The baobab tree, or mbuyu in Kiswahili, is a common feature of the semi-arid Kilifi County landscape.
The gigantic trees dwarf others on many farms, live for many years and have various uses.
Some of the trees are thought to be hundreds of years old, with an extensive root system and high water-holding capacity.
And while large numbers of Africa’s most iconic trees are dying almost certainly as a result of climate change, they also face a new threat: biopiracy.
Environmental experts and others have expressed their reservations about the massive export of the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) in Kilifi to Georgia.
They condemned the move and called on the government to urgently intervene to protect the baobab, now endangered.
The Nation has established that foreigners operating under Ariba Seaweed International Limited have uprooted baobabs in Tezo, Kilifi North constituency.
This was corroborated by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS).
A bodaboda rider from Tezo, who did not want to be named, said the foreigners were purchasing the tree for Sh300,000.
Security guards at a private firm are guarding the uprooted trees. The Nation also established that the foreigners were building a jetty at the Bofa Beach for shipping the baobabs.
The foreigners were also keen on the type of baobab tree they wanted.
"The foreigners always assess the type of baobab tree they want using some electric gadgets put on the tree. If it rejects the tree, they move to another one until they get what they want," he said.
Kilifi County Nema Director George Oyoo confirmed that the foreigners had illegally uprooted eight baobabs for export.
Mr Oyoo said they had filed a case in court to challenge the process after discovering that trees were for export.
The case will be mentioned on October 27.
He said locals had sold the baobab to the company for export.
But he noted that for baobabs on private farms, a farmer required only a felling permit from the county government.
“We could not have issues with them. But when we realised the tree was for export, we thought we needed to come in to ensure access to benefit sharing (ABS) so that these people do not take our genetic material outside and patent them so that we cannot claim ownership of the product,” he said.
“To that extent, we stopped them and compelled them to undertake an environmental impact assessment (EIA) so that when they export the genetic material, then they would have complied.
“We had seen the initial intention, and because they had not complied with the orders and to deter them from future attempts without following the law, we sued them at the Kilifi Law Courts.”
Andrew Soi, who was the KFS Coast regional director but has been transferred to Nyeri, said the foreigners wanted a permit from the office but did not get it.
"The extension is in the county government. When I was in the Coast region, we left the issue to the multi-agency and Nema," he said.
Mr Soi condemned the move and said it was not good for Kenya as it eroded the environment and its resources.
"It is not right. Though we need them for tourism, we cannot just take our resources to them," he said.
Environmentalists say the exporters are creating a desert experience in the targeted areas in the US.
They alleged that it could be biopiracy as there were no consultations and there was no environment impact assessment report.
A team of conservationists in Kilifi had objected to the uprooting of the baobab tree or cutting them down, said Nature Kenya Coast regional conservation programme coordinator Francis Kagema.
“It is biopiracy because that is our biological resource. Someone is uprooting and taking it to another country. We do not know who allowed that and the process involved because there were no consultations,” he said.
Mr Kagema called on Nema and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) to clarify how the foreigners were allowed to interfere with Kenya’s natural resources.
“We need to know what happened because you cannot go to the USA, uproot a tree, and come with it to Kenya. Who will allow you to do that?” he said.
“There is protection because everyone wants to remain with their resources since you never know what you will discover in them tomorrow.”
He said it was unfortunate that the foreigners were illegally uprooting the trees in the daylight and loading them onto their trucks.
He said the baobab exists in East, West and South Africa and questioned why the foreigners were interested in Kenya.
“Why should we be the ones to export our baobab, selling it like bread? It is a tree. Although it is not a timber tree, it is a tree and has its own values. Cutting the baobab should stop everywhere,” he added.
Uprooting the baobabs was a crime against the environment and the government should protect the tree, which has been neglected for years, said Wild Living Resources Director Anthony Maina.
He challenged the government to take stern action against the perpetrators and have them compensate for the risks and return the trees.
“We have heard of areas where the baobab tree is being harvested in masses. We are saddened because it cannot happen in a country so advanced as Kenya,” he said.
“Having gone through the access and benefit sharing process, we know what it takes before taking any genetic material out of the country.
“We are concerned and do not think they have the legal documents. No government can authorise the uprooting of a mass of trees to be planted in Georgia.”
Mr Maina argued that it would not be possible for Kenyans to take any plant from the US to plant it in Kenya.
The community in areas where the baobab grows, he said, are poor due to low rainfall and crop failure and locals need to find alternative sources of income.
“The baobab can provide an economic incentive, address food security and nutrition if added to other products at the household level,” he said.
He said the foreigners should not have been allowed to uproot and export the trees for any purpose.
“Most of these trees that we have are between 100 and 600 years old, and they grow up to 3,000 years. You cannot justify uprooting them without a guarantee that it will grow,” he said.
Wild Living Resources trains and builds the capacity of community producers of natural products to access premium markets while increasing conservation and creating livelihoods.
It has been studying baobab value chains and promoting related products for years.
“We take the conservation of natural resources very seriously, especially the baobab, because it is neglected, as an invaluable tree, but it has a lot of benefits. It is a zero-to-waste product,” he added.
The leaves of the baobab can be eaten as a vegetable or mixed with salad, and the bark can be used to make ropes.
Its pods are harvested in the dry season, and the seeds are cracked and the powder used in baking. It is rich in vitamin C and it can be used to make juices, among other uses.
The oil from the pressed seeds is used in cosmetics and to make soap and body oils, while the seed cake is a good feed for cattle, horses and poultry.
The cracked shells can be made into briquettes for fuel.
Wild Living Resources has trained over 1,400 farmers on baobab production, uses, commercialisation, marketing and standard operating procedures, focusing on powder and oil.
Mr Maina said farmers rely heavily on wild harvests and the baobabs on their farms to get the products.
He added that other countries in sub-Saharan Africa like Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique have invested in the baobab value chain and the products are sold on international markets.
“In Kenya, we have an opportunity to create a baobab industry, bringing income to the farmers while they conserve their environment,” Mr Maina said.
Nicholas Nyoka, a baobab farmer in Mavueni, said their livelihood was at risk.
He said Kenyan farmers had embraced baobab farming after being enlightened on its benefits and had taken the initiative to protect the resource.
“Despite our efforts to secure our resources, the baobab tree is in danger. People are stealing the seeds and uprooting the tree for export. We call upon the national government and the county to intervene,” he said.
The Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing acknowledged that genetic materials can be exported or imported, Mr Oyoo said.
But the procedure should be within a given legal framework.
He said the public needs to be sensitised on conserving the baobab.
Nema is the complainant in the case where Georgy Gvasaliya, Patricia Njeri and Richard Kipsang are charged with uprooting baobab trees in Tezo on July 19.
Nema says in court documents that uprooting the tree may lead to an unsustainable use of natural resources without an environmental impact assessment license issued by the watchdog.
The three are also accused of intending to transfer genetic resources out of Kenya without a material transfer agreement.
This is contrary to regulation 18 as read with regulation 24 of the Environmental Management and Coordination (Conservation of Biological Diversity and Resources, Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing) Regulation, 2006.
The third charge is accessing genetic resources in Kenya without an access permit, contrary to regulation 9(1)(2) as read with regulation 24 of the above-cited 2006 con