The Nairobi Arboretum: Rehabilitating an Old Botanic Garden in Africa

Ann Birnie
Nairobi Arboretum, Kenya

Home | Contents | Abstract | Introduction | The Past | The Present | The Potential


Nairobi, the capital city is set in the highlands of Kenya. An outline of its geography, history and economics as related to land and forests. Origins of the arboretum, concerns and growth up to independence. Present strategies from 1993-98 by the Friends of Nairobi Arboretum. Contacts with the public, funding and events . The motivation and vision now required for realising the potential for the people of the city today. The Masterplan completed this year including a professional tree inventory. Can a new and appropriate vision be adopted by the people in control today ; politicians, government servants, city officials? Private funding, and government control, public usage but free to all. What is the way forward ?



Nairobi city lies only 140 km south of the equator and about 500 km from the Indian Ocean coast. Its altitude of 1800 m ensures a cooler climate than expected in the tropics. The city, known by the Maasai people of the hot dry plains as the "place of cool waters " was a marshy area long ago, at the foot of the Aberdares mountain range. The Nairobi Arboretum began as a 100 acre site given to the Department of Forestry in 1907. One fence forms a common boundary with State House where President Moi resides today and holds state functions. The first Forest Conservator chose to live on the site and this house continued to be occupied by The Chief Conservator of Forests until 1997.

At the beginning a major role of the arboretum was to be one of the trial sites for exotic tree species being introduced to Kenya. This was an urgent issue as the railway line linking Mombasa to Uganda ran on wood fuel and did so until 1952. Quick growing exotic trees to be used as fuelwood were needed to prevent the destruction of the indigenous forests. This still remains an issue today as about 80% of Kenya’s population depend on woodfuel for the household. The forested land in the country at its maximum would be only 2% of the land area and today it is less than 1.8 % Almost all the people live in the 17% of the land which is suitable for agriculture. Major crops are tea ,coffee, horticultural products. Meat production and tourism are also major earners for the Kenyan economy.

Historically the Nairobi Arboretum was further developed as a demonstration of local and exotic trees from which people could learn while enjoying the beauty of such a place in the growing city.


Overhead: The Past

In 1923 over 300 lbs of seed were collected for exchange with other arboreta and botanic gardens around the world. Mr. Gardner, living in a house on site presided over planting and landscaping. In 1932 the Arboretum was declared a Forest Reserve giving it a measure of protection. A plant inventory was taken in 1945 of which we still have a copy and in 1958 a Guide Book was published.

The vision of the earliest foresters had been achieved. A place of relaxation ,of learning and of beauty had been created in the heart of a city which the public enjoyed and schools visited.

The Nairobi Arboretum had always had a paragraph in the Forestry Annual Report but after independence in 1963 the focus of the department began to spread far and wide across the country with a major interest in plantation forestry and the timber industry. Much forest land was transferred to National Parks.Later the Forestry HQ moved across the city a long way from the Arboretum which had been in walking distance from HQ. Although the Arboretum was no longer mentioned in reports the place was kept tidy by staff who lived there in staff housing. There were no plans for improvements , and no planting policies to implement and by the 1970s and 1980s it had become quite neglected, sometimes a dangerous place to visit.

The city population was now around 2 million and in 1992 Forestry Department itself became more aware of the remnant forests under its care around the capital city.

In 1993 the Friends of Nairobi Arboretum (FONA) were allowed to operate as a project of the historic East Africa Natural History Society (1909) I am speaking to you as the current Chairman of FONA and our first public event was on World Environment Day 1993 honoured by the Deputy Director of UNEP whose HQ are in Nairobi. Many local and international donors were soon found to support our efforts in the restoration of the arboretum.

Briefly we have tried to raise public awareness by talks, events and improvements of facilities. There are 8 new seats and 5 picnic tables and our most noteworthy events have been WIND IN THE TREES an annual concert by schoolchildren for the public under the trees which even reached local TV. Our third SOLAR DAY will take place this September . A monthly tree walk,tree and bird lists, tree trails, label scheme , and many articles and presentations help our public image as well as TREE NEWS an information sheet for Friends who make an annual subscription.


Overhead: The Present

In 1995 the Arboretum forester was sent to Kew for training.He is here with us as the new botanic Gardens Manager for the National Museums of Kenya. After visits by a UK consultant the Forest Department and DFID, British aid, agreed that his suggestion for a Masterplan be implemented. This has been going on for the last two years and included an array of ideas for restoration and modernisation of the Nairobi Arboretum. Aspects included environmental education, leisure activities, scientific values and ecotourism but the most important suggestions were changes in management. Another important aspect was the preparation of a professional tree inventory and this was completed in 1997 noting 350 species of trees.

A MEMORANDAUM OF UNDERSTANDING between the Friends and the FD was agreed in April 1997. It provided among other things for a Board of Management , chaired by an appointee of the Chief Conservator of forests and other government bodies are represented. Mr.Charles Mbugua , the Chairman is here with us today. The Board is not yet a strong executive body but we are hoping to make it work. The arboretum falls under the Provincial Forestry Officer of Nairobi District and basically he has no budget or policy guidelines for any improvements. For two years now he has applied to the government Treasury for an allocation of finance but this has not happened. The Board therefore hopes to raise private donations for implementation of the Masterplan. and aims to make the Arboretum self supporting in the long run.


Overhead: The Potential

The value of the arboretum as a green lung for a growing city is obvious. Our problem is still to provide the VISION and hence the MOTIVATION for good MANAGEMENT as well as the RESOURCES. Government do not have these resources. It is still not clear whether the Forest Department, the city , the residents of Nairobi and Kenya are motivated enough for change. The people in power have to have vision for today, and for tomorrow for any major improvements to happen.



Copyright 1999 NBI