Arid and Semi Arid Lands better known as ASALs are generally considered as low potential areas – a classification which is based on the rain-fed agricultural potential. These areas however, are rich in biodiversity; endowed with a wide range of rare, endemic and indigenous plant and animal species, which require innovative conservation approaches including the use of economic instruments and active stakeholder participation. Some of these plant and animal species are indeed under-exploited.
Plants of high value but not commercially exploited to the benefit of the ASAL populations include; essential oils, resins, aloe products, nuts and gum arabica. With increasing interest in bio-prospecting and drug manufacturing, the ASALs are strategically placed as the possible sources of the required raw materials.
It is against this background that the Baringo Aloe Bio-Enterprise Development Project better known as the BABE project came into being. It is a partnership with the Government of Kenya through Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and private company Land Mawe Limited, which was established in 2004 with the support of the European Union by a group of young men and women. The European Union, through its Community Development Trust Fund, donated Sh12.3 million to the project, which had 547 members, to boost rural livelihoods. The BABE project was set up to promote sustainable growing, domesticating and harvesting of indigenous aloe plants, processing and developing a profitable income generating enterprise within the project area in the Kerio escarpment and other areas of Kenya.
Aloes are xerophytic plants that survive on limited amount of moisture, do well in degraded rangelands. Aloe harvesting supports community livelihood in adverse conditions in Baringo, Kenya. The Kenyan Commercial Aloes, Aloe secundiflora, Aloe turkanensis and Aloe scabrifolia are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Pursuant to this Convention, materials from endangered species are to be obtained from sustainable sources and this encouraging domestication.
The project was set up to promote commercial development of aloe products for enhanced community livelihoods and provision of environmental services in Baringo District. Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) in collaboration with Kenya Wildlife service, Land Mawe Limited Company and the local communities of Koriana and Marigat jointly set out to implement the following: • Develop aloe products on a commercial basis • Establish and strengthen nurseries for growing aloe. • Develop regulatory mechanisms for aloe. • Community mobilization and capacity development.
The primary purpose of the project was to enhance communities’ entrepreneurship skills towards commercialization of aloe. They were able to do this by developing high marketable products from commercial aloes of Baringo and improving Baringo communities’ capacity in the provision of various aloe-based products. The project was seen as one of the key ways of enhancing biodiversity conservation and rangeland rehabilitation.
Ethno-pharmacological studies conducted by KEFRI indicate that aloe has been traditionally used to cure a wide range of ailments. It has and continues to be notably used for intestinal disorders, massages, wounds, ear and nose ailments. We are yet to fully exploit the potential of aloe which will most likely bring about increased benefits to the local populations.
Collapse of the BABE Project
Thirteen years later, farmers who had began to benefit from the drought-resistant crop are a disillusioned group. The project which was not only life changing to the livelihoods of the local communities but also assisted in rehabilitation of degraded range lands and regeneration of other tree species collapsed three years ago and it is not clear as to why. Many arguments have been canvassed with the most prominent one being that poor pricing might have played a major role because it discouraged many farmers from investing in the crop that has little production expenses, leading to a shortage of raw material.
The project was the first one of its kind in East Africa and the second in Africa after a similar one in South Africa. According to former Baringo Aloe Bio-Enterprise (BABE) project manager Joseph Ng’etich, beauty products like shampoos, soaps and body creams which they used to produce at their closed factory not only had a ready market locally, but they also relied on a Chinese trader to buy the dried aloe gum.
“The trader used to buy it at KShs.150 per kilogramme, but most farmers wanted between KShs.300 and 400 per kilogramme, for the business to be meaningful because production was very cumbersome and labour intensive,” he said.
According to Mr. Ng’etich, most of the growers used to harvest an average of five litres a day, earning KShs. 2,500 a month, while the farmers expected to earn at least KShs. 45,000 a month. Cultivation of the aloe vera did not require weeding and use of agro-chemicals meaning that it would have continued to transform the lives of the local population because once planted, it could be harvested after every five months for more than 20 years.