Harnessing and protecting genetic heritage to build resilient communities

March 24, 2020

Alphonse Kamau, a farmer and member of KANFOCC in Kakamega County, stands with his mondia whitei plant (known locally in as mukombera); through support from the global UNDP-GEF Access to Benefit Sharing (ABS) project, sustainable production of mondia, a rare root endemic to Kakamega, is being upscaled by smallholder farmers in a way that protects the nearby Kakamega Forest, a rich biodiverse environment (Photo: UNDP Kenya/Nicholas Wilson)

Kakamega is a farming county. Deep in the Luhyaland of Kenya’s West, the year-round hot, wet climate suits agriculture in a way that much of Kenya’s semi-arid Northern or Coastal regions does not; unlike the expansive farming operations of Kenya’s Central regions, a large majority of agriculture in Kakamega County is smallholder and often family-run.[1],[2] The streets of Kakamega, Ingavira and Malava are busy, green and home to bustling produce markets.

Developing the agricultural economy is a challenge for the County Government, however. Small-scale yields of crops such as maize and sugar cane are no longer highly profitable – and as the effects of climate change worsen, the livelihoods of Kakamega’s communities are threatened. Sugar cane production in particular is recently bedevilled by numerous challenges, such as the collapse of Mumias Sugar Company into receivership

In the East of the County stands Kakamega Forest, an evergreen tropical rainforest and ‘canopy of natural beauty’. The rich and biodiverse forest ecosystem is home to 100s of species of trees, birds and butterflies – and a certain climbing plant called mondia whitei, known locally in the Luhya tongue as mukombera, a hidden treasure with immense opportunities to local communities and Kenya at large.

Kakamega Forest, a ‘canopy of natural beauty’ which stands in Kenya's West, is overseen by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Warden Rose Malenya – the Forest's biodiverse ecosystem is home to 100s of species of trees, birds and butterflies (Photo: UNDP Kenya/Nicholas Wilson)

Mondia is prevalent in the forest, growing wildly and twisting around the branches of tall trees; its roots are prized across the region as a food additive, medicine, dye and potent aphrodisiac. More valuable than local cash crops, poaching of mondia from the forest is and has been a serious issue for the community: when the roots are pulled out without due care, the rest of the plant dies.

“We had to find a way to help the community benefit legally, not illegally, from the mondia in a sustainable way... When they extract it, they dig out the roots and the plant dies – they’re not considering it needs to be there tomorrow for their uses.” - Rose Malenya, Warden - Kakamega National Reserve

UNDP has partnered with the Kakamega County Government, KWS and an umbrella organisation of community groups, Kakamega National Forest Catchment Conservation Organization (KANFOCC), to build a system where the community can benefit from the mondia plant – their genetic heritage – in a sustainable way that also protects Kakamega Forest, which is being fenced as a safeguard.

In 2018, a French company interested in exploiting mondia commercially for use in fragrances approached the Kakamega County Government; at the time, large-scale domestic cultivation of mondia was limited, and the company was expecting to import many dozens of tonnes per year. With support from UNDP, a technical committee of parties from the County Government, KWS, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and KANFOCC was formed and struck an agreement between the interested company and the County, fixing a price per kilo of the mondia and agreeing a timeline for the upscale of production.

Mondia roots are often poached from the forest due to their significant value, killing the rest of the plant. KWS staff demonstrated a careful extraction of a small part of the mondia root in these photos (Photo: UNDP Kenya/Nicholas Wilson)

Introducing and organising mass domestication through on-farm production of mondia is an ongoing challenge: KANFOCC, as the group closest to and including potential growers, is spearheading these efforts and has even registered a cooperative for this purpose. Mondia roots take 3 years to reach exploitable maturity – far longer than other cash crops such as maize (3-6 months) or sugar cane (c.18 months). As a result, many domestication efforts for mondia have previously been abandoned as farmers needed immediate cash. Further, unless the root is properly extracted the whole plant will die, which means farmers without knowledge or experience cannot always benefit fully. 

“We had problems… but of late, since [UNDP, KWS, NEMA and the County Government] came in, we have relevant structures within our organisations, we have had workshops empowering our farmers and we have also had trainings.” - Paul Lumadi, Chairman - KANFOCC

UNDP, KWS, NEMA and the County Government have worked closely with KANFOCC to formalise its governance structures and build its institutional capacity to organise and monitor the mass domestication of mondia by smallholder farmers. Further, training for the farmers themselves has meant that they have the expertise to grow and extract mondia sustainably, as well as cross-plant it with other crops like maize or sugar cane to reduce the cash cycle.

According to Luke Otipo, Administrator of the Office of the Deputy Governor, farmers with experience can expect 3kg of yield per plant. The first major yields from mass domestication should come in 2021-22 – if the growth is sustainably managed in the meantime. Additionally, over the coming years Kakamega Forest will be extensively fenced and ecotourism efforts given new emphasis.

Sustainably producing mondia outside of Kakamega Forest is a challenge, but a worthwhile one: by domesticating mukombera, the communities of Kakamega can benefit from one part of their genetic heritage whilst protecting another.

Paul Lumadi, KANFOCC Chairman, shows off his large mukombera yield (Photo: UNDP Kenya)

[1] Mulinya et al. – Small Scale Farmers and Resilience Adaptive Strategies to Climate Change in Kakamega County – 2015

[2] Place et al. – Agricultural Enterprise and Land Management in the Highlands of Kenya – 2006


About UNDP in Kenya:

Under the Country Programme Document (CPD) 2018–22, UNDP leverages innovative approaches working under three pillars of: Governance, Peace and Security; Inclusive Growth and Structural Transformation; and Environmental Sustainability, Climate Change and Resilience.

Strengthening Human Resources, Legal Frameworks and Institutional Capacities to Implement the Nagoya Protocol is a global UNDP and GEF project run from 2016-2020 to pilot the access and benefit sharing (ABS) principles in the Nagoya Protocol. 

Disclaimer: This story is based on first person reports and interviews conducted during a monitoring visit in Kakamega County, November 2019. The opinions expressed in this story are solely those of the interviewed participants and do not necessarily represent the views of affiliated donors or organisations.

Edited by: Geoffrey Omedo.