Until recently, Florence Gitungo never paid much attention to a huge tree in her Murang’a home and the nuts it produced.
The kola nut tree is the only one in the neighbourhood and perhaps in the country. It has been in her compound for more than 30 years.
A visit by a Nigerian family friend about six years ago, however, became an eye-opener for the farmer who told her it’s a kola nut tree.
“Our friend was shocked that such a valued tree in Nigeria was growing in Kenya but unutilised for economic gains,” says Gitungo.
Kola nut trees are much revered in West Africa, especially in Nigeria, as they produce nuts that are used to pay bride price and are offered as gifts to important visitors as a cultural practice among the Igbo people.
The tree’s extracts are used to manufacture many cola type soft drinks and as a source of caffeine used in pharmaceutical products and essential oils.
Kola seeds are processed to produce an array of by-products that range from tannin, which provides important material for use in the textile industry and as a base for making wine and chocolate.
The kola pod husk is also used to manufacture detergents, while its leaves, twigs, flowers and bark are used as organic manure and to prepare a concoction used as a remedy for dysentery, diarrhoea and vomiting, among others.
The tree grows to a height of 20 metres, and has 30cm long evergreen leaves.
Celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe popularised the nuts across the world in his book, Things Fall Apart.
Nigeria accounts for 70 per cent of the total world production of kola nuts.
The revelation shocked Gitungo, who was not aware that the tree introduced by her husband George Gitungo (now deceased) in 1984, was such a jewel.
Gitungo returned from a trip in Nigeria with three kola seeds, planted and left them to germinate without paying much attention to their progress.
“At some point as they grew in my compound, I thought they were avocado trees. And because they had been planted too close to our house, I uprooted the other two,” says Gitungo.
Over the years, however, she was amazed by the way the tree grew. It never dried during dry spells nor shed its leaves as others.
She decided to keep the tree even though it had no economic value to her family.
After learning of the importance of the tree from the Nigerian, Gitungo called the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation offices in Thika to find out more about the tree and more important, to establish it’s economic potential.
“An official at the institute told me there is no way the kola tree could grow in the country. He added that they had attempted several times to grow the tree in Kenya and failed,” she says.
Dejected but determined, Gitungo says she experimented and found out how to propagate the seeds.
“I opened the fruit. It has between four and eight seeds. I then removed them and the flesh, dried and planted, and they grew.”
She has since propagated more than 7,000 seedlings for over one year. She starts by soaking the seeds in water to soften the hard cover and then plants them in a seedbed.
“They germinate after about three weeks and I transfer them to polythene bags. They are ready for sale after about three months,” explains Gitungo.
She has sold some of them mainly to extended family members at Sh1,100 each, hoping that one day from her 7,000 seedlings that she has propagated, the tree will be widely grown in the country.
“Our family members have planted them in Murang’a, Kiambu and Nairobi just to see how the tree is faring on. I can say, so far, so good,” says Sam Gitungo, Gitungo’s son who works in a software company in Nairobi.
The younger Gitungo says he recently took the kola nuts to the Nigerian High Commission and the envoy was impressed.
“He had promised to help us make the plant economically useful but this may not be possible because he has returned to his country.”
The last seeds Gitungo planted in September have germinated into sizeable seedlings that can be transplanted.
John Wambugu, an agronomist at Wambugu farm in Nyeri says the plant can only be spread after the government has done proper research through the Kenya Plant health Inspectorate Service.
“After establishing the tree’s ecological requirements, it can then be distributed in the right ecological zones in the country for use mostly in the pharmaceutical and confectionery industries,” he says.
Prof Mary Abukutsa, an organic farming expert and Head of Horticulture Department at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, says kola nut contains caffein used as a flavour in beverages and is believed to be the origin of the word cola.
“To introduce it into the country, we must carry out some research on the chemical composition, cultivation methods and market potential,” she says. She called on government research agencies to take up the matter.
Growing kola nut trees
For good growth, the plant (right) needs a hot humid climate, but can withstand a dry season in areas with a high water table. Though it is a lowland forest tree, it can grow in area’s with altitudes of over 300m on deep, rich soils under heavy and evenly distributed rainfall.
Regular weeding is a must and can either be done manually or by using herbicides. Some irrigation can be provided to the plants, but it is important to remove the water through an effective drainage system, as excess of it may be detrimental for the growth of the plant. When not grown in adequate shade, the Kola plant responds well to fertilisers. Usually, the plants need to be provided with windbreaks to protect them from strong gales.
Kola nuts can be harvested mechanically or by hand, by plucking them from the tree branch. When kept in a cool, dry place, Kola nuts can be stored for a long time.
The nuts are attacked by the Kola weevil while the tree by the borer.