Food and energy from controversial trees

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Above : Charcoal briquettes on display during the KEFRI open day. The briquettes are made from Prosopis juliflora locally known as mathenge.
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It was certainly a generational show of with as researchers from the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) grabbed the attention of eager visitors during the May 18, 2012  open day held at the Karura grounds.

From showcasing the latest renewable energy technologies, to processed foods carved from indigenous trees, as well as state-of-the-art timber sawing skills, it was clear that the forestry sector is finally getting some buzz.

Take for instance the exhibition on that invasive weed, Prosopis juliflora, long thought to be a curse in communities where it has colonized ecosystems.

Who would have thought the weed that locals have also named mathenge, is a source of food and raw materials for making beautiful artifacts? James Ndung’u was there to demonstrate how.

According to Ndung’u, who has been doing research on how the plant can lose its bad edge as a choking weed and win a place as one of the undiscovered treasures, the pods can be milled to make mouth watering chapatis and mandazi.

“The pods are nutritious in proteins and carbohydrates,” explains the officer from KEFRI. “The trunk of the plant is used to make furniture and office chattel.”

The taste for alternative foods as Kenya’s farmers continue to struggle with erratic rainfall has probably stretched the imagination of researchers.

Sporting a place among the colorful display at Karura was also some of the by-products that can be extracted from baobab, that tree that engineers have dismissed as useless since it is not useful for timber.

But Moses Elima, another officer with KEFRI, proved that indeed in areas where it grows, people do not have to complain about lack of food.

According to Elima, sources from baobab are probably the easiest way to make jam, juice, porridge as well as wine since all one is required to do is harvest the fruits and take them to the processing factory for sifting and final value addition.

The day-long event also had on its table some of the goodies made from Aloe Vera as well as a collection of herbs and other indigenous varieties that should certainly make East Africa the next destination for overseas treasure hunters.

And when a few months ago forest officers appeared beaten over sporadic fires that consumed Kenya’s forests, bamboo, the giant grass that takes blame for igniting ecosystems during the dry season, was an exciting watch at Karura.

According to Gordon Sigu, a research scientist working with KEFRI, bamboo, the giant grass that grows naturally in Kenya’s ecosystem, has been the cause of most forest fires due to its ability to ignite rapidly especially during the dry season.

A ban that restricts harvesting of forest products also has bamboo in its list of protected resources, although it is classified as a giant grass. This, says, KEFRI, is making Kenya lose millions in revenue due to wasted forest resources through ageing and rotting.

But hope is in sight following a renewed push through a policy brief tabled in February this year by KEFRI to the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, which could pave the way for the reviewing of the ban, to allow communities to harvest bamboo from forests.

“During the dry season there is widespread outbreak of forest fires which are mainly caused by dry bamboo,” says Sigu. “By allowing the harvesting of bamboo Kenya can save millions of revenue from the plant. Our research has shown that the grass can be harvested without necessarily interfering with the water regime.”

Not only can the plant’s mature bark be used to extract a writing sheet which one can write on legibly, it can be used to make tables, chairs, floor mats, baskets, brooms, necklaces, sugar dishes, smoking pipes and even wine cups.

It would not have been a day well spent at the Forest Products Research Center (FPRC) if one had not stopped at Benson Kimani’s stand.

The youthful researcher has a solution to the continued harmful effects of charcoal burning, where he is making a product that is free of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

According to Kimani, the charcoal briquettes, are un carbonized by burning off the volatile contents and blue gases using a simple made drum.

“We are able to recycle wastes such as rice husks, timber chippings using clay and red soil to bind them product into usable pellets,” explains Kimani.

By David Njagi (dnjagi@gmail.com)

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