Mangrove restoration changing the face and fortunes of a Mombasa village

Volunteers for the mangrove eco-restoration project in Mkupe, Mombasa County during a mangrove planting exercise in Mkupe, Miritini, Mombasa County


What you need to know:

  • The repercussions were colossal. Locals of this fishing community watched helplessly as the mangrove cover disappeared, and with it, the fish.
  • This is what pushed Steve Misati, a data scientist, to set up Youth Pawa, a mangrove restoration project.

Almost unnoticed red crabs peep through the moist burrows along the muddy shores, as birds chirp, hopping from branch to branch of shrubby mangrove trees. This breathtaking sight, signifying a high abundance of species and a stable ecosystem, is a new dawn for locals of Mkupe village in Miritini, Mombasa County. Just a few years ago, these red beauties were uncommon here.

This is because for years, mangrove trees have been harvested in an unsustainable manner, which led to massive destruction of these forests. The trees provided low-cost and long-lasting wood for building material, as locals depended on this resource to build boats and houses.

“The period between 1985 and 2009 saw the country lose 20 percent of its mangroves mainly through deforestation. In the long run, excessive deforestation of mangrove forest left the shorelines bare, soil loose as the marine species faced the dangers of extinction,” explains Kevin Lunzalu, a marine ecologist and marine science & oceanography Fellow, New York Academy of Sciences.

The repercussions were colossal. Locals of this fishing community watched helplessly as the mangrove cover disappeared, and with it, the fish. This is what pushed Steve Misati, a data scientist, to set up Youth Pawa, a mangrove restoration project. That was in 2019, and just four years down the line, tens of thousands of mangrove trees that had been destroyed through logging, have been restored.

With over 80 volunteers involved, so far they have planted over 20,000 mangrove trees, and restored 5.8 hectares of degraded land. “By the end of 2021 when we officially launched the project, we had planted a total of 6,300 seedlings, and then set a target of sowing 10,000 mangrove trees yearly,” explains Misati.

The restoration has had a tremendous impact on the biodiversity of the area. It has led to the conservation and recovery of plant and animal species that depend on these ecosystems. “The result has been increased biodiversity, benefiting both local and migratory species such as birds and butterflies,” explains Misati.

“We have started seeing once disappeared marine animals like fish, crabs, shrimps and prawns, coming back to the shores, and this of course is good news to us locals here, who depend on fishing,” says Athumani Mwero, a local fisherman and the project’s community lead.

According to Lunzalu, restored mangroves create breeding, feeding, and nesting grounds for marine species.
“Also, apart from being important carbon sinks, they shield villages from coastal floods by absorbing water during storm surges and heavy rains, cushioning coastal communities from adverse impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise that threatens to displace them.”

It was such an impact that saw Misati receive international recognition, winning The Stem Prize 2022 from the Iris Project. The Iris Project is a 10,000 dollar global award programme to celebrate, reward, and support young people who are accelerating action to protect and restore nature as a core solution to the climate crisis.

“The project has 33 community members who have played a role in creating awareness and training the community on both restoration and conservation of the coastal ecosystem,” expounds Misati.
He says, community engagement in decision-making processes has ensured their voices are heard and valued, and in so doing, the project respects and preserves cultural heritage.

Lunzalu insists the importance of local communities in such restoration initiatives. “They should be at the frontline because they directly depend on the mangrove trees for shelter, food, economic gains, and social value. Furthermore, these communities have interacted with mangroves long enough to deeply understand the best practices that can help conserve the species for future generations.”

The project heavily relies on indigenous knowledge in order to push for local climate action. “The local knowledge informs us on site selection, and best restoration techniques by drawing on insights about historical mangrove distribution and effective traditional practices. The local community's familiarity with the flora and fauna of the mangrove ecosystem has also contributed to species identification and monitoring efforts.”

On the other hand, through education and sensitisation, community members' have sharpened their knowledge and skills, and this has empowered them to actively participate in conservation efforts.
Ali Bengi Karisa, a local environmentalist and a community member says, “We’ve had experts coming in and teaching us about the different species of mangroves, and where they thrive well. For instance, we have known that rhizophora species thrive in brackish water and in swampy salt marshes. This expert knowledge has come in handy, in that there is order and more expertise in planting the mangroves.”

In August 2022, The Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute(KEMFRI) came into the picture to provide scientific expertise and to find ways of integrating the local and scientific knowledge.