The Arabuko Sokoke forest offers itself. A UNESCO biosphere reserve and the largest coastal forest in East Africa, it is home to more than 600 varieties of trees, kaleidoscope of butterflies, birds, and other endemic species.
But the lush forest, stretching out over a vast expanse of 42,000 hectares, has been suffering at the hands of those who depend on it for their survival.
Surrounding communities, struggling to make ends meet, turned to the forest as a source of income. They would venture deep into its dense canopy, armed with saws and axes, ready to fell any tree that could fetch a price. Others would use the wood for cooking and heating their homes, contributing to the forest's slow but steady decline.
A Rocha, a Christian organisation in Kilifi County that works in environmental conservation and runs three main programs—scientific research on different aspects, environmental education, and community conservation projects, has been working towards its restoration.
The approach is straightforward—introduce an initiative that would reduce dependence on forest resources.
According to Stanley Baya, the community conservation manager, A Rocha (a Portuguese word translated to “The Rock”) started offering secondary school bursaries in 2001 through the Arabuko Sokoke Schools & Eco-Tourism Scheme (ASSETS) which is a well-targeted sustainable development programme. Through the provision of secondary school scholarships, ASSETS helps to meet the economic and social needs of communities living around Arabuko Sokoke Forest.
“Conservation is central in Christian faith as man was given mandate over all animals and plantations. We work in projects from Arabuko Sokoke forest, mida creek and dakatcha woodland where we are trying to conserve indigenous forest. The scholarship bursaries, derived from the eco-tourism profits was meant to foster positive attitude towards conservation of the forest. We also introduced farming as an alternative source of livelihood,” he offers.
Through funding from I &M Foundation and Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), A Rocha embarked on training guardians of the scholarship beneficiaries on matters conservation, supporting schools and communities with energy saving jikos and solar lanterns. “We felt that this project aligned with the ASSETS programme, and we are on our third year.”
Agnes Kashindo, is one of the beneficiaries of the program. As you approach her home, you can feel the unmistakable presence of the forest, its tall trees casting cool shadows on the dry earth. The drought has been relentless; her land is parched.
“I am a farmer and a part time tailor. A Rocha came into my world in 2021 when they onboarded two of my four children into the ASSETS program. Before my encounter with them, I was at my wits end. I didn’t know what to do with the boys,” she says.
Agnes confesses that until her interaction with A Rocha, matters of environmental conservation was not her priority. In fact, she didn’t think about it.
“Now, together with other members in the program, we take care of nurseries, plant trees and create awareness on environmental conservation,” she offers.
Fireless cooking baskets
“Lunch is ready,” she says while ushering her into her kitchen. Then something happens. With a grin, she pulls out a sufuria from a padded basket. “I start off cooking on open fire, then transfer the meal into the fireless cooker. It is well padded for insulation and can keeps the food warm for hours. As a result, I don’t use a lot of firewood and I can tend to my shamba as the food cooks,” she offers.
According to Patrick Kilumo, ASSETS programme coordinator, A Rocha Kenya, about 40 women in Kilifi North have received the fireless cooking baskets.
“We also provided them with solar lanterns to reduce dependency on kerosene and enable the learners study better,” he offers.
In Funga Moyo village, Margaret Kahindi has a fireless cooker basket, donated by A Rocha through the funding from I &M Foundation and KCDF. “The best thing about it is that it does not burn food and I no longer worry about firewood consumption. Whenever my neighbours visit, I love to show it to them and many are saving up to get one,” she offers.
Margaret Kahindi demonstrating how she uses her fireless cooker
Another beneficiary, Rehema Khaingu, received a solar lantern from A Rocha. Her child is also being supported through the ASSETS initiative.
“I am part of the initiative in that I help to water and take care of seedlings and planted trees. If it were not for A Rocha and partners, my child wouldn’t be in school and would have probably left the village in search of menial jobs elsewhere,” she says.
Rehema Khaingu, 38 who is a casual labourer holding a solar lantern inside her house.
Energy Saving Jikos
To get firewood, many households, a situation mirrored in learning institutions, cut down trees. Through I &M Foundation, KCDF and A Rocha as the implementing partner, Weru Technical College is contributing to a sustainable future by use of energy saving jikos.
Energy-saving jikos, also known as improved cookstoves, are designed to use less firewood than traditional stoves while also reducing emissions of harmful pollutants. These stoves can help to save money on fuel costs and improve indoor air quality, which can have significant health benefits for those who use them.
“We have a role to play in conserving the environment. We are in an area that is semi-arid and facing an environmental crisis as deforestation has become the norm. We picked up a challenge to become a case study in the area. Instead of traditional jikos that saw us cut dozens of trees for firewood, we adopted the energy savings jiko to make meals for our Audrey Mundu, a trainer at the college.
The institution currently has three of them and Mr Albert Konde, one of the cooks couldn’t be happier. “We no longer have to deal with soot or smoke. This is a game changer and I wish we can have an additional one to meet the demands,” he offers.
Besides the jiko, Weru Technical College has adopted tree planting and greening the college’s environment.
“A Rocha took us through training on how to plant and take care of the plants and I am happy that we are greening the institution, says Audrey Mundu, a trainer at the college.
The journey started in 2021 and so far, they have planted hundreds of diverse trees, including fruit trees within the college’s compound. Across the campus, towering trees provide ample shade from the harsh sun; it’s a thriving ecosystem.
“The area we are at, nobody can pass without noticing about this area. When we started, we had a big challenge managing water resources, but we started holding water and utilising it for the environmental conservation purposes”, says Audrey Mundu.
With assistance from the garden workers, a group of ten students take care of the trees.
“We started an environmental club that is open to any student who is passionate about this field. One of the challenges that we were facing is human-animal conflict because it's a herding zone. Thankfully, with support from A Rocha, we have since fenced the compound,” says Mr. Alphonce Karisa, the club’s patron.
“We have learned a lot through this partnership. With this funding, we were able to provide solutions and the service to the school has been tremendous. They are significantly reducing the fuel wood that is used. We would like to scale it up to a level where individuals will be making the fireless cooking baskets and selling them. Also, we would wish to scale up the awareness from community forums to schools,” he offers.
On tree planting, the A Rocha conservation manager says that they are keen on planting trees over a long period of time rather than thousands of trees in a short span of time. “The place is semi-arid and water shortage is still a big challenge that's why planting a few trees over a long time is so important. It's not just a one-time event, it's an ongoing commitment. By planting a few trees each year, we can make a meaningful impact on our environment and be the rock for generations to come,” he says.
Mr. Baya applauds the partnership with I &M Foundation and KCDF saying that it has propelled them to better serve the community.