TCS Daily

Branching Out

By Stephen Mbogo - May 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Technology is proving to be a goose that lays golden eggs for Africa. Trends being adopted in Africa are catalyzing the continent's social, economic and political development. What remains to be seen is how soon and fast Africans can adapt to these technologies so that they can benefit from them.

Take for instance a new concept of growing biotechnology-developed trees. It is revolutionary in its nature and has come at an apt time, just when trees are gaining their true value in Africa. Formerly, trees mostly used in traditional ways: processed for firewood and timber, used as thatching materials and wind breakers, etc. Nobody paid much attention to their sustainability. After all, trees were abundant in sub-Saharan Africa, whose common country to country ecological characteristic was massive lands blessed with tropical forests. Even more, government regulations on their use were casually applied.

But now, governments in Africa are hoping to stem the deforestation rate. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania all have small, fragmented areas of forest that are under extreme pressure of encroachment and exploitation. The remaining forest patches make up less than 3 percent of the land area in the region and these forests are often heavily degraded, says East Africa Wildlife Society.

In parts of Great Lakes region like Democratic Republic of Congo and West Africa region like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where tropical forests are abundant, deforestation has increased tremendously as a result of civil wars, illegal international lumbering, uncontrolled human activities and clearing of forest lands to grow drugs like cannabis whose proceeds are used to finance wars.

However, a new technique of developing fast-growing, drought-resistant trees has slowly been taking root in Africa. The development of tissue culture trees, through a process known as hybridization and cloned forestry technology, is promising to stem the deforestation rate. The technique first came to Africa through South Africa, where a company known as Mondi Forests has been using it for large scale growing of trees for commercial purposes. The technique is now in Kenya, which is serving as an epicenter of the larger eastern Africa region in the distribution of the tree-growing technology.

In Kenya, a project known as Tree Biotechnology Project, located on the outskirts of Nairobi in an area known as Karura Forest, is leading the technology distribution efforts. Benson Kanyi, the head of the project, said it is a private-public sector partnership involving technology transfer from South Africa's Mondi Forest with the involvement of several Kenyan government departments, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation of the United Kingdom and the International Service of Acquisition of Agribiotech for Applications (ISAAA).

Tree Biotechnology Project is involved in the propagation and distribution of hybrid trees, mainly Eucalyptus. The project is also adapting local indigenous tree species like prunus africana and mellia volkensi. Within 4 to 10 years, these trees are ready for harvesting, unlike the indigenous African trees, which take 10 to 15 years for their harvesting to start. They can comfortably be intercropped with other crops without affecting their growth as the canopy does not limit them. So they are a blessing in disguise for Africa, where arable land is limited and yet there is an overwhelming need to improve food security.

After two years, the biotech trees can be used for thatching and honey beehive mounting; at three years they are ready for firewood and charcoal and at four years they are ready to be used as building poles. According to Kanyi, although the project is only three years old in eastern Africa, it has demonstrated that trees can be used to preserve biodiversity, generate income and act as a source of fuel. He said farmers in eastern Africa have started appreciating the commercial value of trees and that is why "the response has been overwhelming". He added that the biotechnology-developed trees are crucial because Africa's growing population is triggering a rise in per capita demand for paper, hence the need to foster farming of faster growing trees. The cloned trees' cuttings and the improved tree seedlings are sold to farmers at an affordable price of between $0.10-$0.20.

Key achievements of this project have been the successful transfer of clonal biotechnology into eastern Africa, propagation of different tree types including tree hybrids and contribution to efforts aimed at increasing Africa's forest cover.


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