Dreaded Mathenge Tree Now a Source of Livelihood

It’s amazing how green everything is in Turkana West Sub County despite the popular belief that Northern Kenya is often hot, dry, shrubby and gravelly.  As we embark on a 76 kilometers two hour drive from Kakuma to Nasinyono village, Nanaam ward in Lokitipi area, we get to realize that the road is not tarmacked hence a very rough terrain. To our surprise, that road ended at our final destination of Nasinyono, beyond there, there’s no further roadway. We arrive at the Nasinyono Community farm at around 11 am local time; the temperatures are at 35 degrees Celsius. Heavy winds are sweeping the loose sand in this relatively flat region. We are made aware by the locals that the name Nasinyono is derived from the local dialect meaning loose sand.

What makes Turkana West so green? The answer to this is prosopis juliflora, a tree species that is common in this region. For a long time it has been considered a menace by the local communities due to perceived negative effects to livestock, pasture and other indigenous plant species. However, AICHM in partnership with Johanniter have helped the community tap into the potential of this tree by ensuring that the residents use it to improve their social-economic welfare through the provision of fencing posts, charcoal, firewood, and fodder. Besides these uses, mathenge is also used to reduce soil erosion and has medicinal value through solutions made from its leaves and pods.

"A Blessing, if Well Managed"

John Losikikia, the Lotikipi sub-location Assistant Chief, told us that for a long time, the Nasinyono community has considered the mathenge tree a curse. "But it is without a doubt a blessing if well managed and utilized.“ He pointed out that there is a widespread misconception on the species but with the knowledge acquired from AICHM and Johanniter and their support to manage the species through the production and marketing, today the community highly benefits from mathenge tree. He added that the livelihood project is a milestone since it has helped shape the Nasinyono community.

Before 2011, this was a transit point for pastoralists migrating to and from Lokichoggio and South Sudan and there were no permanent settlements. Today there is a community. We have permanent homes and it’s only men who move with livestock in search of pasture and they usually come back to their families here.”

Charcoal-Storage in Nasinyono: 2000 bags have been sold to benfit the community at the end of 2017. © Axel Fassio

The assistant chief added that most of the products they produce from mathenge including charcoal, firewood and building poles have a ready market at the refugee camp in Kakuma. The community collaborates with the World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR who purchase the produce for consumption by refugees at the camp through a local NGO called LOKADO. Despite the negative perspective towards the tree, Johanniter and AICHM have enabled the community to benefit economically from the prosopis tree that outweighs its negativity by ensuring that the residents use it to their advantage thus improving their social-economic welfare.

(Written by James Okongo)

Where Does Mathenge Come From?

Mathenge is a plant native to South America according to the Kenya Forest Research Institute (Kefri) website. The weed was introduced in Kenya by the government in the 1960s to curb desertification. In the 80s, the Kenyan government and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) embarked on an aggressive tree planting in arid and semi-arid regions to eradicate soil erosion and slow desertification in the areas thus the widespread of the plant in Turkana, Baringo, Garrisa, Taveta, Bura and Hola regions.

The same website also reveals that the name Mathenge can be traced to Hola town. Residents did not know the name of the tree but their children enjoyed going to one man’s house and eat the tree’s seeds. When they were asked which tree to plant they said ‘ule wa Mathenge (the one at Mathenge’s compound)’.
Since its introduction to Kenya’s dry land over two decades ago, the invasive mathenge tree-a dense shrub which can grow up to 12 metres (39 feet) in height has continued to spread thus, chocking grazing land thus hindering the peoples livelihood.

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