In April, we announced that together with Seedballs Kenya, we would plant 11 million tree seeds in the deforested areas of Kenya. A few more millions were added thanks to our users, who ordered Bolt rides over Earth Day weekend and contributed to the cause.
Now, seven months, three hot air balloons and thousands of dusty hands later, all 11+ million Seedbolts* have been planted.
To learn about the highlights of the past months and find out how seedballs were born in the first place, we talked to a man, who has dedicated his whole life to reforesting the country and teaching youth about the importance of trees – Teddy Kinyanjui, the co-founder of Seedballs Kenya.
*While a seedball is a tree seed covered in recycled charcoal, a Seedbolt is a seedball that’s planted in collaboration with Bolt.
Hi Teddy! It’s nice to see your smiling face again! Let’s start from the beginning – seedballs don’t grow in nature and are different from the conventional tree-planting method. How did you come up with the idea?
Seedballs are a simple yet ingenious invention that came about by accident. I was on a private farm, planting trees the traditional way – digging a hole and placing the little seedlings in it.
Funnily enough, as I looked at the indigenous trees that naturally grow there, it made me think of people centuries ago, who definitely weren’t digging holes to plant trees. This led me to think about how we can mimic nature to do direct seeding. So, I went out and bought some seeds to distribute by hand.
But no story of innovation is complete without setbacks – the rains didn’t come, and many of the seeds were eaten by birds, squirrels, mice, and other small animals.
That’s how I ended up talking to Elsen, an inventor I’ve known since I was 15. His creative mind was just what we needed to devise a solution – coating the seeds with recycled waste charcoal dust, which would stop them from being eaten by animals yet melt away with the rain.
We started making them by hand but quickly realised we could only make half a kilo daily at that pace. So, we invented the machine to produce them in bulk, and we were in business for reforesting the country.
Later, we developed grass seedballs at the popular request of landowners. Grass and drylands make up 60% of Kenya, and it turned out that growing grass was an even bigger challenge in a lot of areas.
What were your personal highlights from the past seven months of distributing all those 11+ million Seedbolts?
Seeing your idea come to life is always a highlight. But seeing young people get behind the idea of reforestation, being part of the process and believing in its power to change lives – that has been the best part of this journey. Around 60 students showed up one day, excited to walk in the sun, throw Seedbolts around and help the environment.
This again shows that the popular belief about young people being only concerned about social media or playing video games is wrong. The younger generation seems eager to make a change in the environment and help reverse all that destruction that has been made.
It’s also worth highlighting that we had extra Seedbolts from all the orders made over Earth Day weekend.
However, it’s not just the numbers that excite me; it’s also the stories. I’ve had so many nice people get in touch with me, often pointing out that they saw me in the Bolt video.
Can you imagine that – they saw the video, remembered it from all the thousands of other things, looked up my contact details and then reached out to see how they could help. This, to me, is quite powerful.
Let’s talk a little bit about logistics now. I mean, 11+ million Seedbolts is a LOT. How did you manage the distribution?
Strength in unity proved true for this project as it was only possible to distribute 11+ million Seedbolts with the help of thousands of people from all over the country. Dozens of NGOs and individual enthusiasts contributed to the project.
For example, Allan, a motorbike driver, transported 50 kilos of Seedbolts almost every day for seven months. And while one small motorbike load doesn’t seem like much, Allan’s consistent effort over time, combined with the efforts of so many others, made a significant impact.
Wildlife conservationists were also eager to support the project. Ensuring ecosystems can survive is crucial, especially with climate change causing droughts and floods.
We heard that some Seedbolts were distributed by hot air balloons — that sounds pretty outside the box. Tell us a bit more about how that happened.
Outside-the-box thinking is always exciting, especially when finding more impactful ways to distribute seeds. This got us thinking – what about hot air balloons? They fly over the Mara River for tourist trips, so the guides there have a lot of knowledge about the local flora – they know which tree species are reducing in numbers. This makes them the perfect seed distributors! Local knowledge is crucial for effective seeding.
You worked with so many NGOs. Who are they, and how do you select the NGOs to work with?
It’s a two-way street when it comes to working with NGOs. Sometimes, they reach out to us; other times, we seek them out. But ultimately, it’s all about finding those whose missions align with ours. Even as we speak, I need to get back to several NGOs interested in getting more seedballs from us.
We prioritise working with non-traditional NGOs, open to trying out new, innovative methods. This could be anything from planting trees in new ways to using seedballs as a method of tree propagation. We’ve been fortunate to work with amazing organisations, like the Miti Alliance, Big Life Foundation and Kibwezi Well Wishers.
One of our partners, Dr. Sonnia Nzilani Musyoka, was recently nominated by the government to be the Environment and Climate Change Minister for the whole Makueni county! Having these types of forward-thinking leaders in positions of power is a big step in the right direction.
Dr. Sonia called us recently to express her gratitude for our work with Seedballs Kenya and Bolt over the last year. She feels that our efforts have put Seedbolts on the map and helped raise awareness about this important issue.
As you said, it requires some education to understand the importance of planting trees and renewing grasslands. Do you think that, over time, people have started to get a better grasp of this?
Absolutely! What’s more, the people getting more engaged and educated about these things are mostly young urbanites.
I think it has to do with the post-Covid world we live in. As we had to stay indoors for a long time, many young people started hiking and enjoying nature more after the pandemic. They get to see different tree species and learn about their importance and their connection to everyday life. This is the first step towards conservation because you cannot conserve what you don’t know.
Let’s talk about rain. Everybody has been waiting for rain for a long time in Kenya. Has it rained enough now for all the Seedbolts to start growing?
We’ve distributed seedballs to some counties in the west of Kenya and they’ve had some rain, although it’s been lower than average. According to reports, we might get more rain in mid-November, but it still won’t be enough.
However, there are parts of the country that are experiencing droughts. Some places haven’t had a single drop of rain for 2.5 years!
Despite all this, the good news is that seedballs can stay dormant without rain for 5-10 years. So as soon as the rain comes, the ball will dissolve and the seed inside will start germinating.
And that’s not all. Some great people have taken the initiative to water the seedballs themselves. We hope that with their help and the rain scheduled to come, the seedballs will soon grow into healthy plants.
Let’s zoom out to the entire Kenya for a second. Do you think it’s possible to reverse deforestation by planting those extra trees?
Yes, I think it is. Recently, Kenya welcomed a new president, His Excellency Dr. William Ruto, who reaffirmed the commitment made by our last Government – 30% forest coverage by 2030. This would mean planting an extra 5 billion trees in the next seven years. Though the number is large, our Government has realised that fixing damage from flooding and draughts is more expensive than starting to fix things.
But it’s not only about planting new trees. Protecting the ones you’ve planted is just as important. Another great initiative that has been put into place is hiring more rangers to do forest protection.
Kenya is a leader in East Africa in natural conservation and has excellent government support for restoration.
In addition, technology is advancing rapidly. For example, this week, I have a meeting to discuss remote sensing – a method of viewing objects from a distance. We’ll be testing several Seedbolts sites to see if, in five years, satellite technology will be advanced and open-source enough for everyone to view full-grown trees and restored grasslands.
What would be your advice for people and companies who want to live more sustainably and have a smaller negative impact on the planet?
The book “Small is Beautiful” by E. F. Schumacher and “One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka lays out many great concepts that make a lot of sense to follow today. Some of the things they mention are so easy to do in your everyday life yet can have a profound impact. Do we really need 50 single-use plastic water bottles for a 50-minute meeting? I doubt anyone will get all that dehydrated within an hour. Small changes like this can lead to thinking about ways to use less.
Of course, there is always the other side of the coin: when it feels impossible for individuals to hold big companies accountable. How can we make them stop polluting? Big corporations often brush off responsibility by saying, “well, you buy stuff made out of copper, so I have to run a huge copper mine. It’s your fault.” This logic is flawed when you consider that these companies can make billions of dollars in subsidised profits yearly. It comes down to voting with your wallet and being mindful of where you spend your money.
I wish I had a better answer to the world’s problems than just “shopping less”, but I guess I’m not a big fan of shopping anyway. *laughs*
And here’s a nice one to end this interview. What’s your dream, Teddy?
Honestly – I’m living it. I really am. Sometimes thoughts like “what if you had this or that” creep in, but then I remember that being content with what you have is the key in life. It’s not something obvious to dream about, but it’s true.
It’s been a fantastic journey for me. Meeting all the amazing people and seeing respect for the environment grow is the greatest thing I could hope to spend my life doing.
Okay, FINAL question. If somebody reads this and wants to introduce seedballs in their own country, what should they do?
If you want to introduce seedballs in your country, the best thing to do is to take a walk in your local natural areas and learn about the plants, birds and animals. Start by learning about some of the different plants that grow where you live, pay attention to which ones are thriving and which ones aren’t, and why. Once you have that knowledge, you can drop me an email and I’ll be happy to advise you further.
Thank you for your time, Teddy. Talking to you always makes us happy and more optimistic.
Tree you later!