As Shamba Systems Debate Rages On, this Company is Feeding Kenyans from Forests!

It’s a fine mid-morning in the woods of Brackenhurst in Kenya’s Kiambu County, and Sven Verwiel has just arrived at his farm, ready for the day’s work.

As he comes in, his colleagues have already settled in and are putting in their work, spreading biomass (wood and crop waste chippings) on the farm. 

He is practicing a new farming method where they plant a number of different varieties of crops and trees within the same space where they also rear livestock.

“We have the solutions for the problems we are fighting such as climate change. We have the knowledge and the machines to do this. Given that we have large-scale problems, we need large-scale solutions,” says Guilherme Sobral, the Senior Agroforestry Manager at ForestFoods.

The practice is called regenerative agroforestry and was introduced by Verwiel at ForestFoods, a company under Linking Environment, Agribusiness and Forestry (L.E.A.F)

Having been born and raised in Kenya, Verwiel understands well the Kenyan agricultural market. He is the majority shareholder at ForestFoods.

“Our modular agroforestry approach to farming integrates crops, forestry, fodder, and livestock in small to medium-scale farms to simplify the value chain, recreate natural environments, and produce the highest quality food for Africans by Africans,” says Verwiel.

The company started operations in March and so far, Verwiel says that they target niche hotels and niche restaurants where people care about quality. 

The company hopes to scale up to produce more food and target even the middle class in the coming few years.

“For now we are small scale and the plan in the future is to be able to penetrate the middle-class market because once we have scale we can do things very differently. We can produce all the staple crops also but high grade, like cassava, sweet potato, potato, millet, sorghum, maize, you name it,” he says.

Sven Verwiel poses for a photo at his farm in Bruckenhurst, Kenya’s Kiambu County

Agroforestry has been practiced in Brazil for decades with great success and serves as the basis for ForestFoods’ African model.

Sobral explains that the model in Brazil has been a success and with the same climate as Africa, the model in Africa has a lot to borrow from it in order to be successful.

In a recent debate that rocked the country, Kenya’s Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua said that the government was allowing people to go into and grow crops within forests. It is called the Shamba System.

The system was first established in the country in 1910 by the colonial administration but has faced policy challenges over the years, where it has been abolished and reintroduced in the different, consequent administrations. 

The system initially converted bare land to 160,000 hectares of plantation forest. But years of misuse and people went on to destroy forests in disguise so they could trade in timber led to it being banned severally.

The first ban came in 1986 but was lifted in 1994 before the late President Mwai Kibaki banned it again in 2003 citing abuse by KFS officials and timber millers.

Former President, Uhuru Kenyatta, also outlawed the system in January 2021 citing environmental degradation, three years after imposing a moratorium on logging in public and community forests over the same concerns.

In his speech in Baringo County on September 24, Kenya’s Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua said that the government was planning on allowing people to go into and cultivate in the forests, something that led to debate and an uproar among Kenyans.

Gachagua would later come on national TV to say that the media had misquoted him and that he meant that people should only grow food and trees on open land, where there are no trees so that there is no food shortage.

However, the National Chairman of the Forestry Society of Kenya Dr. Joram Kagombe, said that they support the system, as it will support plantation establishment and concurrently support livelihoods for communities that reside in areas immediately next to major forests and landscapes.

“The system will support plantation establishment and concurrently support livelihoods for communities that reside in areas immediately next to major forests and landscapes,” Dr. Kagombe said.

But, according to Sobral, these are just tree plantations and his definition of a forest is quite different.

“It is really reforesting but with agriculture, treat your crops and treat your trees like you treat your crops. It is not just planting trees and thinking you are saving the world; we need to produce food as well,” he says.

The company has also been involved in the rearing of chickens in the area and says that they have plans to include goats and cattle within the project farms once they expand into bigger farms.

The chicken house is mobile and used motorcycle tires to ease its daily manual movement. They are monitored to ensure that they don’t under-graze or over-graze an area, and are rotated to ensure that they also control pests in the field. To control them, they use a solar-powered fence that acts as a shock for the chicken not to cross.

ForestFoods hopes to go countrywide with the idea, in order to ensure a forest cover for the country, and as well a food-secure population. According to Verwiel they are focused on having their own farms right now but look to involve individual farmers later.

Sophie Miloyo, a 29-year-old mother of two is one of the many local workers at the farm where she joined in March and says that she is already impressed by how the production is done from a small area of land.

“This was a football field and it is now producing a very good amount of food; and different species of trees. Given a chance, I would also want to practice this kind of farming back in my rural home. It puts land into maximum use, for maximum yields,” Miloyo says.

The company is currently sourcing financing for the project. Verwiel says that they got private financing after giving away equity in the first $300,000 financing, and are paying debt on the second one worth $150,000.

“We are looking for $1 million for the seed round, and we are hoping that half of that comes in as a fund because I don’t believe it’s fair judging on what we are doing and our ambitions for all of that to come in a commercial format,” he says.

He says that he did a pitch-coaching exercise with USAID’s Kenya Investment Mechanism, a project that helps businesses raise capital. “The coaching helps business owners learn how to speak the language of investors, and I am hopeful that we will raise the capital we need to grow our innovation,” he concludes.

This story was published at Transcontinental Times..

Dominic Kirui is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He writes on gender, climate change, access to clean water, food security, culture, conflict, politics, and global development. See his portfolio here 

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