Kenya’s environment: The journey after independence

Jackson Ole Sapit

The head of the Anglican Church of Kenya Jackson Ole Sapit (left) and students plant tree seedlings at ACK Guest House in Makueni County on October 10, 2022. President William Ruto has said his government will plant five billion trees in the next five years, and an additional 10 billion by 2032.

Photo credit: Pius Maundu I Nation Media Group

The environment of a country speaks of the country’s environmental policies and the spirit of the day’s government towards the environment. Consequently, a clean environment testifies to a clean political mindset of the country’s leadership, while a dirty one translates to clatter and disorganization within a political system.

Kenya is renowned, the world over, for her rich biodiversity, majestic landscapes/seascapes and land formations, together with her cultural divergence and livelihoods.

 However, this great nation has had her ups and downs, as far as the environment is concerned, since independence, noting that Kenya gained independence from British rule on the 1st of June 1963 (Madaraka Day) and became a Republic on the 12th of December 1964 (Jamuhuri Day).

By independence, most of Kenya’s highland areas were occupied by white settlers, who mowed down huge amounts of natural forests to create vast farmlands and with the help of white saw millers, destroyed huge portions of the country’s indigenous vegetation.

 For the colonial government to institute the first shamba system regime in the country in 1910, it means that deforestation must have run away, together with wildlife crime, under the dark veil of sport hunting (mostly the big five) by rich white boys, who came from worlds yonder, to engage in flagrant hunting safaris.

The situation was worsened by cultural abuse of wildlife, where some Kenyan communities killed animals for trade products and ceremonial clothing. The colobus monkey (its skin) and the elephant (its tusks) suffered the most and it was not until 1976, after the birth of The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act (1976) that conservation efforts took centre stage, following the amalgamation of the then Game Department and the National Parks into one agency; The Wildlife Conservation and Management Department.


This is the current Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism; the organ in charge of Kenya’s 8% protected area, with relatives spanning three ministries namely: The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; The Ministry of Water and Sanitation and The Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development. Kenya suffered tremendous environmental degradation during colonialism and is still smarting from some of the damage meted on her geographical resources.

Independence was gained under President Jomo Kenyatta (the founding father of Kenya), who seemed to have been an environmentalist, for he converted some of the white settlers and game hunters, into mushy biophilics and conservationists.

On September 18, 1963, President Jomo Kenyatta vowed to conserve Kenya’s natural resources for the country’s posterity, a stand that pitted President Uhuru Kenyatta against conservationists over SGR’s passing through Nairobi National Park, in 2016, knifing it into two jacking up human-wildlife conflicts.

After the 1972 Stockholm Conference on The Human Environment, President Jomo Kenyatta ordered the establishment of the National Environment Secretariat (NES) in 1974 to operationalize the Stockholm Declaration and its Action Plan for the Human Environment.

Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi became the second President of Kenya between 1978 and 2002 and his 24-year reign was characterized by massive environmental conservation that constituted the building of gabions, planting trees, torching of confiscated elephant tusks and the war on poachers.

In March 1989, President Moi was the keynote speaker at the London ‘Save the Ozone Layer’ conference which was a convocation of 124 heads of state. The second President of Kenya is esteemed as a man who saw the future but once in a while, Siasa Mbaya begot Maisha Mbaya, when forests were axed off for settlement.

Environmental activities

In October 2001, for instance, the then Environment Minister, Noah Katana Ngala, ratified the order to ‘de-gazette’ 4 per cent of Kenya’s protected forest for settlement.

It was during President Moi’s era (The Nyayo Era) that National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) was conceived under Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act No. 8 0f 1999 (EMCA), as the principal instrument of the government for the implementation of all policies relating to the environment.

In 2002, Nema was born and has the mandate of supervising all environmental activities in Kenya, advising the government on environmental management, promoting the integration of environmental considerations into development policies, preparing an annual report on the state of the environment and proselytising environmental protection-among other functions.

The third President of Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013) was also quite the environmental conservator. In his economist mind, he saw to it that development projects upheld environmental conservation and were at the centre of climate change crusades. He urged governments to think green and comply with Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).

 He lead the debate on environmental governance, calling for the transformation of UNEP into a specialized UN agency, capable of addressing emerging environmental issues, globally. On 14th January 2004, President Kibaki inaugurated the WWF Eastern Africa Club in Nairobi and his own words, he advised Kenyans to ‘protect the environment or perish’.

Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta is the fourth president of Kenya (2013-2022) and like his predecessors, President Kenyatta was an environmentalist, who was endorsed as a Global Champion for Africa Adaptation Acceleration Programme world leaders on July 7, 2022, making him a climate change champion. Remembering the desert locust infestation of 2019, together with Covid-19 attack, President Kenyatta reminded Kenyans of the need to conserve the environment in light of the escalating environmental hazards.

Some of the notable environmental successes, during his leadership, include Kenya’s plastic ban, the attainment of 10 per cent national forest cover, the construction of dams to stem water paucity and on the flip side, a boomeranging national debt that is fuelling environmental destruction, as people look closer to nature for reprieve from the biting economic drought.

President William Ruto is the fifth and current president of Kenya. He is not only an environmentalist but a prominent climate change adaptation advocate. The Kenya Kwanza Manifesto, through its Bottom Up economic approach, has a whole chapter on the environment and climate change. Dr Ruto’s government plans to: Establish 5million acres of agroforestry woodlots in drylands; Scale up clean cooking technologies and use of clean energy; Promote proper waste management and circular economies and ‘Grow’ 15 million trees in three years (not merely plant them).


On May 19, 2023, the president spoke about Climo-finance and Climo-business- new terms that should be used to denote Climate Trade in their various forms. He also passionately appealed to Kenyans to walk the climate change talk or perish.

In the short time that President Ruto has been in power, he has created the Climate Change Department, under the Ministry of Environment and has also been personally involved in tree planting as he drives the National Programme for Accelerated Forestry and Rangeland Restoration -in an ambitious attempt to green Kenya and attain 30 per cent forest cover by 2032, besides create a cleaner and safer Kenya.

The President also created a four-member team Climate Change Council that is charged with ensuring that Kenya receives adequate climate change funding and directs counties to incorporate the implementation of the National Climate Change Action Policy (NCCAP) into their county-integrated development plans (CIDPs) and sector plans. When a president is directly engaged in environmental conservation in his country, there is hope for a better tomorrow.

Kenya, like the rest of the world, faces an upsurge in climate change and climate change-orchestrated disasters, coupled with emerging dynamic environmental concerns, hence the need for a conscious and concerted effort to mitigate pollution (land, water, air and noise), deforestation, climate change, water waste and environmental fraud.

Kenya has the singular responsibility of managing transboundary single-use plastic bags re-entry into the country and streamlining waste management, in a way that the country rises to the level of the developed countries and walks the circular economy talk.

The country, in her blitz against the risk multiplier climate change (and Global Warming) phenomenon, should not forget to address Biodiversity Losses, Ocean Acidification, Ozone Depletion, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), among other emerging environmental problems. Biodiversity creaks under the weight of overpopulation, human consumption, deforestation, global trade, urbanization and construction of infrastructure while Ocean acidification is charioted by plastic pollution, deforestation and thermal pollution.

As for Ozone Depletion, the black nation is lucky for its melanin but skin cancers may start soon as the ozone layer hole widens in the stratosphere, allowing the lethal UV radiation to freely enter the earth’s surface. The culprit here is the aerosols we use at home and Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from our industries. Persistent Organic Pollutants (Pops) are toxic chemicals that adversely affect human health and the environment.

They are transported mainly by water and wind, thus, POPs can travel across the globe, causing mayhem amidst innocent people and life. They also linger for a long in the environment, affecting several food chains and generations of people and species. The ‘dirty dozen’ of POPs include Dichlorodiphenyl, Aldrin, Endrin and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) among others. Antimicrobials are chemistries that are anti-infection, and anti-rot and include antibiotics, sanitisers, sterilizers and preservatives. AMR, thus, is resistant to all antimicrobials. It occurs when bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi mutate and no longer respond to medicines. This enhances the spread of diseases and can cause death. AMR is inculcated by misuse and overuse of antimicrobials, lack of clean water, poor sanitation and hygiene, poor disease control in health facilities and farms, poor diagnosis of diseases and lack of enforcement of legislation in relation to the use and disposal of antimicrobials.

Notably, Kenya is a signatory to several international environmental treaties and four MEAs including United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD); United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD) and Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Thus, with everyone on board, Kenya’s environmental future is luminous.  

Our environment, our life.

Dr. Loice Kipkiror is an Environmental consultant; a Lead Expert/Auditor in Environmental/ Social Impact Assessment. She is also a member of the Board of Directors at Nema.