Promoting sustainable livelihoods in Kenya's Mau Forest Complex

FAO farmer field schools help safeguard Kenyan forests. 

Key facts

The Mau Forest Complex in Kenya's Rift Valley is the largest of the country's five watersheds. It is also the largest closed canopy forest in East Africa. Several ecosystems in Kenya, including the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and in neighbouring Tanzania depend on water originating from the complex. However illegal logging, ill-planned settlements and fallout from post-election violence in 2007/08 deteriorated forest resources, threatening livelihoods, food security, tourism and water supplies. In response, the Government of Kenya sought the technical assistance of FAO to help the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) improve the watershed and promote sustainable livelihood activities. In 2010, FAO launched a two-year project as part of its Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) that combined technical training through farmer field schools (FFS), business planning and access to banking services to help transform the livelihoods of communities living near the forest.

In the aftermath of the violence that erupted after Kenya’s presidential election in 2007, the community forest associations, managed by the KFS, had stopped functioning. In response, the Government created an emergency programme to protect the Mau Forest, and sought to revitalize the community forest associations as a way to promote social cohesion.

With assistance from FAO, 24 farmer field schools were set up with members of the community forest associations that trained more than 800 men and women on viable ways to earn a living while protecting forest resources.

"People who were once fighting each other were now learning how to conserve the forests together, how to prepare nurseries and plant trees and how to diversify and boost production," said Takayuki Hagiwara, FAO officer involved in the project.

The project also helped rebuild a critical mass of certified FFS master trainers in Kenya, from just 2 to 12, and trained a pool of extension workers and farmer facilitators.

FAO also introduced an innovative mobile phone-based monitoring system whereby farmers could provide regular, real-time updates on the FFS, including on attendance and performance of KFS facilitators.

Developing group-based microenterprises
To encourage farmers to complete the one-year livelihood and farm forestry field school programme and to apply their newly acquired skills and knowledge, the project, through a partnership with Kenya's Equity Bank, provided loans to graduates to develop group-based microenterprises.

"We wanted to link the farmers to a formal banking system, to officially recognize them as members of the private sector from the informal sector," said Hagiwara.

The loan was part of a revolving fund named the ‘Mau Forest Conservation Fund’, managed by Equity Bank and owned by the KFS. This arrangement allowed the money to be recycled and for farmers who repaid their loans to borrow again.

In order to secure a loan, however, farmers had to produce sound investment proposals. Thanks to training on RuralInvest, an FAO-developed software programme, the groups were able to evaluate their plans' financial feasibility, including market opportunities. With this analysis, farmers could tweak or even overhaul their proposals, especially if what initially sounded like a good idea for a business would actually lose money in the long run.

Easy access to loans
The revolving fund gave farmers the chance to access credit with a financial institution − an important project achievement, according to Esther Muiruri, Equity Bank's general manager of marketing-agribusiness. "The project introduced a community that was largely 'unbanked' to banking for the first time through financial literacy training and access to loans for investment in farming activities. At the same time, Equity Bank learned how to finance farm forest activities."

Around the time the project was rolled out, Equity Bank was establishing agency banking in Kenya, enlisting retail outlets to offer financial services in village shopping centres where farmers could make transactions.

Beneficiaries of FAO’s project were among the first customers to use the agency banking. Today, Equity Bank has some 17000 agents, providing banking services to small-scale farmers throughout the entire country.

The project also introduced mobile phones to track investments and loan repayments. To date, most of the scheduled loan repayments were made on time. Many groups − even individual farmers − continue to borrow from Equity Bank to support their businesses.

Positive offshoots
The KFS is now equipped with a workable approach to promote sustainable livelihood activities among communities bordering the Mau Forest Complex and involve them in conserving the Complex's natural resources.

In 2014, the Forest and Farm Facility, a multi-donor funding programme hosted by FAO was also launched in Kenya to promote sustainable forest and farm management activities.

Although many beneficiaries were hesitant at first to join farmer field schools, the latter created a safe space for discussion and exchange. Working towards a common goal helped rebuild friendships and trust.

Farmers in the project area are now earning money from diverse activities − from planting woodlots and nurseries with indigenous trees and improved fruit trees, to growing vegetables, raising livestock and keeping bees.

According to the project team, the supported activities have not harmed the ecosystem, and the KFS has reported a considerable decline in illegal logging and charcoal production since the end of the project.

Now when farmers spot illegal practices, said Hagiwara, they "pick up the phone and call the forest officers."

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