This Charcoal-Coated Seed Could Bring Kenya’s Forests Back to Life

Deforestation is causing a major ecosystem crisis in Kenya. Seedballs Kenya has created a solution to help.

Randi Eicher
Feb 25 · 4 min read

People in Kenya rely on forests for all aspects of their livelihoods: water, food, shelter, and income. And Kenya’s losing over 120,000 acres of forest per year.

The loss of forests, due to illegal logging and urbanization, is causing a major water shortage in the country, because trees collect, filter, and release rain into streams and rivers. It’s also causing a loss of food and homes for many different species. Giraffes, for example, have become critically endangered in Kenya. The top reason: loss of habitat.

Kenya’s government has an ambitious goal of increasing its forest cover from 7.8 to 15 percent forest cover by 2022. An organization called Seedballs Kenya is working to help.

The organization has created seedballs, which are tree and plant seeds covered in a coating of charcoal and nutrients. The coating helps protect the seeds from predators like birds, rodents, and insects, as well as extreme temperatures, until the rain arrives. Once the seedballs get soaked from the rain, the coating retains and prolongs a moist environment around the seed to encourage it to germinate (i.e., sprout). The nutrients in the coating give the plant a jump-start at growth. Some seeds require little more than a couple rain showers within a week to germinate. About half of the seedballs will successfully grow into mature trees.

A squirrel, uninterested in eating seedballs.

Over a million pounds of charcoal are consumed daily in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, and 15 percent of that becomes waste. “This salvaged charcoal waste is the dust we use to make the seedballs,” says Seedballs Kenya co-founder Teddy Kinyanjui.

There are about 220 species of native Kenyan tree seeds, and anyone can buy a bag, or donate one.

“Our strategy is to mimic natural regeneration by piggybacking seed distribution onto existing transportation networks as much as possible,” says Kinyanjui. “For instance, when people are going to a wedding in their rural areas, they can take seeds of the right variety home to be planted there, or when wildlife rangers are patrolling they can throw them out in areas that need re-seeding.”

Kinyanjui says that long-time pilots in Kenya have witnessed the effects of deforestation firsthand. “Many of them have seen forests turn to dustbowls in less than a generation,” he says. His team has been working with pilots that are willing to seedbomb — that is, let someone throw seeds from planes while they’re flying. “Through their good will, we have been able to piggyback seedball distribution to many areas that would have been far too inaccessible.”

Teddy Kinyanjui, Seedballs Kenya co-founder

Kinyanjui says seedballs are a low-cost and fun way for people to get involved in regrowing Kenya’s forests. In October 2018, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust launched a new project aimed at inspiring school children in Kenya to start planting trees. Over 300 students participated in planting 450,000 seedballs, and they made a competition out of it using slingshots.

STEM engineering students at the International School of Kenya created a contraption that can ride on camels’ backs and drop seeds evenly and regularly as the camel walks.

Kenyan children use slingshots to catapult seedballs.

Kinyanjui also wants to buy indigenous seeds from farmers all around Kenya, helping them pay to conserve their existing trees and grow more, “similar to how the coffee and macadamia nut industries work.”

“We believe in the value of green collar jobs, even temporary ones, to help people learn that engagement in environmentalism can be a monetarily worthwhile endeavor,” Kinyanjui says.

Seedballs Kenya has inspired other conservation organizations in places like Zambia, Nicaragua, and the Margalla Hills National Park in Pakistan, to create similar seedballs of their native trees.

While seedballs alone won’t stop deforestation, they have the potential to make a big impact in growing forests, saving ecosystems, and reducing the effects of climate change.

The Slowdown

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Randi Eicher

Written by

Writer in Seattle. Big fan of pugs, new places, and days without plans.

The Slowdown

Slow contemplations of things that go fast, like technology, business, and culture. Brought to you by Slalom.