August 10, 2015

An Interview with an EcoAg Partner: KENVO’s Leah Mwangi

Krista HeinerEcoAgriculture Partners Leah Mwangi

In 2014, EcoAgriculture Partners’ Krista Heiner sat down with Leah Mwangi of KENVO in Kenya to discuss KENVO’s relationship with the Kenyan government, the challenges they face, and their hopes for the future. What follows is an edited transcript of excerpts from their conversation.

KENVO (Kijabe Environment Volunteers), a Kenyan organization created in 1994, is comprised of residents in communities bordering the Kereita Forest. This area is vital to the livelihoods of local populations but has suffered from over-cultivation and deforestation. To conserve the rich biodiversity and natural resources of the area, KENVO works with local communities and partners to implement conservation projects, such as school outreach programs, tree planting, ecotourism ventures, community organizing workshops, and environmental research. The organization coordinates and advocates for local stakeholders – including youth and small farmers – to garner government support for sustainable activities. By engaging in a wide variety of programs, KENVO improves community participation in conservation work and creates opportunities for environmentally-friendly income generation. Beyond their direct community work, KENVO also engages the government on national policy formation, advocating for institutional change and serving on several local and national committees.

KENVO’s Relationship with the Government

“One of our objectives was to supplement or complement the government efforts towards conservation of the forest. I think one of the best [policies] that ever came was the Forest Act that embraced community participation. We are happy to say the participatory forest management approach was piloted here in Keirita because of the presence of KENVO. The community and even the government officers in those days looked at KENVO as interfering with their work. But they no longer look at it as interfering, they look at it as we are actually supplementing their conservation effort. It’s very hard to find a government officer who is in conflict with what we are doing, actually sometimes we are not able to meet the demand.

“The government is also providing some financial support toward some of the activities we do and the projects that we do. We have twice received a grant from the Community Development Trust Fund which is a government initiative in partnership with the European Union.

“There are also awards. We have gotten our certificates from the National Environment Management Authority recognizing what we do. The Ministry of Agriculture for the last two years has awarded KENVO a certificate of recognition for contributing to agriculture in terms of improving the the food security status. So such small recognitions actually makes us feel, yes, we are doing something because the government is actually appreciating that.”

Funding Challenges and Volunteers

“So volunteerism is actually the backbone of the organization. For almost six seven years, we operated with no external financing apart from the membership fee and we ourselves volunteering, ourselves doing some of the work. That has become a very strong foundation for this organization and that keeps our work going, like the tree nurseries. We have three tree nurseries, some with over 20 thousand seedlings, which means the human resources needed is quite high, but they’re normally managed by volunteers. For a very long time KENVO has operated as a community-based organization. Sometimes the level of funding is limited because of the status of the organization. We are currently transforming into a trust that will enable us to actually now maybe access a higher level of funding.

“It’s only the youth exchange program that is normally renewed after every five years. A lot of the members of Kenvo are young people and we work a lot with the youth because all along young people have been left out of decision-making and they’re not seen as people who can do anything positive. All our other projects are short-term, many times one to two years. If we had a multi-year donor, that helps us to be able to plan ahead because I know I have resources to cover my work for the next five years rather than one year or two year projects and then they don’t support again. So sometimes you have a very short project. You start something and then along the way the funds are over. And you had already started the work of the community, but then they are left. ‘What happened?’ you actually sometimes find them asking you. ‘What happened to what you started?’”

Corruption

“The lack of enforcement of policies and rules affects our work, like forest rehabilitation. People will forego even going to church (even if you are a Christian) on Sunday to go and do tree planting, only for you to find two weeks down the road they have all been destroyed by livestock animals, when in the first place you are not allowed to take your animals into the forest if you’re not herding them. But they are going through the gates and there are guards there, but there’s no enforcement of the rules. That becomes very discouraging to part of the team. We can’t rule out corruption. We are sorry to say there is corruption within the government institutions so that you still find—in a very hidden way—there are those who are still illegally getting products from the forest through corruption. So that, again, affects and discourages mainly our volunteers.

“If the government can be able to support the establishment of information centers at the locational levels that would help in information dissemination and that would help in communities accessing crucial information so that they are aware of some of the policies that they are expected to operate within.”

Opportunities: Financing and Collaboration

“I think the benefits of conservation also need to trickle down to support conservation. Having a percentage of revenue generated from natural resources allocated for conservation so that, at least at the local level, we have a fund that can support what we do, rather than us relying on writing proposals to actually get funds from international donors, and sometimes it’s very hard to come by.

“Environmental education programs in schools is one of our programs that is always underfunded. We’ve never had the funds to support environmental education, yet when you go to the schools they are demanding for it. One of the things I find interesting is that the government has started what they are calling the economics students program which was supporting environmental conservation at school levels. It was implemented independently without bringing on good partners like us. And now of late there is a green schools initiative. My feeling is that if government can collaborate with an institution like KENVO that has been learning environmental education, instead of starting afresh, the funds can go into making a better impact, because you’ll just upscale what has been happening.

“When they start realizing it’s not me as KENVO doing my small thing here in the landscape and me as a water resource user doing my small thing here, if we all come together we can be able to do a major thing. That is going to help a lot because we all need to have a common approach and we all take the credit.”

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