If you visit Brackenhurst Botanic Garden & Forest in Kenya, you’ll find native trees that tower 30 feet tall, along with lianas, orchids, and a species-rich understory. That was not the case 20 years ago, when Plants for Life International, under the stewardship of Dr. Mark Nicholson, began an effort to replace exotic tree plantations with native plants and restore the land’s biodiversity.
Since then, the number of bird species has skyrocketed from a few dozen to more than 180. Long-absent colobus monkeys have returned. The verdant site now serves as a training ground and a model for other restoration projects across Kenya.
The success at Brackenhurst prompted the 2021 launch of the Centre for Ecosystem Restoration Kenya (CERK). The organization aims to revitalize Kenya’s afromontane and savanna landscapes, including restoration sites in the Maasai Mara, a famous wildlife refuge home to lions, cheetahs, elephants, zebras, and hippos.
Terraformation is helping CERK tackle one of the biggest obstacles to native restoration: access to seeds.
The Kenyan government has set a goal of restoring 5.1 million hectares of land by 2030, but there currently aren’t nearly enough seeds to meet that goal.
“Our challenge is that there is limited seed supply for restoration activities. When we tried to get seeds and seedlings from neighboring nurseries in the Maasai Mara to restore a degraded site, we realized that most of them don’t have seeds or seedlings for native species,” explains Andrew Gichira, who has a PhD in conservation genetics and serves as the organization’s research manager.
CERK has launched an ambitious effort to solve the problem. The team is establishing a seed collection network that will preserve a wide variety of native seeds, which leads to establishment of resilient, carbon-thirsty forests.
“If a given population doesn’t have genetic diversity, it can easily be wiped out by drought or other disasters. The benefit of biodiversity is that it helps ecosystems withstand these changes,” Gichira explains.
As part of our partnership, Terraformation has provided an off-grid seed bank capable of storing up to 10 million native seeds.
The solar-powered unit allows for careful monitoring and control of temperature and humidity, which is a game-changer when it comes to seed viability, according to Victor Otieno, a seed scientist and CERK’s seed bank manager.
“When we started restoration on the savanna, we were unable to store the seeds gathered by our collectors. They were just kept in a container, and we knew the viability would go down as time went by,” Otieno says.
The CERK team observed a significant gap between the handful of seed species available through the government’s national tree seed center and the hundreds of tree species that are native to Kenya. The new seed collection network aims to close that gap.
CERK works with community groups across the country to recruit seed collectors. The organization focuses on hiring women, who already tend to spend time in the forest grazing sheep and goats and gathering food and firewood. CERK not only pays the women to collect seeds but also provides training in identifying species and tracking the biological cycle of different plants.
“These are people who have an interest in conservation and an understanding of the land, but often forestry knowledge is the piece that’s missing. Once we equip them, they are a force,” Otieno says.
The team has identified 46 Community Forest Associations in Kenya’s Central Highlands and is working to train their teams in seed collection and propagation. Thirty community members at the Maasai Mara site have been trained in seed collection and processing — 20 of whom are women. An additional 30 women and 20 youth are working in planting. The organization is also partnering with private farmers to establish a site dedicated to producing seeds.
Sustainable agroforestry is a key component of CERK’s work. In addition to restoring biodiversity, the organization encourages the cultivation and collection of honey, medicinal plants, and nutritious wild vegetables — all of which help eradicate poverty, improve community health, and deepen local commitment to protecting ecosystems.
As they travel to different villages, the CERK team often hears older generations recall the healthy landscapes of the past and describe the dramatic losses they’ve seen. With the right interventions, they believe these landscapes will return.
“Our vision is to restore thriving and resilient ecosystems in Kenya,” says Otieno. “The drivers of degradation are high. We want people to know that there’s a solution, and we are seeing that solution start to work.”