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C.D. Kahuki and J.M.W. Muniu
Forestry Department


In traditional societies the role of forests as a source of timber for construction and to some extent fuelwood supplies was minor, compared to the wide range of forest products such as medicines grazing pastures, hunting grounds and security habitats.

The modernisation of societies, supply of timber and other wood products tend to be the focus of forestry management.

In recent times, non-wood forest products (NWFP) are increasingly seen as distinctive sources of sustainable development innovations rather than as a grey area of minor by-products, overshadowed by more widely recognised uses (FAO, 1993).

Unfortunately, despite the fact that NWFPs are widely used in traditional and modern societies, documented information and their development has been minimal.

Therefore the need for forest and wildland resource managers, researchers and rural development leaders and activists is increasing. The greater focus on the developmental role of these non-wood forest products, as well as their sustainable management and conservation is imperative. There is a high demand for the blending of modern technologies and innovative indigenous traditional knowledge for the sustenance of these resources, their values and benefits to society.


The diversity of the forest biological resources in terms of its flora and fauna and the associated ecological systems and climatic regimes manifest the diversity of forest-based products, and particularly the non-wood products.

The Kenyan forests range from the rain lowland forests of Kakamega and Nandi in western Kenya, the afromontane and upland forests of Mt. Kenya, Aberdares Range, Mt. Elgon and Mau range, to the Coastal inland humid forests of Shimba Hills and Arabuko Sokoke, and the dry upland forests and savannah woodlands in the hinter land. There are also the coastal wetland mangroves of Lamu in the north and the Southern coast from Tana River to Vanga at the Tanzanian boarder.

These forests form varied vegetation patterns and wildlife habitats each rich in floral and faunal composition. These are sources of various products that have use in traditional and modern lifestyles of the communities associated with these forests.

On the other hand, the socio-economic and cultural diversity of the forest adjacent and dependent communities is reflected in the diversity of the utility and value attributes attached to these population densities are determinant factors on the intensity and use of these products.

Most of the biological non-wood products find uses in the subsistence economy of rural communities especially at the household level. Though some uses have some rudimentary commercialisation, industrial extraction and processing of the product is minimal. In essence, use of non-wood products has largely been limited to low income groups who are largely subsistence farmers while commercialisation is a last result in search of employment. Most of such groups would otherwise find the alternative industrial products such as medicines and fibres unaffordable.

Provision of recreation and socio-cultural facilities are service products derived from forests.


Most forest products, specifically non-wood products may be identified and classified by either, their basic generic or functional characteristic. Of the organic subset, of non-wood forest products, generically there are those floral-based products such as resins, gums, grass, bamboo and fern, tubers and fruits used for food, roots, bark and leaves used for medicines. There are also those faunal based products such as honey, bees wax, game meat and trophies, silk, live butterflies and insect larvae and pupae that have use in one form or the other depending on a particular community.

On the other hand, the organic subset may be classified functionally by how the products are used. This classification has examples such as foods, medicines, dyes, beverages, fodder, building and construction, basketry, rituals, ornamental and perfumery products.

The forest provides a wide range of services of a recreational nature such as tourism, cultural, such as religious and cultural rituals as well as those of environmental protection such as water catchment providing fresh and mineral water springs.

However, in most discussions and literature on forest products and particularly non-wood or non-timber forest products, these two sets of classification are mixed in use. One form of classification gives better clarity of one product better than the other form, and vice-versa for another product. Another reason may be that most generic products have several functions such as plant sap which can be used for dyeing or a beverage. A particular function such as feeding may be met by a number of generic products e.g. barks, leaves seeds or root.

The FAO definition (C. Chandrasekharan "Terminology, definition and classification of forest products other than wood", 1995) is as follows:

Non-wood forest products: NWFPs include all goods of biological origin, as well as services derived from forest or any land under similar use, and exclude wood in all its forms;

Non-wood goods: Any physical object, natural or man-made, or service that could demand a price;

Non-wood services: Provision of assistance; act of serving; work done to meet some needs, intangible, non-transferable economic good as distinct from physical commodities services such as grazing and camping facilities, wilderness trails, viewing and hunting etc. are included in the definition of NWFP. Benefits such as watershed values, environmental conservation are considered separately.

The perspective of the non-wood forest products here has been based on the generic classification for the simple reason that from a policy and management view point, a forest resource has complimentary multi-functional roles and ought to be managed to fulfil the optimum range of roles, which could be production of medicine, fodder, fuel, carvings, or poles or pulp from the same tree.

The non-wood products here exclude those non-timber products, such as fuelwood, poles and posts, and wood carvings which to some extent are derivatives of standing timber wood.

The range of non-wood products that are extracted and used in one form or another in Kenya, and the importance of the product varies widely depending on the user community and its proximity to the resource. The intensity, extent and mode of use are also dependent on availability of substitutes. The following is by no means exhaustive and it is believed there are other many products whose uses have not been documented.

3.1. Resins and gums

The most well known and documented of these are the oleo-resin from pine species and gum Arabic from Acacia species.

Oleo-resin has been produced by Rosin Kenya Ltd. since 1985. Its final products, resin, is used in the paper industry and turpentine is exported to COMESA countries. The main sources are Pinus elliotii, P. caribaea and recently to a lesser extent P. radiata.

The first two pines amount to only about 1,240ha and account of 2% and 0.2% respectively of all the pine plantations. The resin production is approximately 1000 tonnes/year.

Gum Arabic is mainly from Acacia senegal which grows in the arid and semi arid lands (ASAL) of Northern and N. Eastern Kenya. The gum has been traditionally collected by the pastoral communities of the areas and traded across the boarder with Somalia. Commercial production began in 1990 and to date 500 tonnes are produced per year.

The Kenya Forestry Research institute (KEFRI) has done some research on this product, including resource survey and mapping, and research is continuing. The government has taken keen interest and developed a project on Gum Arabic is under development. There are over 20 plant species in Kenya which yield gum, but only seven are being currently utilised. (Kuri, 1992).

Some of these uses include myrrh and frankincense from Commiphora and the Boswellia species of the Burseraceae family. The collection and trade in myrrh and frankincense is by the local farmers of the ASAL areas of north and north eastern parts of Kenya and has been going on for a long time (Chikamai, 1995).

The general knowledge, information and technology on extraction and uses of gums and resins largely confined to local communities requires research and development to achieve the optimum exploitation of the potential.

3.2. Tannin Bark

Tannin extraction from the bark of Acacia mearnsii (Black wattle) which is native to Australia has been going on in Kenya the since 1900s. Currently there are two firms extracting and processing black wattle tannin: East African Tannin Extract (EATEC) and Kenya Tannin Extract Co.. EATEC has its own wattle plantations of about 8,300ha around Eldoret, while Kenya Tannin Extract Co. at Thika buys the bark from farmers. The tree grows in high potential areas and the Forestry Department has in the past planted this tree but only on a small scale.

The annual bark consumption is about 27,000 tonnes/yr (EATC 16,000 and KETEC 10,700 tones) to produce approximately 9,700 tonnes of tannin/yr of which about 7,800 tonnes/yr are exported.

Although Kenya has about 62,800ha of mangroves along the coast, which have potential for bark tannin production, this potential has neither been explored nor exploited.

Similarly the potential for tannin production from the ASAL based acacias, such as A. nilotica has neither been explored nor exploited as in Sudan where the bark is used in cottage leather tannin industries (Rukuba and Kahuki, 1982).

3.3. Bark

Bark finds many uses other than in tannin production, of which medicinal is the more widespread. The local communities use bark of different plants to treat different human and livestock diseases. This use has similarly been finding extensive application in modern pharmaceutical fields.

The bark of Prunus africanum (locally called Muiri) has been in high demand in Kenya for export mainly to USA. A local firm exports around 2,000 tonnes of this bark annually. This bark, whose extractive is used clinically for treatment of prostate ailments, has traditionally been used for the same by Kenyan communities especially those around Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares.

Bark of other trees such as Podocarpus species, cedar (Juniperus procera) and the exotic cypress are peeled off from trees for use in traditional thatching, wall panelling, or construction of bee hives or other receptacles. As noted in parts of the May forests of the Rift Valley in Kenya, this bark extractivism, has caused great damage and if unmanaged can have detrimental effects, not only on sustainable conservation of indigenous forest resources, but also on the survival of plantation forests as the ring-debarking peeling kills the entire tree.

3.4. Herbs and Fodder

Plant foliage finds many uses as either livestock fodder, human food in form of vegetables, medicines for livestock and human. Forage is also used in thatching , basketry and other crafts in production of ornaments and household receptacles and mats. In the dry land areas, tree and herbal forage provide the only year-round food security for livestock, while various wild plant leaves provide traditional vegetables and medicinal herbs for communities. Palm and coconut leaves, ferns, reeds, grass, bamboo leaves and "wild banana" leaves are common material for construction of houses and other structures such as granaries by local communities. Today, in Kenya, uses in construction and crafts are generating great demand and wide application in the commercial sector and particularly in the tourism industry, hence likelihood of stress on the sustainability of the resource. Similarly, forest foliage is finding commercial uses in the floral business and markets. In Kenya, asparagus, fern and moss are widely used in commercial floral arrangement. It has been observed that in South Africa wild plants in natural forests, cultivation in farms and pine plantation and export have been substantially developed for the floral industry.

Leaves of various indigenous and exotic species are believed to have the potential for oil production. Among them are the various eucalyptus plants. However, little has been done in exploiting its potential.

In Kenya study on indigenous knowledge on uses and conservation of useful indigenous herbs and plants has intensified among scientists at Kenya Forestry Research institute (KEFRI), National Museums of Kenya (NMK), Kenya Medical Research institute (KEMRI) and the Universities. the Neem tree (Asadirachta indica) commonly known as "Mwarubaine" meaning" forty (diseases)" is the subject of intensive study and management awareness dissemination by the International Centre for Insect Ecology (ICIPE). The tree is said to have potency for not only curing diseases, among them malaria, but also producing various insecticides from leaves, bark and seeds. Mellia species which resemble Neem has been a mistaken casualty of the Neem de-barking mania in many areas of the country.

3.5. Forest Fruits and seeds

Wild fruits and seeds have been sources of food, beverages oils, fibres, medicine and ornaments for local communities through the generations in all parts of the world. They have traditional socio-cultural roles such as rituals and as means of traditional commercial exchange.

Most traditional beers and wines are brewed either from wild or semi-cultivated plants. The fruit of "sausage tree" Kigelia (abyssinica), whose common name is Muratina is commonly used by Bantus of central Kenya for brewing Muratina beer while palms and coconuts are used for production of Mnazi and other beers at the coast.

Other non-alcoholic health beverages and drinks such as stews and soups are prepared either traditionally known from or with wild fruits or seeds due to their nutrition and medicinal potency.

Wild berries such as gooseberries and raspberries are not only consumed subsistence at source, but are common in market places and at roadside being offered for sale and providing some self employment for youths.

Intensive management and domestication of some of the wild fruit and seed producing plants may be key to commercialisation and industrialisation of their supply for production of oils, fats, soaps, pharmaceuticals, hices and hams for the market.

3.6. Wild Tubers and Roots

Indigenous knowledge on useful wild tumblers and roots abound among specific local forest adjacent communities, but unfortunately, very little of its is documented. These products are locally used as foods due to their high starch, or sugar content, as medicines or for preparation of health beverages. In Ethiopia, the "wild babana" (Ensete vent) is cultivated in some areas and the white sap from it roots is dried, ground and used for baking and porridge.

3.7. Bamboo and Fibres

Bamboo finds many uses in traditional and modern lifestyles. The shoots are used as food, stems for building, fencing, furniture and containers, fibre in basketry and pulp-making, while leaves are used in thatching and other forms of shading.

In Kenya, the floriculture industry is heavily dependent on bamboo for supporting the growing flowers. It also finds extensive application in fencing homesteads, making tea-picking baskets and in furniture making. It is also being used in production of tooth-picks.

Although there are currently extensive bamboo forests with potential for supporting a bamboo-fibre-based industry, its sustainable management has not been well developed which has led to fear of unsustainable exploitation and which in turn has led to a government restriction of its exploitation. Exploitation. Exploitation has been limited to purposes of floriculture and tea-picking basketry. KEFRI has a Bamboo Management project that is looking into its sustainable management.

Other forest fibres have had very little management intervention and are or exploited outside the traditional economies, where some tree barks such as that of Mukeo (Dombeya goetzenii), fibre from some gave species, palms and coconuts have been used for making traditional baskets, other crafts and ropes. The Bamboo (Adansonia digitata) bark is widely used for fibre production.

3.8. Wildlife Products

There is a wide variety of wildlife products extracted as NWFPs used in traditional and modern economies of Kenyan society. Among these are honey and bee wax, game meat from subsistence hunting of small animals, insects and birds used as food by some communities and animals, or bird parts of such as feathers claws and skins used as ornaments and ritual objects.

The beekeeping industry is greatly dependent on forests for production of nectar. Honey finds many uses in traditional and modern lifestyles in food, drink, medicine and as a trade medium. It is used by many communities in the majority of traditional ceremonies, either pure of mixed in a drink.

Wild animals and insects such as ants are sources of valuable protein for many communities. The Kipepeyo project, a community butterfly rearing project under the NMK earns its 144 members about US$ 1.3 million annually from exports. This project is near Arabuko Sokoke forest at the coast. Silk farming is till at an early stage, but has great potential.

3.9. Recreation and Tourism

The forests are sanctuaries of a wide variety of plant and animal life and in addition they offer picturesque sceneries of landscape and vegetation formation. In addition, they provide a modified micro-climate sheltered from the prevailing winds, noises and temperatures in the surrounding areas. All these provide amenities for recreation for the locals and outside tourists whereas tourism facilities have been largely developed in the National Parks and National Reserves, tourism potential in the forest reserves has hardly been comparatively exploited. An initiative is being made toward tapping this potential.

Commercially has been a collaborative arrangement between FD and KWS for the latter to undertake tourism development in forest reserves under a non-payment licence and whereas it is easy to monitor statistics with respect to formal tourists staying in forest lodges/camps, there is hardly any data on local tourist or those from outside who do not stay in designated areas.


Research and development (R&D) on non-wood forest products has in the past had little priority if any and was overshadowed by other forest-related management fields such as silviculture, pathology, entomology, and timber-related issues of harvesting and timber properties.

However, recent trends focusing on environment, sustainable development and communities have given sharper focus on natural resources and their dependent communities. This has highlighted the heavy dependence by these communities on the resources around them, particularly the non-wood forest products which are easily accessible to the rural communities and which form the base for their socio-economy.

It is from this exposure that greater interest on these non-wood forest resources has been aroused among the resource managers, researchers and the international community. This community has come out strongly in support of programs addressing research on, and sustainable management of the non-wood forest products sector.

As mentioned earlier, various interest groups have been involved since the mid 1980s in research in this field, including KEFRI, NMK, KEMRI, ICIPE, Universities and the Kenya Industrial Research Institute (KIRDI) among others.

KEFRI has been conducting research on gums and resins, and cellulose fuel briskets. Research includes the product composition and performance, production technology and resource surveys. It has also been involved in research on ethnobotany of medicinal plants.

The NMK has been researching on useful and indigenous species with emphasis on the less known and rare species of plants as well as ethinobotony.

KEMRI and the school of Medicine of Nairobi University, especially the Pharmacy Department have focused more on traditional medicinal plants, commonly referred to as alternative medicine. ICIPE which deals with insect ecology has been involved in research on plant pests and insecticides including plant based chemicals such as Neem.

KIRDI has focused research on non-wood products in the area of product development and technology. On the other hand, the management of these resources has been under the purview of the Forestry Department (FD) in case of forest reserves, and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) with respect to parks and National Reserves, the main reservoirs of these resources. The KWS has department unit which has responsibilities for biodiversity management in parks and non park areas as well as in forest reserves in partnership with FD and conservation, while FD collaborates with KEFRI on management and conservation research, biodiversity and socio-economic surveys in the conservation context.

Socio-cultural Services: Most local communities have cultural associations with their neighbouring forest. Some cultural ritual may be associated with religion and worship, age-group changes such as circumcision, or elderhood and traditional courts. There is definitely a scarcity of documented information with respect to forest provision of these services.


Utilisation of most non-wood forest resources within the subsistence informal sector of the country's economy and very limited in the formal sector where some form of documentation would have been available.

It is therefore obvious that very little is known on the levels of extraction and utilisation of these products. Similarly, due to the variability in resource values and use among different communities, little is known about what particular resource a community uses e.g. types of medicinal herbs, to enable comprehensive and selective ethnobotanical surveys of most species to ascertain their resource bases.

However, the richness of most forest ecosystems in biological diversity is a pointer to the abundance of most of the commonly used species. The danger on the other hand is that, most of the species-rich forests are in the high potential areas where population and agricultural settlement pressures are very high.

The increasing populations expect enormous exploitation pressures and in due course, some of the rare, useful species may have been depleted over the years to very low levels without detection of the decline. Increasing populations, and migration into marginal areas are causing similar pressures on resources of the ASALs resulting in vegetation clearing, with the resulting loss of biodiversity including these non-wood resources.

Commercialisation of use and marketing of these products, such as the popular Kenya miti dawa brew (from a mixture of bark, leaves, roots and stem parts) result in excessive exploitation.

Population factor aside, the hunting and gathering activities of the indigenous communities have maintained their culture and centred on self-consumption. Marketing plays a secondary role, representing a low pressure on resources. (Perez 1994) The more familiar indigenous models have a stronger market orientation and market signals through high demand and prices may represent high pressure on resources with over-exploitation risks. In these cases regulatory measures may be considered urgent. This observation is exemplified by the current restriction on bamboo cutting in Kenya.


The greatest challenge today is the collaborated efforts by resource managers, researchers and users of non-wood products, to develop:

Comprehensive surveys into the indigenous traditional knowledge on utilisation, conservation and appropriate technology with respect to the wide range of non-wood products;

Data-bases on the non-wood products resource base, utilisation, and their sustainable levels;

Programmes for sustainable commercial and industrial harvesting and processing of these resources including promotion of sustainable use by local communities; and

Comprehensive management strategies for sustainable conservation and supply of the raw material, including semi-domestication of the desired species where appropriate for conservation or commercial marketing including export.

Concurrently, policies and legislation should be geared and strengthened towards greater attention to the sustainable management of the non-wood renewable resources coupled with greater empowerment of resource-dependent communities for the management and rational utilisation.

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