In the heart of Amboseli, a swath of fertile Nyika that extends to as far as the eye can see, the dream of a multimillion-shilling avocado venture at a place called Kimana will now be just that – a dream.
For several months now, environmentalists have been battling with an investor, KiliAvo Fresh Ltd, who had purchased and cleared 180 acres of the fragile bushland hoping to enter Kenya’s multibillion-shilling avocado industry.
The global avocado market has, of late, been booming and in 2019, Kenya was ranked number eight globally after shipping avocados worth Sh10.6 billion behind Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Chile, Colombia and the United States.
Kenya is one of the fastest-growing avocado exporters and had by October last year exported 68,000 tonnes worth Sh14 billion, according to Fresh Produce Exporters Association (FPEAK).
So lucrative is the venture that, last year, the government had to restrict the trade after it emerged some greedy farmers were exporting immature fruits and thus hurting the country’s reputation.
Avocado is the new green gold – perhaps, battling for space with tourism. And when Mr Harji Mavji and his business partner Suresh Kerai invested in the Amboseli ecosystem, they had hoped to tap into the avocado millions. Until their plans ran into conservationists eager to save Kenya’s wildlife heritage.
The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) office in Kajiado had given the project the go-ahead, before the conservationists learnt about it.
Despite getting a licence to start farming, environmentalists and local land owners teamed up and objected to the avocado project, arguing that it was on an ancient elephant migration corridor and would inspire other copy-cat projects in the area.
Kimana, in Tikondo region, where the farm is located, is regarded as the link between Tsavo West National Park and Amboseli National Park.
But as group ranches begin to dispose of some of their land to commercial entities, the conservationists fear the small sub-divided lands might lead to a steep decline in wildlife and degrade the Amboseli ecosystem.
Last year, former Kenya Wildlife Director David Western complained about the continued subdivision of land within the Kimana wildlife corridor and warned that would to land degradation of the sort witnessed in the Kaputei group ranches, north of Amboseli.
“The subdivision of the Amboseli ecosystem into Kaputei-like settlements reflects a large threat to Kenya’s rangelands,” wrote Dr Western, one of the best-known scholars on wildlife.
The subdivision is blamed on a 2019 Ministry of Lands decree that allowed community lands to be hived into private allotments and the Maasai to shift from pastoral to sedentary life. While group ranches have resisted pressure from speculators who would want to purchase the land for other economic ventures – including farming – and settlements, some are already giving in.
Last year, the Ololorashi-Ogulului Group Ranch (OOGR), which surrounds Amboseli National Park, started subdividing its 330,000-acre ranch among its 5,000 members, triggering an uproar from conservationists who argue that loss of land surrounding the parks will spell doom for wildlife conservation in Kenya.
It was amid these concerns that KiliAvo Fresh Ltd and its owners were caught between saving the wildlife corridor and turning the country into a big exporter of avocados.
“While avocados may be nutritious and delicious, they have no business being farmed in the midst of Kimana wildlife corridor. There are many other much better locations for such developments,” Big Life Foundation, whose founders include Richard Bonham, the conservationist who pioneered the Community Game Scout concept in the late 80s, wrote in their protest letter that was widely shared.
Mr Bonham is well known in this corridor. As the son of one of the first game wardens, Jack Bonham, his activism in Mbirikani to save lions and other predators has earned him global accolades.
Thus, when the National Environment Tribunal withdrew the avocado farmers’ licence this week, the move was met with jubilation by conservationists, who have been worried over the dwindling numbers within Tsavo and Amboseli and the livelihoods of those who rely on tourism.
“This avocado farm threatens not only these livelihoods but also the Amboseli National Park, which is one of the premier parks in the nation. This ruling has sent an unmistakable message to all developers who are eyeing wilderness lands as a free-for-all. Hands Off Our Wildlife and Our Wilderness,” said Ms Paula Kahumbu, the Chief Executive Officer of WildlifeDirect, a local conservation lobby group.
It was Ms Kahumbu who first raised the alarm about the fencing of this wildlife corridor and she was threatened with a legal suit by KiliAvo, which was later dismissed.
Ms Kahumbu has been leading efforts to have Nema revoke the licence issued to KiliAvo Fresh Ltd.
Together with other sector players, they are pushing for Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala to strengthen laws and regulations and prevent encroachment of wildlife corridors by investors.
During the submissions to the National Environment Tribunal (Net), the Kenya Wildlife Service submitted a report that confirmed the farm was right inside the wildlife corridor.
Net Chairman Mohammed Balala said KiliAvo failed to provide reports and ready witnesses to help make its case, and despite earlier calling for urgency was now “delaying the fair hearing of this matter”.
The main poser is on the future of cultivated agriculture in the wildlife corridors and the balance that Kenya will be seeking between tourism and the cash-crop economy.
So far conservationists have united under the umbrella of Conservation Alliance of Kenya to question the issuance of a permit for cultivated agriculture – in the continued battle to save Kenya’s dwindling heritage.
Kajiado County Nema Director Joseph Kopejo said the agency will initiate the process of cancelling the licence. But KiliAvo farm manager Jeremiah Sakwa told our reporters in Kajiado that they would continue with the project.
"We have invested heavily in this farm and employed more than 400 people. Not even Nema will dictate to us on how to use our freehold title piece of land," said Mr Sakwa.
In September 2020, Nema had warned KiliAvo that it intended to cancel its licence after Amboseli Land Owners Conservancy Association (ALOCA) and other key stakeholders raised questions on an allegedly skewed environmental impact report.
At the moment, the elephants seem to have won the right of way and the case will be used to stop any further encroachment by investors within the corridor.