A Positive Utopia - Interview with Nehemiah Mihindo

Feb 22, 2023 | written by:

A Positive Utopia
What could our future look like if we take action now? 

The climate crisis is a real threat and we can see its impact almost every day in our lives. So, is it already too late to do something about it? At Treedom we don’t think so! Supported by scientific data and input from international scientists in different fields, we show how our planet could change positively in 5, 10 or 50 years. Provided, of course, that we take action now. In a time of energy crisis, biodiversity loss and war; we give a positive outlook, spreading hope and inspiring people to take action for their own future by making their small contribution to a greener and better planet. 

In the second interview of our “positive utopia” series, we are talking to Professor Nehemiah Mihindo from Kenya - a leading expert in sustainable agriculture and CEO of Africa Integrated Pest Management Association.  Nehemiah originally trained as an entomologist (the study of insects) and now dedicates his time to working with communities and rural farmers to ensure their practices are optimised for the future.  Through his work with Treedom, Nehemiah has introduced agroforestry to communities in Kenya where the inclusion of fruit trees in their crops has not only helped raise their living standards, but also benefited the environment.

Mihindo“I’m a person who likes communities and I really love to see transformation.  When I’m able to help a community to plant trees, and after a few years, those trees are producing fruit, I feel very satisfied.  You can really see the difference in the community from where they were to where they are now.  I learn more and more about the way they live and their culture.  This really helps to develop practices that benefit their lives both economically and environmentally.”

Treedom: Thank you so much for talking to us today Professor Mihindo.  What is it that drives you everyday in your work?

Professor Mihindo: I’m a person who likes communities and I really love to see transformation.  When I’m able to help a community to plant trees, and after a few years, those trees are producing fruit, I feel very satisfied.  You can really see the difference in the community from where they were to where they are now.  This drives me to continue to work for them.  We do even more research to find the optimal combination of tree species and crops.  I also continually learn as I work with these communities.  I learn more and more about the way they live and their culture.  This really helps to develop practices that benefit their lives both economically and environmentally.

Our president in Kenya has said that in the next five years, we have to plant five billion trees in five years.  I feel excited to be part of this movement to do the right thing for our our country and the planet.

Treedom: What are the biggest challenges that you face rolling out sustainable agricultural practices to the communities?

Professor Mihindo: Unfortunately there has been a lot of chemical use in Kenya.  There is big business in selling chemical pesticides and fertilisers to farmers but this has led to our soils being very acidic and a big reduction in the soil fertility.  Trying to move farmers into more sustainable farming methods is a huge challenge as you’re fighting a very established system.  Farmers even receive subsidies to use these harmful chemicals.  We are trying to educate the farmers that these chemicals are detrimental to your health and to the environment so to not use them.  However, the chemical companies are telling them that it’s the only way to kill the crop pests.  In Kenya, there aren’t policies that safeguard the communities.  We don’t have an organic agriculture policy.  We can see that in some cases we have ruined our ecosystems.  We need to do more research to promote sustainable systems that will improve the environment again.  The government currently is just encouraging multinationals to bring in more chemicals.  We are continuing to push the government to really embrace agroecology and they are finally calling us for meetings.

Treedom: Are you seeing evidence of the climate crisis in your work too?

Professor Mihindo: Yes, due to climate change, we now have unreliable rainfall patterns which harms the agricultural productivity of farms.  Several years ago we could time our seasons like clockwork.  We knew that in mid-March the long rains would come.  We would know exactly when to start planting crops.  In mid-October, the short rains would come and we would start planting.  But now, it is never predictable.  The farmers are confused as to when they should plant.  Our dry periods are very prolonged.  I can attest that Kenya is a country that has really been affected by climate change.  This year about 4 million people have suffered food shortages due to the effects of drought.  Some parts of Kenya haven’t seen rain for three years.  This is the reality that we are facing.  And the truth is, Kenya is not very industrialised, we say we are a global village.  It’s the other industrialised countries around the world that are having this effect on Africa.  We are suffering for the sins that we never committed.  We have, however, exacerbated the situation though as we have deforested huge areas of Kenya.  

Treedom: How does planting trees help play a role in combating the climate crisis?

Professor Mihindo: In an agricultural system, trees play a vital role in the water cycle and soil health.  For the wider environmental benefit, trees are carbon sinks so they draw CO2 down from the atmosphere.  When you plant a lot of trees, we can remove large amounts of this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, therefore slowing down global warming.  Planting trees is a simple and effective way to combat climate change.  In the Western part of Kenya where there has been less deforestation, they have rainfall throughout the year because their forests are intact.  If we plant trees again, we could go back to the time where we had regular rain patterns and less drought.  Our government has finally realised the damage that has been done with mass deforestation and it’s why they have announced that we must plant five billion trees in the next five years around the country.  I’m excited to be part of this movement as it’s a great thing for Kenya. 

Treedom: So previously trees were cut down to make space for agricultural land.  But now we understand that we can have both trees and crops on the same land.  How is agroforestry developing in Kenya?

Professor Mihindo: With the growing human population, right now we don’t have enough land to set aside for pure forestry stands.  So what we are suggesting is that we combine trees with other agricultural practices within the farm.  But first, the trees that are planted must be compatible with your crops and livestock.  They should be fast maturing and multipurpose trees.  This is called agroforestry and it’s the practice that we’re encouraging and it’s what we’re doing in our Treedom projects.

Treedom: So we now understand that agroforestry can combat the climate crisis but what role does it play in biodiversity loss?

Professor Mihindo: The key thing here is that when you have multiple enterprises on a farm, even if you suffer the loss of one crop, you will not go hungry because you have other sources or income or food on your farm.  In Kenya, we are used to eating corn.  But if your corn did not do well but you also planted cassava, you can eat or sell the cassava.  We encourage the farmers to make their farms diverse.  With integrated pest management, you can also plant specific crops to attract pollinators or to repel pests.  In this, we are encouraging biodiversity in the farms.  

We also have crop species that are now going locally extinct.  When I was young, we would have wild fruits growing throughout the year.  However, these are no longer there.  By promoting more biodiverse farms, we have the chance to prevent other crop species going extinct.

Treedom: If we are to act now, what could Kenya look like in 2050?

Professor Mihindo: If we act now, I could imagine a Kenya that is very green.  A Kenya that has a very rich biodiversity.  A Kenya that we are proud of because our people are not hungry.  A Kenya that has a lot of rainfall with two seasons like we used to have.  A Kenya where people are not migrating from the rural areas into towns to look for jobs because they are poor.  I want to see a Kenya that is vibrant and even giving food to other countries because we have more than enough.  I would like to see a Kenya where policies are favouring sustainable development and not environmental destruction.

Treedom: In your work and research, have you seen proof that things are moving in this direction?

Professor Mihindo: In my research, I’m trying to develop natural, organic products that can be used as alternatives to chemical fertilisers.  I have succeeded in producing biostimulants from seaweed.  Through this and the training that we offer the farmers, they can reduce their harmful chemical inputs.  These small changes eventually create a huge impact.  

Treedom: In your expert opinion, what can we all do as individuals to help make a positive difference to the future of our planet?

Professor Mihindo: One thing that I’d really encourage is for everyone to be really conscious of the environment around them. Let’s all separate our waste.  We can use biodegradable waste as fertiliser and this will help the soil fertility issue. We all need to understand very clearly that what we do to our environment affects what we eat.  If our environment is healthy, our food is healthy and therefore we are healthy.  We can increase the quality of our lives and prevent disease if we just care for our environment.  We can all push for policies that promote systems that are sustainable.  At the moment, the solution to food shortages has been to import more chemical fertilisers.  But this is not the root of the issue.  The problem is that we have destroyed our ecosystems.  Scientific research is also really important as the world keeps on changing.  The combination of science and local knowledge will really help towards sustainable development. 

Treedom: From a personal point of view, how important does your work feel for your children’s future?

Professor Mihindo: I have ensured that my children truly understand what I do.  My son is a clinical epidemiologist, but when he’s not working in the hospital, he’s out in the communities with me distributing trees.  My daughter also comes to the field with me and talks to the communities about sustainable agriculture.  The government is also now taking tree planting education into schools.  This will really help to drive the next generation of young tree planters.


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