Care2 Editor’s Note: KOMAZA is a winner of the 2010 SVN Innovation Awards. Founder Tevis Howard will be honored at SVN’s Fall Conference in Long Branch, New Jersey, October 21 – 24. The conference will bring together leaders of socially responsible businesses to share best practices, collaborate on efforts and expand their impact to create a just and sustainable economy. Click here to learn more and register.
By Tevis Howard
During my junior year of college, I exchanged scientific research labs for space in a mud hut. In making that leap, I became the founder and director of a tree farming social enterprise in one of the poorest areas of Kenya.
With small-scale tree farms, we help dryland families overcome poverty and avert the dangers of deforestation. It’s a simple idea, and we’ve been far more successful than I ever could have imagined. After three years of full-time operations, I’m leading 120 staff who wake up every day to serve our farmers. Now, we are revving up to expand operations to 2,500 families and 750,000 trees by early next year.
I never planned to work in social enterprise. In high school and through college, I believed I was going to change the world through science. I spent countless afternoons with lab mice, developing a new treatment for multiple sclerosis. To establish myself in the science world, I took a gap year after high school to investigate malaria at KEMRI, a medical research facility in Kilifi, Kenya. I returned to the U.S. to study neuroscience at Brown University, but every summer and winter break brought me back to KEMRI. Then, everything changed.
On a sweltering afternoon in Kilifi, as I devoured fish and chips during a routine lunch break, my eyes met a woman in brightly colored clothing with three children in tow. Each one carried a heavy load of firewood to sell at the local market. They would probably earn the equivalent of $1 from the day’s grueling work. I realized that my $10 meal was infinitely out of reach for this family and almost every other person in the vicinity.
The day delivered a typical awakening for a newcomer in the developing world, but it also forced me to reckon with my own plans. If I helped find a cure for malaria, the woman’s family may be healthier but otherwise their lives would be unchanged. On the other hand, if I could find a way for the woman to earn money, she could provide her children with education, adequate housing and even better healthcare. I came to realize that I would have the biggest impact if I left science to address rural poverty directly.
At the start of my third year at Brown, with an abundance of naive optimism and no background in international development, I delved into research. Seeking a solution to the poverty I had observed, I recognized that Kilifi and nearby Ganze District are home to some of the hardest-to-serve farmers in the world: those who live on semi-arid, degraded land. They are trying to feed their families by growing traditional food crops, but in a land of little rain and frequent drought, their harvests often fail.
While in Kenya, I had learned how poverty drives environmental destruction in dryland communities. Because families cannot grow enough food to survive, they supplement their income by cutting down indigenous trees to sell as charcoal. When trees disappear, topsoil erodes, rain becomes more erratic, and desertification swallows the land. In the coming decades, these families will no longer be able to grow even the most hardy food crops. Without a viable alternative, millions may become environmental refugees.
I realized I needed a powerful intervention that would provide substantial income while restoring farmers’ increasingly bare, fragile land. Eventually, I found an answer in drought-resistant, high-profit tree farms. Unlike seasonal crops, trees can survive months without water and can effectively utilize rain whenever it comes. In January 2006, I returned to Kilifi to establish KOMAZA, Swahili for “encourage growth, promote development”. By April, we had a five-acre demonstration farm and a stellar founding team.
Through a lot of learning by fire, we created a blockbuster model that unlocks the potential of farmers’ meager assets. We describe it as microforestry. Farmers need only a half-acre of unutilized land and a willingness to work; we supply the tools required to make small-scale tree farming not only possible but profitable, even among the world’s poorest dryland farmers.
KOMAZA first provides farm inputs and training to help families create and maintain their own microforests. After each harvest cycle, we offer value-added processing to transform farmers’ trees into a variety of products, from firewood and sawn lumber to electricity poles and posh floorboards. To unite the full microforestry value chain, we bring end products to high-margin markets normally inaccessible to smallholder farmers.
With Africa’s wood markets worth billions and growing, our farmers’ trees promise a different future ripe with possibilities. We project that each microforest will double family income after six years, triple income after eight years, and return over $3,000 to each family at the final harvest. For a family living on less than $300 per year, this is akin to winning the lottery.
While our core impact is huge, KOMAZA created an experimental farm to trial best-practices and identify new crops that improve our model. For instance, to balance the long-term nature of microforestry, we have conducted R&D on short-term crops that complement our trees. Now, we intercrop nitrogen-fixing legumes that boost farmer nutrition and income within three months of planting. Our commitment to research helps us build a highly effective model (while satisfying my own passion for science and hard facts).
As we begin harvesting, we plan to coppice trees to re-grow after being cut down. This means that a single planting will yield decades of life-changing income. With more money, families can pay for better food and healthcare, send their children to school, improve their farming, or start a business. Moreover, by creating a sustainable supply of wood that meets market demand, our trees ease pressure on native forests, thereby abating deforestation and preserving rural ecosystems for future generations.
While our sole mission is to provide a sustainable and prosperous future for rural families, we recognize that we cannot depend on donations indefinitely. Thus, KOMAZA has built a business model into our program. After selling farmers’ trees, we retain a portion of the profits to reinvest in planting with new families. Every farm we create today will help us establish 10 new farms in future years, which in turn will yield enough to plant 100 new farms. Our organization will need philanthropic funding only during the next few years; eventually we will be able to continue expanding operations without donor support.
Since partnering with our first families in 2008, KOMAZA has grown by a factor of two or three each year. We are meeting a massive, unmet need in rural Kenya. While many agriculture programs help poor families living on fertile land where opportunities are plentiful, our organization is serving forgotten communities facing incredibly harsh conditions. We have created one of the few sustainable and high-impact models that can flourish on dryland.
We have grand ambitions and the potential to serve not only thousands but millions of families. Four years ago, I left the labs to bring an idea to life. After planting the first seedlings, I’ve been joined by a truly extraordinary team committed to applying the principles of the market to the problems of poverty. We are growing fast, and we are thrilled to transform this land of little rain into thriving forests, creating a new reality for the poorest farmers and a place where money really does grow on trees.
Photo Courtesy of Tevis Howard/KOMAZA