How Makueni’s reforestation project is leading the war against climate change

Employees of Mandela Community Development programme, an NGO in Nzaui, Makueni County, load trees onto a truck on April 19.


What you need to know:

  • Time passed, and just as we were about to call our contact again, a car pulled by our side. The man we awaited had arrived.
  • As we exchanged brief pleasantries, I took in his fedora hat, white striped shirt, and air of confidence.

Our two-hour drive from Nairobi led us to Emali, a town on both sides of the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway. My team, consisting of our driver, photographer, and myself, was eager to witness a community’s efforts at adopting mitigation practices in the face of climate change. Departing the city early allowed us to witness the town’s residents beginning their day. Following a phone conversation with the man we intended to meet, he instructed us to wait at a local hotel, where he would join us shortly. Seeking guidance from several motorcycle operators, we were directed to a hotel that had clearly witnessed more prosperous times.

We decided to wait inside our car, and to pass the time, we checked our equipment, more out of custom than necessity. Time passed, and just as we were about to call our contact again, a car pulled by our side. The man we awaited had arrived. As we exchanged brief pleasantries, I took in his fedora hat, white striped shirt, and air of confidence. He apologised for keeping us waiting before jumping into his car, and on cue, we trailed him out of Emali. We planned to see how a local NGO plays its part in saving our planet by creating a carbon sink; he was the man at the helm.

We were constantly on the phone with him, even though he was just a few meters ahead. As we sped down the dusty road, leaving Emali behind and making our way toward our destination, we witnessed firsthand the all too familiar effects of climate change. The rivers, which had just begun to fill up from the early rains, still displayed signs of previous dry spells. The land was slowly turning green, yet patches of brown earth remained visible in most places.

During our phone conversation, the man explained that most of the dry riverbeds we passed had deteriorated over the years. He expressed regret, having witnessed a gradual reduction in their water levels year after year, with each dry spell lasting slightly longer than the previous one. “None of these rivers used to run dry. Growing up in this area, I have witnessed their volume decrease to concerning levels,” he mentioned as we sped past yet another fading river.

Shortly after we drove past the school he had enrolled in back when we gained independence as a country 60 years ago, with Emali now fully disappeared from our rearview mirrors, he declared our arrival. We exited our vehicles, and Mr Charles Mutuku graciously welcomed us into his home, where he began his story. His compound stood distinct from the surrounding ones, exemplifying a story of pristine air, a symphony of native birds and an abundance of trees adorning every inch of the property. In one corner, he pointed out a collection of leaves, meticulously preserved to make briquettes, an initiative to discourage the use of charcoal for burning.

Mr Mutuku, the founder and director of the Mandela Community Development Program (MCDP), has been at the forefront of the NGO’s operations since its establishment in 2005. The organisation’s primary objective is to address the adverse impacts of climate change through reforestation initiatives. This mission aligns with the Kenya government’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

When I inquired about his motivation, Mr Mutuku expressed his heartfelt desire to restore the verdant beauty of Makueni County, reminiscent of his childhood memories. Fondly recollecting those days, he recounted spending afternoons immersed in books, including the Bible, under the shade provided by abundant trees. He voiced his concern that if urgent action is not taken, the depletion of trees will leave future generations without any shade.

Mr Mutuku’s concerns are well-founded, considering the alarming rate at which the country’s forests have been diminishing. A recent report by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) highlights a significant decline of over 12 per cent in the nation’s forest cover within the past two decades. Furthermore, according to the Deforestation Statistics for Kenya published on Mongabay, Makueni County alone experienced a loss of 7.1 per cent of its forests between 2001 and 2020.

The organisation’s inaugural initiative, the Mandela Water Project, was a collaborative effort involving the Japan Embassy, the Tanathi Water Works Development Agency, the Postal Corporation of Kenya, and the Makueni Constituency Development Fund (CDF). This ongoing initiative provides water to approximately 2,000 individuals in the Matiliku Division of the Makueni Sub-County.

Following the successful implementation of the water project, MCDP shifted its focus toward forest restoration. In 2017, the NGO took a significant step by establishing a tree nursery in Kyeeko, Ngulwa village, Matiliku, and distributing seedlings to local schools and churches. Encouraged by these initial efforts, Mr Mutuku submitted a formal request to the KFS seeking land for reforestation purposes. His proposal was approved, resulting in a five-year lease agreement for 250 acres of degraded land on Nzaui Hills.

“KFS put us through a thorough verification process before finding us capable of handling the assigned potions,” he said.

Our next endeavour was to witness the planting process at Nzaui Hill, located 24km away from the group’s tree nursery.

“Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen through photosynthesis. By planting more trees, our initiative aims to increase the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere, thereby reducing our carbon footprint,” he explained.

 The group’s primary focus is restoring the Nzaui Hills forest in Makueni County and transforming it into a thriving carbon sink. In the past, the Nzaui Hills were adorned with lush trees, but years of charcoal burning and tree felling by the local community have left the hills barren.

Motivated by a deep passion for the environment and a profound understanding of the effects of climate change, Mr Mutuku set an ambitious goal of planting 100 million trees within the next four years. MCDP took significant strides toward this target by planting 9,280 seedlings during the March- April 2022 rainy season, achieving an impressive survival rate of 90 per cent. Additionally, they planted 43,000 more seedlings during the rainy season of October-December last year.

Continuing their momentum, MCDP planted 21,500 trees in the March- April rains and aims to plant an additional 15,000, pending the continuation of the rains. MCDP obtains seeds from local sources to keep costs low instead of relying on the Kenya Forestry Research Institute. This strategic approach ensures affordability without compromising the quality of the seedlings.