Hakima Mohammed is a tree seedlings farmer in Vihiga County. After observing what experts do when establishing and managing tree nurseries for 29 years at the Kenya Forest Research Institute (Kefri) where she works as a junior staff, she established her business and has become one of the biggest suppliers of tree seedlings in western Kenya. From her quarter acre, Hakima has produced more than 1.5 million seedlings in the last five years. She spoke to Isaiah Esipisu.
What drove you into tree seedling business?
I saw an opportunity in the business. But first, my husband was a forest officer. So when I thought of establishing the first nursery, I knew he would be there to guide me.
However, just before I started, he passed on in 2013. Working at Kefri as a support staff where at some point my duty was to water tree seedlings in nursery beds, I decided to proceed with the project using the little knowledge I had gathered.
I started with a nursery bed of 20,000 tree seedlings, now I have 250,000.
Before starting the business, what should one consider?
The most important thing is to find out what type of trees are marketable in a given area. Then identify the ideal site for setting up a nursery.
The best place should be along the main road so that motorists and other road users can see the seedlings. Then it must be closer to a source of water because tree seedlings need constant watering unless there is rainfall.
Tap water is not ideal for watering the seedlings because it is usually chlorinated; the chemical is not friendly to trees.
One should also have a water storage tank, a generator to pump water into the tank, access to top soil and sand and organic manure.
Tools to have include hoes, watering cans, wheelbarrow and rakes. Also, get quality seeds from recognised institutions like Kefri for better yields.
Most importantly, the site must have a toilet or a latrine, a store and an office for keeping records.
What kind of tree seedlings do you grow?
I have 30 different types of trees. But the ones with the highest demand are eucalyptus – E. grandis, E. urophylla and E. camaldulensis.
Others that have demand include cypress (especially for fencing), casuarina and grevillea. People also buy fruit tree seedlings such as grafted mangoes, avocados and oranges.
However, I have introduced other species such as Moringa oleifera, Elgon teak and the Night tulip, among other indigenous species.
How has been the journey to produce the 1.5 million trees?
I started with a capital of Sh250,000, which was part of my husband’s insurance compensation. By then, I used to pay people to fetch water from the nearby stream for watering the seedlings every day.
On days such as Sunday, I used to go to the farm with my daughters to water the trees to save costs.
However, in 2016, I acquired a solar powered water pump and an overhead tank, which has really simplified my work.
During the day, the machine pumps water to the tank, then from there we can use pipes to water the seedlings. This helped me increase the stock from 170,000 in 2015 to 250,000 at the moment.
Right now, I employ three young men who help me in mixing soil with manure, planting the seeds into sleeves and watering the seedlings in the nursery.
There is big market for the seedlings in around the country that one cannot satisfy. That’s why I am looking for a bigger space so that I double the size of my nursery.
How much do you earn from this business?
Apart from grafted trees, all other trees retail at Sh10 per seedling. So if I sell what I have right now, I can get more than Sh2 million which is the average income per rainy season.
This has helped me take my children to school, where one of them has just finished her undergraduate degree and the other a diploma course. This is my main source of livelihood and I will plant trees until I retire.
Who do you sell to the trees?
I have always relied on individual customers from counties in the region like Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega and Vihiga. People also come from Nyanza to buy.
Most people prefer this nursery because I have healthy seedlings throughout the year, now that I do not rely on rainfall.
The secret is that whenever I sell say 10,000 seedlings, I replace them immediately so that there is no gap. People also prefer my nursery because I have different varieties that are always ready for planting.
What are the challenges in the business?
There are pests one has to deal with like termites and crickets, which feed on the trees. But I keep on managing them using appropriate pesticides.
The other challenge is that animals feed on the tree seedlings, especially if the nursery is not manned.
The ban on use of plastic bags has also come with its challenges. I have to transit to the eco-friendly packs but the thing is that I have to source them from Nairobi and other far towns.