When was Better Globe Forestry established?
Better Globe Forestry was incorporated in Kenya in November 2004. That makes the company 10 years old. We now have also set up the Better Globe Forestry Foundation with the aim of increasing transparency and efficiency in dealing with our corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme.
What is the vision of the company?
Better Globe Forestry’s vision is about people and trees. In fact, the vision of our Chairman, who is also the founder of the Better Globe Group, is to plant as many trees as there are people on this planet. It is an ambitious, long-term goal, but one that is worth working towards. 0n the short term, our aim is to become the biggest tree-planting company active in arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL). For this we give ourselves 20 years. This goes together with a drive towards short-term payback to the people who invested in the trees planted in East Africa, as we wait to generate returns from the processing of the hardwood melia. We have also set up a large-scale mango plantation.
Is there a relationship between the species you have planted or plan to plant and the rainforests of Africa?
We believe there will be, as today huge volumes of hardwoods like mahogany are poached from the African rainforests. Planting millions of domesticated mahogany in dry areas will have a tremendous influence in taking the pressure away from cutting trees in the rainforest.
What have been the company’s major achievements in the last 10 years?
The greatest achievement is to survive for 10 years in itself, without financial help from outside. We are pioneering large-scale afforestation in ASAL and the main species we plant requires a lot of research. In this dry environment, every possible error can be a setback. However, we have managed to establish procedures and protocols that take care of the technical difficulties we have been facing. It also took some time to translate our vision into a practical and efficient organisation with a clear mission. The way to go is complex and it was essential to simplify our initial ways of organising ourselves, which we are confident we have done now. Now, tree-planting is closely related to and dependent on the interaction with the human environment. We have gained the confidence of the farmers and other people in the areas we work. They see and know our projects and they understand where we are going. This is essential for the long-term success of our plans. We would also like to mention Miti magazine, through which we have reached thousands of people in different countries and made them realise that tree-planting is good business. We would never have achieved this educational goal without the great support we receive from partners like the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), The Kenya Forest Service (KFS), The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the University of Nairobi and the Sawlog Production Grant Scheme (SPGS) in Uganda. We have working memorandums of understanding with all of them.
There is usually concern about development “imposed” on the people by outsiders. How does BGF guard against this and what is your relationship with the host communities?
Most of the available land in ASAL belongs to a community in one way or another. There is a very long process we have to follow before we can start planting trees. The process goes roughly as follows: When it is our own industrial plantation, we start by writing a feasibility study based on the available knowledge at the time. We then establish contacts with the managers of the land and we need to convince them of our good intentions, the sustainability of the project and more important, the advantages for the community. They have to convince their members or/and the community and receive a mandate to go about the project with us. A working party is then set up and regular meetings start. We then approach and ask for advice from other stakeholders like water authorities, the Forestry Service, the environmental management authorities, wildlife authorities and others. The project also needs to be approved by the District Development Committee of the area.
You are involved in micro-finance. Please explain how this fits into the BGF model
Micro-finance is what allows farmers to get access to what is needed to provide their own inputs in the system. When for example farmers want to plant green grams to intercrop with the trees, they need some funds as a start. Micro-finance allows them to purchase what they need and consequently to make money. It also allows them to take small loans for school fees and other facilities that might be problematic to them in their daily lives. Better Globe Forestry has supported K-REP Fedha in setting up a “Village Bank” with that aim and it is a huge success.
What benefits do farmers derive from BGF’s model?
To eradicate poverty, whatever is implemented on farms needs to be profitable and sustainable for farmers. To achieve that goal, they need help, not only at the beginning of the tree-planting, but all the way until harvesting. We provide, or help with the provision of, seedlings, water, money through micro-finance, knowledge and capacity building through our agroforestry advisers.
What is the source of your funding?
Better Globe Forestry has a principal-to-agent agreement with Better Globe AS in Norway and from 2015, other companies as well. These companies have developed several ways of “crowd funding” to finance the tree-planting. Some of our projects have also attracted real direct investment. Basically, Better Globe AS and the other companies sell trees to people and companies from all over the world and commit to a secure buy-back deal over 17 to 20 years. Better Globe Forestry plants, maintains and harvests the trees on behalf of the customers of these other companies. Again, processing of the tree products will be done on site.
Water is a major concern in drylands and everywhere else. What is the source of water for your plantations and how do you manage the commodity?
Water is not only a major concern, it is our biggest challenge and a very expensive one. Before starting up a project, we study the hydrology of our sites carefully and of course seek not only expert advice but also advice from the local people. There are many ways to harvest and manage water. Our problem is of course the quantities needed to provide to young trees until they can survive on their own. In the years to come, farmers’ water problems are bound to become our problems. It’s up to us to find tailor-made solutions, and they exist!
Do you take into account gender parity in your operations?
Absolutely! Poverty eradication is impossible without taking women into account and working with them. We try to have 40 per cent women in our workforce as a company policy. However, it is not always possible to achieve this as women have many chores and are not always available for work outside the home.
If you were to start again the establishment of plantations, what would you do differently? What lessons have you learnt?
We would probably start the way we started. As a pioneer, one needs to be hardy enough to take some risks and crazy enough to navigate in the dark. We needed all these years to get a clear grip on the technical and financial aspects of our operations, based on careful gathering and recording of information. I would say that with what we know now, we probably would start working with contract farmers earlier. We might even start up new projects working with them. The biggest lesson we learned is that it all takes much more time than expected and, as you know, time is money!
Where do you see the company in the next 10 years? The next 20 years?
? We will definitely be the biggest afforestation company in ASAL and an authority for that matter. In matters of forestry, 20 years is not long and by that time our main concern will be to get the wood processing right and to know, prepare and supply the overseas markets with our finished products. For this we will need also to prepare a new generation of managers that will take over from us, the old guard.