In 2002, Tevis Howard, a high school grad at the time, took a gap year to work on malaria research in Kenya.
During his time in the country, Howard noticed that though Kenya was generally poverty-stricken, for those that lived on a high-quality land where they could grow vegetables or tend dairy cattle, there was a chance to break out of that cycle.
For those, however, that were from the dry and harsh lands, that opportunity simply didn’t exist.
So Howard, who went on to study neuroscience at Brown University and traveled to Kenya multiple times during his studies, came up with a company called Komaza, which is what he calls an “Airbnb for forestry.”
He created a model where farmers who owned land (that was mostly sitting empty), would plant tree seeds, wait for the trees to grow, and get paid once the fully grown trees were cut down and sent to be used for a variety of construction and industrial needs.
Earlier this month, Komaza secured the first close of $28m of the company’s planned $33m Series B equity financing. The round was co-led by Novastar LPs AXA Investment Managers and the Dutch development bank FMO, with participation by Novastar Ventures and Mirova’s Land Degradation Neutrality Fund.
“Komaza is a vertically integrated forestry company,” Howard, who serves as the company’s CEO and who made it to our 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs list in 2014, says. “We work on the entire chain of forestry, we own and operate the largest seedling nursery in Kenya, so we make our own seedlings, and distribute and plant them with our partner farmers.
Once the seeds are planted there is very little work for the farmers, most of it involving weeding and making sure the grass doesn’t grow above the trees in the beginning. After that, farmers can focus on their other daily work while the trees will keep getting bigger and bigger in the years to come.
“Time takes care of the rest, and the trees often grow into one of the families’ most valuable assets,” Howard says.
Once the trees are fully grown (8-15 years depending on the type of tree and the site conditions), Komaza sends their own harvest teams, processes logs into higher-value wood products, and sells the final wood products into Africa’s burgeoning cities.
“Africa is really the last palace that has an insatiable demand for construction and furniture products as these cities and towns grow over the next few decades,” Howard says.
At the moment, Komaza plants two types of trees based on the soil and environmental factors: an indigenous mahogany wood (Melia volkensii) which provides high-quality material for floorboards and furniture, and several species of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus), mostly for industrial use.
The company currently has over 5000 hectares established and is working with 25,000 smallholder farmers. In 2019, it planted 1500 hectares on the ground, while in 2020 the number grew to 1700 hectares (all of them planted in April, before the rainy season begins).
Howard says his company is similar to Airbnb in the sense that the vacation rental company also found out that they didn’t have to buy the land, build a hotel, and furnish all the rooms, as those rooms already existed.
“Komaza has done the exact same thing,” Howard says. “Instead of owning one 20,000 acre farm, we operate 40,000 half-acre farms. Farmers are contributing the land and contributing the labor as their part of the partnership,” Howard says.
The Kenya-based company, which recently moved from the small coastal town Kilifi to the capital of Nairobi, currently employs 450 people.
During its first 10 years, it lived on a total of $5 million invested mostly from grants and venture philanthropists, while in 2017 it raised a $10 million Series A investment.