Tevis Howard became interested in trees while traveling during a gap year in Kenya. His host family grew several crops, but loved the saplings above all. They didn’t need the attention of other plants, and they just grew and grew until they were harvested.
Later, when Howard was developing potential business plans, he couldn’t get trees out of his head. “I made a dozen or so business plans. Most of them were bad or mediocre ideas. But trees continued to be a good idea, despite how many times I tried to disprove the hypothesis,” he says.
After graduating from Brown University, Howard went back to Kenya to set up Komaza, a forestry business with a social and environmental purpose. He now works with more than 5,500 farmers and has planted more than 1.5 million trees.
While Kenya has some of the most fertile land in the world, most of the country is composed of “drylands” where things don’t grow easily. Komaza’s idea is to give the locals a little helping hand. It distributes high-grade seedlings for free, along with fertilizer, hydrogel (to retain water in the soil), and asks farmers to husband the trees for up to 10 years.
The plots are small, half-an-acre on average; and the term for what Komaza is doing is “microforestry.” But if that sounds small-bore, it isn’t. As well as raising the farmers’ incomes, Howard has every intention of building a big business, with 50 million trees in the ground by 2020.
“We’re trying to build the same intensity [of any forestry] value chain, but instead of one large plantation, we work with small, poor farmers, so we all can derive as much economic benefit as possible,” he explains.
As well as modern farming techniques, Komaza offers an infrastructure the farmers wouldn’t have access to otherwise: logging, transport, sawmills, wood treatment, and the like. It’s allowing the farmers to share in the value of wood where it’s most valuable, Howard says, which is in the processing rather than the growing part of the chain.
The environmental benefits come from several directions. First, Kenya has lost of a lot of forests in the last 50 years; since 1963, recorded tree cover has gone from more than 10 percent of the country to less than 2 percent. Micro-forestry provides a way to re-green the environment without setting aside large plots, which can be difficult to find.
The trees also help the soil and even other plants. Half of Komaza’s seedlings this year are melia trees, which can grow among crops like maize without harming yields while providing some shading and nutrition benefits.
More broadly, raising living standards in poor areas probably limits environmental damage that might normally occur. A farmer is less like to cut down an indigenous tree to feed his family, Howard says, if he has reliable income from another source.
Founded in 2008, Komaza now 125 employees, mostly extension workers who train and help the farmers. Many of the farmers have lots of land, but not the high productivity kind. They’re glad of a crop that grows steadily, and that is essentially a set-it-and-leave-it investment. Howard says he pays an above-market rate for the harvested whole trees, then makes a profit by selling on the wood for higher value uses.
With an office in San Francisco, Komaza is a good example of how social impact companies can gradually “scale” and affect greater numbers of people. Its initial financing came from grants and venture philanthropy. More recently, as it’s grown, it’s sought out more conventional for-profit funding. It plans to build a treatment plant next year, its own sawmill after that, and to break even by 2020.
It has lots of assets in the ground. It just hasn’t seen the value of them yet. “It’s a waiting game. But that’s the nature of forestry,” Howard says.