At the mouth of a valley, framed against a backdrop of three mountains, the lush nursery paints a breathtaking view. Filled with indigenous plants, trees and stunning gardens, it is here that Roshan Hemani, the Plant Nursery Manager at the Aga Khan University's Principal Campus in East Africa at Arusha, serves as a dedicated Time and Knowledge Nazarana (TKN) volunteer.
Hemani's background is rooted in Education. An experienced teacher, she trained and tutored communities in literacy and special needs, and assisted in educating and integrating refugees in rural Canada, particularly in Saskatchewan. A former curriculum developer, she created various tutor-training kits and education resource tools for the Canadian government, including the National Adult Literacy Database. More recently, she volunteered with the Aga Khan Education Services as an Education Administrator in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Now retired, Hemani is pursuing what is closest to her heart – volunteering her professional services for Mawlana Hazar Imam and his institutions.
“Education is my profession and trees and flowers are my passion,” she says. “I love nurturing plants. It gives me a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction to make my environment both beautiful and functional.”
The objective of Hemani's project with the Aga Khan University is to plant in excess of 150 000 trees. To date, she and her team of dedicated gardeners have planted over 30 000 trees on the majestic Arusha Campus site and have a remaining stock of approximately 50 000 tree-plants that they aim to put into the ground within the next 12 months.
When Roshan Hemani arrived at the nursery less than a year ago, weeds dominated a majority of the campus site. With only 2 000 tree-plants to work with – half of which were non-sustainable Jacaranda trees – Hemani began aggresively researching indigenous ecology and methods to restore the surrounding environment.
She visited neighbouring nurseries, contacted Government Forestry Departments, wrote to the Tanzania Tree Seed Association, and made a concerted effort to collect a variety of seedlings to jumpstart her project. Occasionally, Hemani might have been found hunting for fallen seeds she could use to germinate natural tree growth.
Hemani's research improved her understanding of environmental issues related to soil and ecology. This led her to use local soil and natural fertilisers to achieve self sustaining plant growth over time. Today, Hemani uses a unique soil concoction, mixing ash into the soil. The natural pesticide technique – a trick she learned from local Tanzanians – is used to prevent insect contamination and assist in the building of strong plant-roots.
Roshan Hemani's success with planting so many trees in so little a time, and ensuring their health, is partially due to the methodology she practices. Her technique is to dig a hole approximately a foot and a half in cubic size. After adding topsoil into the pit, discarding the bottom-soil, the seedling is planted. On a consistent and regular basis, the seedling is watered, ensuring at all times that the top-mulch is intact. The technique has been used in all her plantations, and each of the gardening staff has been trained to follow the above steps.
“Working on this project has provided me an amazing opportunity to learn more about tropical and sub-tropical plants and trees”, she says. “You have to treat each and every plant like it's your child, you have to nurture it!”
If fact, her staff refer to the plants and trees as “Roshan's children”. She continues to watch how local Tanzanians plant trees and has made a tremendous effort to blend the nursery with the local environment. “It was important for me to build a local shed where indigenous plants could grow,” she says.
Many issues have impacted the region such as soil erosion and decline in soil fertility. Soil degradation has occurred due to unreliable rainfall patterns and improper cultivation practices. To counter such challenges, the nursery has equipped itself with plants that are maintained in beds to create windbreaks.
“Not only do plants enhance the beauty of the place, they are key in keeping the air clean and restoring the environment,” says Hemani. Trees are also grown in the nursery that are then planted on the hills, and hedges have been planted on the field to create boundaries. Natural fertilisers such as cow-dung are also used to enrich soil fertility and reflect use of natural resources to maintain sustainability of the soil.
Part of Hemani's process involves planting trees near the foothills of the mountain and near local gullies – known in Swahili as korongo. These gullies provide essential water for trees such as Ficus, Cordia Africana and Indian Ash.
Every tree Hemani has grown and planted has been done with purpose. The planting of the Ice Plant was done to fight the ferocious weeds that infect the region and to beautify the nursery. She has also created her own lawn by keeping grass cuttings, and has divided plant beds not only for aesthetics, but to create a natural windbreak to protect plants as a cover from dust. The divisions made from wood, assist in deterring termites from eating the plants; thus, if the wood is eaten up, the remaining logs are used as flowering beds to house other plants and flowers.
To date, the nursery has positively impacted farmers and villagers in the region. Many neighbours have commented on the beauty of the site and many more have been generous in donating seeds for Hemani to grow. “This is the best nursery in the region”, comments a fellow gardener who tends the Mount Meru forest.
A gratifying result of the plantion initiative is the discovery of certain biofuel producing plants. In fact, the Croton, a common plant that Hemani has restored to the area, is found to hold nearly 30 per cent oil, which can be converted to biodiesel (a biofuel). Biofuel is derived from biomass (recently living organisms), which is a natural, non-toxic, and renewable energy source that can help fight desertification.
Although there is a risk of tree poaching in the region, preventive measures have been taken. A fence has been erected for the security of the plants and trees. In addition, the relationships built with neighbours around the nursery have aided in the security against tree poaching.
Roshan Hemani's vision for the future is inspiring. She dreams of “a beautiful university surrounded by the most beautiful trees – trees that have flowers that produce oil for the area.” The nursery will serve as Tanzania's seed bank where “mother plants” are grown and their seeds are sold to local farmers. It could play an important role in a region that suffers from a lack of seed availability and production.
“This will be an enclave of beauty and practical things,” she says. “It will be a source of seeds for the whole of Tanzania.”
Being a positive example for the community around the nursery is of high importance to Hemani. The way land can be restored to its original condition and how it can be done needs to be realised by neighboring communities.
“I really want us to be pioneers in that, set an example through action and help the environment.”