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Shamba system: Don’t throw away baby with bath water



Shamba system: Don’t throw away baby with bath water

The shamba system—also known as non-residential cultivation (NRC) or plantation establishment and livelihood improvement scheme (Pelis)—is a form of agroforestry where agricultural crops are grown alongside designated tree species in bare or harvested forest lands.

It was introduced in Kenya by the British colonialists in 1910 to produce raw materials for the timber industry and ease pressure on natural forests.

Farmers tend to the trees alongside their crops— that were not in competition with trees, such as maize, beans, potatoes, kales, cabbages, peas, millet and other sporadic crops —until the saplings are tall and bushy enough to nudge them out of the plot. 

For years, the system thrived in the highland areas until President Mwai Kibaki abolished it in 2003. 

Known as taungya in Myanmar, the polyculture has many benefits—including widespread forest plantations; creation of employment; increase in food production for rural households, hence food security; and elevated income for the farmers. 


This is besides ready-free tree planting labour for Kenya Forest Service (KFS); reduced global warming as carbon sinking is spiked by trees and crops; more precipitation due to the rise in evapotranspiration from the expanded forest cover; creation of cool micro-climates that can enhance ecotourism; and provision of fuel wood from pruned tree branches. 

Other benefits include mitigated floods, soil erosion, surface runoff and siltation of water bodies as a result of increased vegetable cover on the land; better use of idle land; economic diversification if beekeeping and mushroom farming is incorporated; and narrowed indolence in rural populations. 

This singularly saves many people from social rot.

However, colourful as it seems, the shamba system is not without a steep downside. It has been associated with environmental abuse and degradation from farmers and outsiders. Some people may use it as a veneer for illegal logging. There is also the temptation of schlepping out tree sprigs to give room for food crops and lengthen the stay on a plot. 

Continuous cropping of the shamba system land can as well lead to soil overuse and erosion. Besides, the farmers may suffer pandemic attacks from infirmities such as acute pneumonia, zoonotic diseases and asthma due to working close to wildlife and in low temperatures.

There is also mismanagement by forest authorities, especially in allocating plots, and human-wildlife conflicts that may be fatal. Invasive species could also be introduced to a forest, occasioning the mass extinction of vulnerable species.

With Kenya’s population cruising past 53 million and since land does not grow as fast, the government can reintroduce the shamba system with stringent guidelines. KFS can work intimately with the farmers, to provide guidance and oversight. The farmers can form committees for peer monitoring. 

Where it thrived, documentation of the processes and practices can make the system self-checking and progressive and create baseline information for future reference and action. Elsewhere, white-glove restructuring should be done to ensure it works.

The system is good if lessons are drawn from the past and forest land is left to government ownership.

Dr Kipkiror, PhD, an environmental consultant, is a lead expert in environmental/social impact assessment. [email protected]

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