KAKAMEGA Forest, Kenya – When Maridah Khalawa started the Muliru Farmers Conservation Group almost a decade ago, she knew she wanted to find a way for herself and other women living near Kakamega forest in western Kenya to generate an income without exploiting the area’s already strained resources.
What she couldn’t have known was that their small community business would grow to help support hundreds of families, win international recognition and prove more successful than many of the men’s groups trying to do something similar.
The key to the Muliru group’s sustainable enterprise is camphor basil. The indigenous plant, Ocimum kilimandscharicum, which is called “Mwonyi” in the local Luhya dialect, has long been used by the population around Kakamega Forest to treat colds and coughs, to keep pests away from stored grain and as a mosquito repellent.
Starting in 1999 with seed money and free labor contributed by members, more than half of whom are women, the Muliru self-help group began cultivating and processing camphor basil to turn it into an ointment to sell locally. The idea was to tap into an abundant and underappreciated resource of Kakamega Forest, Kenya’s last surviving rainforest, while also financially benefiting local communities. On top of that, a portion of the revenue from the initiative would go toward conservation research.
“One of our initial conservation goals was to do things beyond the traditional way, using modern technology and embracing partnership with other interested organizations,” says Khalawa, 54, who never finished high school because her parents could not afford the fees.
The group’s efforts soon began attracting donors. In 2000, the United Nations Development Program gave the group 4.5 million Kenyan shillings ($45,000) to buy a distillation machine to extract the basil’s essential oils. Before that, the community used to boil the plant as a traditional medicine.
Five years later, the Ford Foundation, through the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology, partly funded the construction of two buildings for the group use for production, storage and administration.
Other donors followed, although not without resistance from some members of the group. “It was not easy to convince fellow villagers to think globally and accept to work with strangers,” says Khalawa.
Now the Muliru Farmers Conservation Group is known for its camphor basil-based herbal ointment, which is marketed under the name Naturub, and is registered as a medicine in Kenya for treatment of cold symptoms and relief from pain and insect bites. As well as the ointment, the group also makes mosquito repellent.
The products are sold to shops, supermarkets and chemists in western Kenya and distributed to other parts of the country through agents. James Ligale, the group’s public relations officer, says the assets are worth more than 15 million Kenyan shillings ($150,000), taking into account the appreciation of the land. They sell 36,000 tubes of ointment per year.
The benefits reach far beyond the Muliru members, more than 40 percent of whom get all of their income from the project. The group provides a regular income for 400 farmers who grow the plants for the raw materials and earn 10 cents for every kilo they deliver. Together, those farmers support around 1,000 dependents.
To supplement its earnings, the Muliru group hosts tourists who pay between $15 and $35 to learn about Kakamega forest’s conservation history, Ocimum plant and the Naturub production process – from the farms to the machines.
The group’s work has won several prizes, including two from the UNDP: the Equator Prize in September 2010, which was presented during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, and the Seed Award in December of the same year.
“It is the most successful and well managed conservation venture run by a woman in Kenya,” says retired natural resource conservation expert, John Kimeto. “Men have tried to imitate Maridah, but they all failed.”
Khalawa attributes her success to the unflagging support of the women members, and the women’s and development leader.
She says she is committed to accommodating people’s view and opinions, regardless of their age, political affiliations or their understanding of issues, but she won’t let politicians interfere with the running of the business.
“Community organizations are subject to political manipulations, and politicians enjoy being members, patrons or sponsors of such groups. I have stood firm in keeping politicians out of Muliru,” she said.
Despite its strong track record, the Muliru group still faces challenges as it tries to grow bigger and reach farther. It struggles to raise enough for marketing costs or to hire skilled employees – such as production engineers or accountants – to run the organization. The aging members run the group’s affairs themselves, sometimes by trial and error.
Still, Khalawa and her colleagues are dedicated to running their enterprise sustainably and to the benefit of their local community for as long as they can.
“Those who wanted to be politically right have collapsed, but we are here to stay,” she says.