Meet Simon Kitol: The Farmer Fighting to Reclaim His Land from Invasive Prosopis Shrub in Kenya

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Prosopis juliflora, also known in Kenya as Mathenge, is wreaking havoc across tropical regions, particularly in Kenya, where it has spread from the Great Rift Valley to the coast. This non-native plant is blocking access to vital resources and depleting already scarce groundwater. Introduced to Eastern Africa in the 1970s with the intention of providing wood, fodder, and controlling erosion, it has since become a menace. Its relentless spread is now leading to the loss of grazing land, water shortages, reduced biodiversity, and health problems.

 

PlantVillage has teamed up with local farmers in areas severely affected by mathenge for a land restoration project. The key innovation is employing the community to clear the invasive plant using backhoes to remove stumps, power saws for cutting, and manual chopping by the community. The plant is then turned into biochar, a carbon-rich material that improves soil health. This project not only addresses the damage caused by the plant but also supports farmers by providing new ways to make a living while restoring their land.

Meet Simon Kitol: The Farmer Fighting to Reclaim His Land from Invasive Prosopis Shrub in Kenya

Simon Kitol is a herder and farmer living in Salabani village in Marigat, Baringo County, with his wife and eight children. Growing up, he became used to the shrub that had invaded 25 acres of his grazing fields and farmland. Simon rears cows, sheep, goats, and now chickens, which he depends on to provide for his family. He also grows maize, beans, and green grams to help sustain his family. Five of his children are in higher education while the rest are in secondary school and primary school.

 

Mr. Simon termed his 25 acres as “ghost land” because it had wholly succumbed to Mathenge, and where it spread, biodiversity plummeted. “They don’t allow anything to grow underneath it—no grass, no native plants,” he said. As a herder, he had to search for pasture and water sources which proved difficult with the shrub spreading everywhere. His frustration encouraged him through a training by the Kenya Forestry Research Institute to take a more proactive role.

 

He used to hire people to pull out Mathenge sprouts before they matured and used the log fence his house and fields. In addition, he used Prosopis bark to roof his traditional huts. The wood is also converted into charcoal for cooking energy. But, like many residents, he had mixed feelings about the plant. “This place used to be a desert with strong winds,” he recalled as we stood beneath the shade of an overgrown Mathenge tree, its branches swaying in the breeze.

A collage of Simon's homestead and aerial view of Prosopis Juliflora in Salabani village (Credit:Mercyline Tata)

 

As beneficial as it is, the plant leaves behind a painful sting. Simon estimates to have gradually lost 20 goats and 8 cows due to the shrub, which damages both the animals’ gums and hooves. “The goats love to feed on its sugary pods. It's like children and biscuits. They shed their teeth after heavy consumption.”

 

The manual removal of Prosopis is no easy task. It costs time, money, and energy, which he admits is a luxury he doesn’t have. "I could spend up to 20,000 KES per acre for mature plants. For sprouts and thin shrubs, I could do it myself using an axe and a hoe to uproot the entire plant. The plant has thorns that prick us and our children,” added Simon who managed to clear 3-4 acres for food production.

 

Meanwhile, PlantVillage trained the locals in biochar production and engaged the groups in a collective effort to clear 15 acres of Simon’s land. The biomass was heated in an oxygen-limited environment to produce a highly porous, carbon-rich substance called biochar.

Locals working at a biochar production site at salabani, Baringo County, Kenya. (Credit: Dennis Avokoywa)

 

The biochar was incorporated into the soil while planting Cenchrus ciliaris grass. The biochar serves as a soil amendment, enhancing its structure, water-holding capacity, and nutrient retention. “The grass acts as a cover crop and suppresses the germination of any Prosopis seed over time, unlike bare land,” he added. Simon was initially trained about management by different organizations, such as the Kenya Forestry Research Institute.

 

“So far, the grass provides nourishing feed for my livestock. I have harvested the grass seed and shared it with the community and sold a 50-kilogram surplus at KES 400 per kg.” Simon’s success has led him to want to practice zero grazing. “I plan on building a storage structure, making hay from the grass, and selling the bales. I will also plant some indigenous trees.”

A collage of Simon at his rehabilitated land and a neighbor harvesting the grass seeds at Simon's land. (Credit: Mercyline Tata)

 

With his appetite for growth, there’s no doubt that Simon’s future in eradicating the shrub looks bright.

 

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