A visit to Nyongoro, Kenya
In the middle of last week one of our Swedish customers, Torgny Johnsson, visited our plantation in Nyongoro by his own. Since 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has advised against travel to this area in Kenya, because of the security situation with Al-Shabab operating in the border regions between Kenya and Somalia. Here you can read his story and see his pictures.
Nyongoro is an area in northeastern Kenya where we started planting trees as early as 2012. We then signed a cooperation agreement with the Wity-Nyongoro Ranching Society for the lease of 21,500 hectares of land for a Mukau tree plantation.
Torgny is one of our Swedish customers who spends a lot of time in Africa. He has travelled through large parts of both western and eastern Africa both on motorcycle and as a tour guide for travel companies.
On Wednesday, November 5, 2018, he drove a motorcycle from Malindi, on the coast, to the plantation. Below is his story that he posted on Facebook. Republished with his permission.
My trip to northern Kenya, where State Department advises you not to go!
Many of you know that I am passionate about Better Globe. It is a forestry company operating in Kenya, Uganda and now also in Tanzania. With a fantastic return that seems too good to be true!
Since I have invested large sums for several years, and work as ambassador (salesman) for them, I thought that the best way is to visit them in place, right? Better Globe organizes annual customer trips, but I wanted to make my own trip.
So after several weeks of mail correspondence we settled on a date. I am used to traveling with a small motorcycle all over Africa, was forced to rent one, because I had sold my previous bike. Paid a guy 8 €-. That’s about twice as much compared to what an African pays. This is how racism works here. If you are white then it should cost! Tiring.
Started my trip 08.30 from Watamu and we had to change the battery and backlight before it was time to go. I slowly slipped through the landscape going north. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not recommend this part of the country. Al-Shabab’s presence is too eloquent. And last week they kidnapped a 23-year-old Italian who volunteered at an orphanage, only 35km from where I have my bar. It can feel insecure to travel in that direction, but what the hell, I had already decided!
So off I go! Good weather and the sun shines. After Malindi comes the first police check. They look very concerned when I tell where I am going. However, they let me go and they didn’t ask me for any bribes. I would’ve refused by principle anyways. I usually threaten with “Lock me in then. I do not care!”. Then they cool off because they can’t be bothered to take me down to the station. If they did, they would lose the money they could’ve gotten from bribes if they had stayed at the roadblock.
Travel 60-70km / h and enjoy life. It becomes more and more sparsely populated with buildings and people. You can drive half an hour without meeting a car or seeing a house. The areas become poorer and poorer. More Muslim the further north I come. Then comes the next police check. Manage to create some confusion by saying that it is a business trip. “Well, where’s your work visa ????”, “And what are you planning to do in Nyongoro? It’s not okay that you go that way alone on a highway.”, “Don’t you think it’s dangerous here!” I point out that I have a meeting!
Finally they give, and I continue to Maleli village, where four people were beheaded by al-Shabab as late as August 18 this year. At the intersection with Garissa and Lamu, I choose the Lamu road. The University of Garissa was attacked in 2015 by Al-Shabaab and they killed 148 Christians and injured 79.
An awful event that hardly appeared in the world press, because the terrorist attack in Paris filled the entire media space. It left an impression on the Kenyans that feel like the world doesn’t care about them, as if they had a lower value. I understand them.
That way, the greatest control appeared. Police officers armed up to their teeth. They looked at me wide-eyed I stubbornly declared that I wanted to continue my journey, and with their warning words ringing in their ears, I kicked the bike and continued. During this last bit I see many baboons, beautiful birds and other animals.
And I thought Nyongoro was a community, but discovered it too late. There was nothing there. Just a cross. After a chat with a road worker further down the road, I realized that I had driven too far. Simply had to turn around. Called my contact who came and picked me up.
The plantations in Nyongoro
Wallace is a really nice guy. Has been site manager since 2016. Better Globe established itself here in 2012. They have been there since 2006 in a number of places around Kenya and Uganda. To date, they have planted around 2.2 million trees.
We arrive at the site which is beautifully situated by a lake called Lake Moa and is part of a river system. We greet the other husbands, Herman and Juma. I get to sign the guestbook and I am the first customer to visit the plantations since 2012, because the security situation has changed.
They proudly to tell me that they are 52 permanent employees with 92 extras who are hired as needed. They usually have between 70-100 workers at any given time. The maximum amount of staff working here at the same time is 144 Kenyans.
Then we go to the “nursery” department where all the seeds are prepared. Seeds large as sweet almonds are prepared by removing the tip at one end, then they make a cut with a razor blade along one side. They are soaked for a day and then planted in moist sand.
In long rows that are 20st seeds wide and with 280st rows in length. 5600 plants in total. They grow there for 7-10 days about. Then they are moved to step 2. The small shoots are then planted in small containers made of plant fibers with special soil that they mix together just outside. They are left there for 2 weeks. Everything covered in plastic to control heat and humidity.
In step 3 all plastic is removed and they get time to get used to the surroundings. Step 4, they are prepared for direct sunlight. Watered and screened off, if the sun shines too much or the rain is too strong. They still have no firmness and they are sensitive to mechanical influences. They remain here for another two weeks before it is time for the next and last step.
Step 5 is direct sun without protection. Then it’s time to move out into the bush and start growing for real. The capacity is 30,000 plants per month. However, not all periods of the year are ideal for preparing the plants, so the production line is divided into different stages.
Right now they have 93 000 trees in “stock” and a total of 412 000 trees have been planted on 490 hectares of land. Each year they count the trees manually after which they make a color-marking on the tree, which is also used to measure the height / growth. Next year, 390 hectares will be added.
Biodiversity has increased
We cross the road on three motorcycles. That is where the plantations begin. There are trees everywhere. Big and small. The animal life here is richer than it was along the way coming here. They have recently received two new tractors and they are cutting the grass between the tree rows to facilitate growth.
Before, all the work was done manually. We go on to a large water reservoir that has been dug out. It is filled up with water from the lake which is being pumped here. From here they pump it along to the water tanks positioned all over the plantation.
We continue and enter an “old forest”. They maintain several untouched areas for the sake of wildlife, in the hope that all varieties will thrive and flourish.
We find some shade and I have time to ask questions about what it is like to work for Better Globe! They are very satisfied. The salary is paid out on time, They have health care and insurance. The founder of Better Globe, Rino Solberg, was here last week for a visit. Four times a year, the management and all site managers in Nairobi gather to report and take part of the company’s visions and thoughts.
Rounding off our visit, we have a look at some of the trees planted in 2013 and 2014. They manually cut off the branches that protrude from the trunk, so that they will grow to be straighter and provide better timber as a result. When they reach four meters in height, they stop trimming and the tree crown rises high in a straight line, that continues to grow in length and width.
Entering the forest (actually a real forest) that was planted in 2012, I was amazed. In here, under the branches, it is like another climate zone. Cooler, healthier and more humid. Completely different from the dry semi-desert that followed me along the road to Nyangoro. They measure the amount of water in the soil and it is clear that the plantings help to bind water in the ground, which prevents desertification.
We go back to the basecamp, and I ask questions about the security situation. They say that last year, al-Shabaab carried out an attack on a bus around the corner. They forced them all out of the bus and they then had to sit on their knees with their hands behind their neck.
Then they said “say something from the Koran”. Those who could still live. The others were executed with a shot in the neck. About 30 people were executed. Here I want to mention that neither Better Globe or its workers have been affected by the activities of al-Shabaab. They also have no problems with theft, damage, etc. inside the plantations.
I thank them for their time and they kindly ask me to come back. I think they appreciated our time together as much as I did. I am pleasantly surprised by what I saw and got to experience when I went to Nyongoro. Now I can only imagine how lovely and green everything will be in 10-15 years when everything has grown further and the forests are spreading. Then the sawmill will be ready, and the timber will be cut before it is sold. This will create additional jobs in Africa, before the final product is shipped to Asia and Europe.
My trip back is pretty uneventful. I make a stop in Maleli Village to eat and refuel. Now more people are out on the roads and they are looking wide-eyed at me. There are no other white people around. Again, the police question me about why I drive around here myself. Maybe I’m a disguised financier to al-Shabaab. However, all goes well and I am back among the crowds in Malindi again, where a lovely mix of Muslims and Christians are living side by side. There are also a lot of Italians here. They are over-represented in the area. Even in Watamu.
I drive the last bit in the dark, and at a police checkpoint I was told to stay, but I thought they meant someone else. They shouted at me to come back, but I pretended that I couldn’t hear them and continued in a higher gear. I checked the rear-view mirror carefully to see if they would chase me, but nothing happened. Once back in Watamu, I take a cold beer, have dinner and return the bike.
I slept well that night. It was a great day!