Many people in Msambweni thought Salim Mwarima was crazy when he explained how growing trees along the coast line could help locals educate their children and feed their families through "carbon credits".
Years later, their project - aptly named Mikoko Pamoja (mangroves together) - is being hailed as a remarkable example of how research scientists can cooperate with communities to change lives.
The project, started in 2010 in Gazi Bay area in Msambweni, Kwale County, has grown a plantation of more than 10,000 mangroves at the coast.
Sales of carbon credits have provided the more than 3,000 residents with funding for a new school building, water pumps and sponsorships to support education of children.
The project is the brainchild of a research team from Edinburgh Napier University, led by Prof Mark Huxham, and Dr James Kairo from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, with backing from international NGOs including the Earthwatch Institute and the World Wildlife Fund, from UK insurer Aviva and from the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme, which is partly funded by NERC.
The research, which was also supported by the UK's department for international development, explored the ecological value and ecosystem recovery of mangroves, focusing on the coasts of Kenya.
Mangrove forests help prevent coastal erosion, filter pollutants, provide a safe haven for juvenile fish and are highly efficient carbon sinks, reducing the impact of carbon emissions.
“Many poor communities also rely on the trees for their livelihoods, for instance, for firewood,” reads the research report.
Despite these benefits, the research pointed out that mangrove forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate by coastal development, logging and fish farming.
“The research team examined factors such as mangroves’ carbon absorption, their value in terms of carbon credits, their function as sites for fish nurseries, the economic and social importance of the forests, and the constraints and opportunities for reforestation,” says the report.
The research led to the training of 46 African scientists in conservation and restoration techniques and the recruitment of more than 250 international conservation volunteers.
It also informed the Kenyan government’s conservation policies, providing data for a national mangrove plan.
The UK researchers further facilitated the creation of a Community Forest Association, which used new legal instruments to put control of the mangroves into the hands of the local communities.
The Mikoko Pamoja project led to the founding of the Association for Coastal Ecosystem Services, a charity aimed at conserving coastal habitats in tropical regions.Mikoko Pamoja project coordinator Salim Mwarima says that mangroves consume carbon dioxide emitted in the air five times more than any other terrestrial tree, therefore playing a great role in cleaning the air polluted by gases from industries and automotive.
The project, he says, has provided local investment from the sale of carbon credits.
Outcomes from the Mikoko Pamoja project over the past decade include restoration of 20 hectares of degraded land, training for hundreds of Kenyan schoolchildren and students, and the participation of more than 40 developing country researchers.
Mwarima says they have managed to plant mangroves on 117 acres of land and now they are selling carbon credits on the international market.
“The trees consume 2000 tonnes of carbon annually. Last year, the 117 acres of mangrove trees stored 2000 tonnes of carbon, which we sold at Sh1 million,” Mwarima says.
“Thirty two per cent of the funds goes directly to community development projects of their choices example we support education, we have water in two village courtesy of the funds already,” he says.
Another 36 per cent of the funds is used for community wages during planting, 21 per cent for coordinator of the project, six per cent is retained for association of coastal eco-systems to facilitate validation of the project for five years and six per cent for office expenses,” he added.
Mwarima says they plan to expand the area of mangrove plantation so that they can get more money in future.
The project was showcased in Paris, France, last year during the climate change talks.Mangrove research coordinator at KMFRI Dr James Kairu this was to encourage other countries to borrow a leaf from the Kwale project.
Kwale County government says it is keen to have the project expanded.
“This is a project we are determined as a county government to support because it is benefiting locals directly which conserving the environment,” said water executive Hemed Mwabuzo.