KOMAZA: Building Africa’s First Nonprofit Forestry Company
KOMAZA is a U.S. based social enterprise, building “Africa’s First Nonprofit Forestry Company” through Micro-Forestry projects and a decentralized network of small-scale Kenyan farmers.
Stepping into the office of KOMAZA tucked quietly off the beaten road in the sleepy beachside town of Kilifi, Kenya, I was greeted with a scene that just felt entirely out of place. Stretched out on couches under a breezy cabana, sitting beneath the shade of an overgrown tree on the lawn, and huddled around tiny cooperative work stations typing furiously under the glow of Mac laptops, were a dozen young, talented, educated and inspired kids from across the world. Recent top university grads, law school grads, consultants, and Wall Street analysts who opted for something more (after hardly a year or two in the field); it could have been the office of any hip Southern California web start-up company (No shoes, no desks? No problem), had we all not been sweating profusely under the hot Kenyan sun.
It was surprising, but also familiar. Sure, I hadn’’t seen that many young expats in one place (outside of a pub) in quite some time. Yet as I have come across many strains of social enterprises and innovative non profits from Los Angeles to New York to Mombasa, I’’ve discovered one thing. It is my generation- a young, socially conscious, and determined generation- that is pushing forward a wave of emerging social enterprises like KOMAZA by delaying, departing from, or even turning away completely from other, perhaps more financially or professionally enhancing opportunities.
Why is this happening? Social enterprises like KOMAZA are fertile ground for real world experience, real world impact, and real world challenges. They are extremely flat- hierarchies hardly exist- and self motivation and collaboration are the keys to success. They provide a place to combine work and play, philanthropic missions and business challenges, small and medium enterprise [SME] economics and global social change. With the support of an equally motivated yet diversely experienced local Kenyan staff (the office is comprised of about half expats, half Kenyan nationals), Komaza is just one example of how a successful social enterprise is able to attract the right people at the right price. For most, that price is simply room and board in the ten-person communal house where many of the staff, fellows, and volunteers eat, work, and play together. For them, working at a place like KOMAZA is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a job.
So, how does KOMAZA or any budding social enterprise for that matter, attract the people that it does?
There is no one formula, but here’’s the usual story: One part Inspired Visionary, one part Creative New Idea, and one giant part Defining and Testing a New Business Model that aims to turn a profit and lift people out of poverty. In KOMAZA’s case, the solution is as simple as planting trees.
KOMAZA is a U.S.-based non profit social enterprise that is developing a new concept they call “Microforestry.” They seek to create sustainable economic opportunities for farmers living in Africa’s semi-arid regions while establishing “Africa’’s First Nonprofit Forestry Company.” By working with a highly localized, village-based field staff (part of what they call their extensive “Rural Cell” network), they partner with rural families and help them plant and maintain small-scale, income-generating tree farms.
Founder and Executive Director Tevis Howard, 26, and recent winner of the Social Venture Network’’s “Innovation Award” for KOMAZA’s approach, wasn’’t quite looking to plant trees when he first came to Kenya in 2002. He arrived as neuroscience student from Brown University focused on malaria immunology research. However, a fascination with tree farming and its innate ability to both increase the livelihoods of the villagers and decrease the nation’s deforestation led Howard in a new direction. In 2006 he returned to Kilifi, pulled together a small but committed local staff, and started building KOMAZA.
In working with small-scale farmers to plant ½-1 acre tree farms in semi-arid regions of Kenya, KOMAZA’s direct impact is threefold;
First, they hope to alleviate the deforestation of indigenous trees (only 2% of Kenya remains covered by forests), by reducing the need for these farmers to cut down the forests in the first place. One of the most common income sources for farmers in these areas is charcoal production, which requires a significant amount of trees to be cut down.
Second, by working with the each individual farmer & their families to utilize their most dry, unused land to plant a drought-resistant strain of eucalyptus trees, KOMAZA is introducing farmers to a new sustainable source of income. When the trees are cut and harvested, they will continue to grow without needing to be replanted.
Third, and why KOMAZA has attracted so much attention lately, is that Komaza is building a financially viable for-profit business itself, allowing it to expand its reach and impact beyond the towns and villages around Kilifi. The idea of KOMAZA becoming “Africa’’s first nonprofit forestry company”, while bold, isn’’t entirely unreasonable.
In 2001, as a result of increasing deforestation and the unsustainable practices of the logging industry, Kenya instituted a ban on logging that left only a small handful of companies operating in the country. With the demand for wood still steady, Kenya began importing wood, while at the same time facing two continuing problems; 1.) An abundance of labor, and 2.) An abundance of dry, unused land, mostly in the coastal regions. KOMAZA’s vision is to meet the needs of the local and regional (East Africa) demand for wood by developing a localized supply through its village-based extension network of small-scale tree farmers.
Farmers in KOMAZA’s network retain ownership of their land- a very important detail here in Kenya- and reap the financial benefits of their time and labor cultivating and maintaining the land. While the trees are “owned” by KOMAZA, the contracts state that the profits are split 50/50, plus the cost of inputs (seeds, tools, etc). This is to ensure both a significant increase in income to the farmer for their unused land, and a return that once scaled will hopefully make KOMAZA a financially self-sustaining enterprise. For a ½ acre of trees, the farmers alone can earn upwards of USD $3,000-$6,000 over 10 years. That’’s no small change, considering most of these farmers are living on an average of USD $300/year.
The larger the trees grow, the more valuable they become. So, in order to stagger the income of the farmers from the tree harvesting, and also increase the profits the farmers will yield, KOMAZA harvests a small percentage of the trees, around 20%, after 4 years. They continue to harvest every couple of years, until about 10-12 years of growth, when they are large enough for telephone poles and can potentially be purchased by the Kenyan government to advance its rural electrification agenda. During the time of the tree growth, farmers are also earning a small income from various short term crops such as Cow Peas and Jatropha, provided by KOMAZA as well.
First, money doesn’’t grow on these trees (although Komaza might hope differently) and just because there are perhaps 1,000 fifty-foot Eucalyptus trees sitting on your land doesn’’t mean you’’re rich. Second, these trees don’’t grow overnight. Nor do the processing facilities, or the market for selling the wood. These are just some of the challenges that lie ahead for KOMAZA It’’s been three years since their first season of planting, and while the organization has grown from serving 50 families to nearly 1,000 through their 160+ field staff network, their business model has yet to be proven. No trees have been harvested, no processing done, no wood sold and no profits made.
Next year, KOMAZA will hold its first harvest of the 50 farms it started with in 2008, but no one expects it to be extremely profitable. The trees are still small and they will only harvest perhaps 20% of each farm. The key here will be how KOMAZA processes the trees, explores and enters the market, and plans its moves for bigger harvests.
While KOMAZA continues to grow, perhaps the greatest challenge to overcome will be from within. A revolving door of young, talented, and passionate graduates and professionals is needed for creativity and inspiration, yet as with many young social enterprises, retention can be difficult, knowledge transfer even harder. A profitable enterprise would mean longer-termed, higher paid employees, yet trees grow slowly, and profits are years away. While the social enterprise field may be moving at a rapid pace, KOMAZA must balance that rapid advancement of the field with the slower growth of its products.
As I spent a couple of days walking around exploring the 55 acre experimental farm (where new strains of seedlings and planting methods are tested), visiting some of KOMAZA’s partner farms, and speaking with a handful of their farmers on the outskirts of the village of Ganze, one thing became clear. While maybe some of these farmers don’’t quite understand the business model, or see that reducing deforestation is a key reason for KOMAZA’s existence, they do understand that by planting trees, they will make money. How much, at the moment, isn’’t an issue. They have seen in just 3 years the tiny seedlings grow into strong, healthy, twenty-foot trees. In the strength of these trees, is their future income. Regardless of how small the initial profits may be, it will absolutely exceed what the land producing before: nothing.