Hemp can save forests, replace plastic

Environmentalists plant trees in Ngong Forest, Nairobi, on March 7, 2018. For real change, planting more trees must be institutionalised as a national duty. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Hemp will grow anywhere without pesticides or herbicides and doesn’t compete for soil nutrients with other plants.
  • Hemp is more viable than wood. You need just an acre of hemp to give you enough fibre pulp you would otherwise get from four acres of trees.

In the 1980s, Prosopis juliflora, a shrub popularly known as “mathenge”, was introduced in arid and semi-arid areas to halt desertification but proved invasive, leading to its classification as a weed.

Benefits aside, Mathenge has been blamed for damage to livestock and humans in areas where it grows.

Whereas its introduction was laudable, the research for more sustainable wood substitutes ought to have continued immediately complaints against it arose.

It took a herding community in Baringo to present a toothless goat in court to show the detrimental effects of Mathenge on livelihoods.

Meanwhile, runaway deforestation in Kenya has taken a turn for the worse, compounded with unmitigated climate change phenomena.

Environmental disasters such as landslides, drought and drying up of water bodies are imminent and their effects will bite.

Kenya’s first Nobel Prize laureate, Prof Wangari Maathai, dedicated her life to protecting forests and woodlands in the country.

But with the rampant tree-felling, whether on wetlands or water towers, her legacy has, sadly, gone up in smoke.

The recent ban on logging is a typical knee-jerk reaction to the underlying issue. That alone won’t remedy the situation as the damage is already done.

For real change, planting more trees, which will take quite some time and requires cooperation from residents, must be institutionalised as a national duty.

It took nearly two and a half decades for the impact of South Korea’s national restoration of forest cover to be felt.

Consequently, it has taken patriotism to keep the forest cover growing by girth and twigs.

What we urgently need is short-term or hypodermic solutions to manage our forests while we work on the long-term or surgical ones.

Most of the trees in Kenya are cut down primarily for wood fuel.

What is the solution that can curb that demand while we plant more trees that will, in truth, take close to 10 years to grow? We must grow hemp.

Hemp, part of the Cannabis sativa L. plant species, is a multi-purpose plant chiefly grown for its fibre, seed and intoxicating resin.

The latter type of Cannabis sativa is what is called marijuana, a narcotic drug illegal in most parts of the world.

Hemp, however, is not marijuana — even though it looks similar. It lacks enough Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to cause intoxication.

This family association and off-shoot stigma is probably why many governments in developing countries have shunned this plant that offers more than 1,000 solutions in eco-friendly products.

A fast-growing wood substitute, hemp matures in between five and seven months — much faster than Mathenge, which takes three to four years.

Hemp will grow anywhere without pesticides or herbicides and doesn’t compete for soil nutrients with other plants.


It is known to repel pests and birds from invading crops such as corn and sorghum as its seeds are much more nutritious compared to those cereals.

In fact, hemp restores the soil by breaking down harmful metals and consumes three times the carbon dioxide in the air.

Its longer and stronger fibre makes products that are firmer but lighter than those made of wood.

Owing to its natural constituent, hemp-made products last longer than those of wood as termites and molds tend not to attack them.

Hemp is more viable than wood. You need just an acre of hemp to give you enough fibre pulp you would otherwise get from four acres of trees.

Hemp briquettes have more energy than charcoal and burn longer with less smoke. The briquettes are also light in weight and can be transported with ease.

Paper made of hemp is of the best quality. It’s so good that the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America was written on it, as was the first Bible printed by Gutenberg and most of the currencies in the 19th Century.

I urge Pan-Paper Mill in Webuye to start producing hemp paper if they want to be profitable.

The paper can be made into strong brown bags that can replace the polythene recently banned in Kenya and Rwanda.

Anything made of plastic can be fashioned out of hemp.

This being a plastic-free environment movement era, the National Environment Management Authority ought to offer hemp-related alternatives to most Kenyans to dull the impact of the looming ban on plastic bottles and straws.

Hemp cellulose can be moulded into containers such as bottles, plates and cups or even poles and blocks.

Finally, products made out of hemp are biodegradable — a big plus to the people, planet and profit cycle.

For that, hemp should be given a chance to salvage a world choking on plastic.

Mr Kanyi is the Global Forest Watch forest monitor in Kenya. [email protected]