By Edwin Okoth
The tree seedling sellers have stuck to the trade despite threats from the city expansion, driven by the passion to keep it green. Nairobi is also where the Restore Africa Programme, the world’s largest farmer-led land restoration program, was launched in May 2022.
Kenya’s capital city, listed as one of the fastest growing cities by population size, is a buzz of activities. From construction of superhighways to sky-scraping office buildings and residential spaces, the city is an active construction site.
Amidst the rush to create a concrete jungle in Nairobi, a small group of traders remain resilient, the tree seedling sellers. The first casualties in the city’s race to cope with the growing population and the zeal to modernise its infrastructure – their spaces have been in high demand.
Tucked in small spaces along the roads after multiple road expansions have pushed some of them out of business, the few tree seedling sellers that remain less than a kilometer from the central business district maintain that their trade is just as important as the focus on developing the city.
Fifty-six-year-old Caleb Mutuka has been in the trade for close to twenty years. He runs a tree nursery the size of a basketball court along Haile Selassie Avenue and is the closest tree seedling seller to the city center.
The father of six says selling tree seedlings so close to the city where more attention is given to construction needs more than monetary motivation.
“I have seen this road expand – our seedlings destroyed and some of my colleagues give up, but this trade requires some level of passion. We are driven by the goal to have a greener city as much as there is the drive for expansion,” he says, gazing at an empty space between his nursery and a busy road before him.
The traders have no legal status as they operate between a thin line of making money and protecting the environment, a goal they share with the government which is a signatory to various commitments to preserve the environment, including attaining a ten percent tree cover by 2030.
Even though most traders face many forms of regulatory hurdles daily, the tree sellers are occasionally spared – apart from when a road expansion is due, and the bulldozers come without giving adequate notice to relocate. The tree seedling traders target staff working in various offices who have joined the middle-class Nairobi residents constructing homes in the city’s outskirts.
“We have seen many more customers ask for fruit trees and flowers and we can see we have almost half of our plants in these two categories. Most of the trees we used to sell are now overgrown and we let them create roadside shade which is always a welcome relief to pedestrians and passengers waiting to board public buses,” Mr Mutuka said.
Further up the road, one can witness the role played by overgrown tree seedlings which have turned into tree shades along Ngong road where another trader, Benson Macharia, has been selling tree seedlings for just over a decade.
A Terminalia mantaly, more commonly known as the Madagascar Almond or Umbrella tree,has clearly served the purpose at the bus stop along the road. Motorbike riders sit under it as they wait to pick up passengers who also find refuge under it when the sun is hot.
Mr Macharia decries the occasional harassment by the city authorities to pay trade licence fees although he says they have no such provision in their trade. Like Mutuka, he remains optimistic that even as the roads and tall buildings continue to expand, their trade will remain resilient.
“We are always worried about the next project that will displace us, but we are proud when we see the little green spaces we create where the seedlings are, as it gives us an assurance that there are many more created where our customers take the tree seedlings,” Mr Macharia said.
Further from the city centre, the trade supports thousands of families in the city as they remain the unsung champions of the environment – responsible for supplying tree seedlings for homes in and around the city of Nairobi.
In its third edition of the Ecological Threat Report (ETR), which analyses ecological threats in 228 independent states and territories, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) classified Nairobi among the fastest growing cities in terms of population, with the city’s population expected to breach the 10 million mark by 2050 – when it will become a megacity.
The traders hope that the government’s plan to plant 15 billion trees to help combat climate change will hand them a longer lifeline in the trade. Although there is no clear timeframe for the project, Kenya’s president, William Ruto, revealed the plan shortly after attending the COP27 in Egypt in October 2022.
According to the plan, at least 11,000 youth will be hired to plant some 1.5 million trees in the city as part of the push to increase the country’s tree cover to 30 percent.
Nairobi is also where the Restore Africa Programme, the world’s largest farmer-led land restoration program, was launched in May, 2022.
Kenya is among the six African countries where Restore Africa, a small-scale farmer-driven land restoration project by the Global EverGreening Alliance (GEA) and its partners, aims to restore 1.9 million hectares of land and directly support 1.5 million smallholder farming families.
Small scale roadside tree seedling dealers like Macharia and Matuka will remain key players in helping Kenya achieve its afforestation goals, with many countries failing to meet commitments, such as the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), according to a UN progress report released in 2021.