As 80 per cent of Africans still fire their cooking stoves with wood and demand for building products skyrockets, deforestation is a serious problem. In Kenya, forestry business Komaza found a way to plant trees with 7,000 smallholder farmers, collectively managed as a “virtual plantation.” In 2017, Komaza intends to take huge steps forward by planting with another 3,500 farmers and preparing for expansion into new regions and countries.
Africa faces a true wood supply crisis. Forests are cut to help meet the immense demand that expansion of large plantation forestry cannot keep up with. Tevis Howard, founder and CEO of Komaza, is convinced that small-scale farmers have the key to solve the crisis. “Collectively, small farmers possess effectively limitless land and labour to plant billions of trees. At Komaza, we help farmers across the full forestry value chain, from seedlings to sawmills. By aggregating the supply from thousands of small farmers, we can unlock their potential to serve industrial wood markets.”
Komaza started its forestry business in Kilifi County, North of Mombasa. They managed to convince rural farmers to plant small woodlots, which Komaza manages collectively as a ‘virtual plantation.’ Farmers contribute land and labour, and are paid a fair price for harvested trees. “At Komaza we provide training, planting inputs, maintenance support, harvesting services, and a guaranteed market into our wood processing and sales operations”, Howard explains. Ten years after starting this new type of forestry, Howard has found that Komaza can access effectively limitless land and plant trees for far less than big plantations. “This is a powerful disruption to the traditional forestry business model.”
Tevis Howard and his team at the 250-staff ‘social business’ have managed to secure support from several leading impact investors such as HRSV, since their business model offers farmers an additional crop that helps earn real money. “This crop does require some patience, but it really pays off”, says Howard. “We selected two types of trees – Eucalyptus grandis x camaldulensis and Melia volkensii – that grow really well in this region. A few years after planting, farmers earn some money from early stage thinning’s (which makes room for remaining trees to grow faster), but the really big payments come from mature trees after 10-15 years.”
Good cash for trees
Patience is rewarded, as smallholder farmers get good cash for their trees that they can then spend on major life improvements such as sending children to school or starting a business. Komaza’s 200 field staff visit farmers every month to check the trees and offer advice. When it is time to harvest, Komaza manages all cutting, transportation, and further wood processing and sales. Komaza’s primarily targets high-value wood markets, supplying wood for construction, furniture and industrial uses, with all waste wood sold as environmentally-sustainable firewood and charcoal.
Now that Komaza’s point has been proven, next steps will further increase the scale of the business. “In the next two years we’ll grow from 7,000 farmers to over 20,000 farmers in Coastal Kenya. From 2019 on, we will start expanding into other East African countries, near urban areas where wood supply is a big problem. In the meantime, we will make our business in Kenya more effective and efficient, by launching a smartphone app that helps farmers manage their ‘tree crops’.”
Howard is confident that the Komaza concept will both help solve the firewood crisis as well as offer small holder farmers a way out of poverty. “It is a win-win from any perspective. We know this model has huge potential, and we’re working hard with the ambition to scale this to one million farmers by 2025.”
Tevis Howard from Palo Alto, California, has earned a B.Sc. in Neuroscience, but decided to pursue a career in forestry after founding Komaza ten years ago. Howard was named as a ‘Forbes 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs’.