the availability of ngaa.

Mzee Ukulo made more than Sh140, 000 in two weeks through selling 120 bags of acacia pods harvested from his farmland.

Unlike many of his neighbours who have depleted mature acacia trees to make charcoal, the father of five has conserved dozens of assorted indigenous trees, including acacia trees, on his 20-acre farmland on which he also grows maize and green grams.

“Ngaa came to our rescue after crops failed completely following the prolonged drought,” Mzee Ukulo points out, adding that although the country experienced one of the most crippling droughts, acacia pods accorded peace of mind to herders in the larger Mwingi region.

“We did not lose any goats to the prolonged drought because farmers had no problem with feed. They turned to acacia pods,” says Francis Koma, head of the National Drought Management Authority in Kitui County.

Known by its scientific name Acacia Tortillas, the umbrella thorn acacia also supports beekeeping, another climate smart source of livelihood which has thrown a lifeline to thousands of farmers across Kitui and the neighbouring Machakos and Makueni counties as bees gravitate towards its flowers.

The deciduous tree is, however, threatened by logging as it is targeted by charcoal burners.

This trend is worrying authorities as the recent government policy direction is working towards planting 15 billion trees by 2030. Scientists at Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) bet big on the growing awareness on the broad utility of acacia trees in promoting conservation of the hardy tree.

“Acacia pods and leaves are rich in protein, energy and minerals,” Bernard Kigwa, one of the scientists involved in the acacia study at KEFRI says, confirming observations by farmers who already hail the pods as a superior feed. The acacia pods business starts in September when the pods dry up. The traders engage farmers who collect the pods directly or through agents.

The bulk of the harvested acacia seed pods end up in markets in the neighbouring Garissa and Wajir counties which are also semi-arid and where pastoralism is the main source of livelihood.

The customers include Mohammed Abdi. The Wajir businessman and pastoralist is among those who relied on the pods to sustain his livestock during the dry spell.

“The prolonged drought depleted all the pasture. Without Acacia pods, we would have lost our livestock to the drought,” he says.

At the height of the dry spell last year, conflict over pasture and water between farmers in Kitui County and pastoralists in Garissa and Tana River counties left at least six farmers and a number of camels dead.

It took the intervention of President William Ruto to ease the subsequent tension in the neighbouring counties.

“The conflict over pasture could have worsened without ngaa,” comments Lydia Sila, a trader and shopkeeper at Kabati township.

Ms Sila is among the traders here who braced themselves for cut throat competition as tens of middlemen swarmed acacia pod harvesting fields in Kitui County, others opting for Kajiado County.

“It costs Sh30, 000 to hire a truck to ferry between 200 and 250 bags of acacia pods. This translates to around 120 per bag. The Kajiado market offers better profit margins compared to the crowded North Eastern Kenya market,” explains Grace Kavuvu, a peasant farmer at Mbondoni village and one of the veteran ngaa traders.

“Although I may not have bought a truck like some of my colleagues in the business, I managed to pay fees for my two children in university,” she says.

The trade in acacia pods featured prominently during a recent workshop on natural resource management that brought together national and county government officials in Kitui and Makueni counties.

Natural resource

Irene Mukalo, a manager at Resource Conflict Institute, an NGO focusing on land governance and natural resource management and one of the organisers of the forum, hailed the integration of crops with acacia trees.

“This is a very strategic way of promoting conservation. When people see that out of conservation they can also make lots of money, then it makes a lot of sense to them,” she points out.

Mukalo notes that propagation of acacia trees and the emerging value chain creates opportunities for employment and engagement of the youth in conservation.

She called on acacia farmers to come together and form a cooperative society to enhance their bargaining power and voice in conservation.

“When they are united, acacia farmers can successfully lobby the government and agencies for a budget for conservation,” she points out.