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Interview with Konza Greens in Kenya

By: Ava H.

As an intern at Green Schools Alliance, I was able to interview the amazing Sammy Mutua about his tree-planting initiative in Kenya. Already, his organization Konza Greens has planted over 3000 trees, compensating 562,000 kilograms of CO2!

1. ) Where did you grow up? What it was like there, what the landscape looked like, and what experiences shaped you to be the person you are today?

I am a PK (Pastor’s Kid) and the second last born in a family of 10 siblings (5 boys and 5girls). Among my siblings, I would say, me together with my youngest sister spent quality time with our parents, however sometimes she would visit our elder sisters who were already married and living with their families far away. This meant I spent a lot of time with my parents alone that were very strict but this severance ensured I did not get into trouble or get involved with the wrong company of boys of my age. Between my dad and mum, I was very close to my mother who ensured I was well behaved and disciplined by keeping a close eye on me, teaching me strong values that I hold up to date while occasionally reporting me to my father when I was out of hand which usually led to serious reprimand from him.

I grew up in Kamuthini, a remote rural village in Kenya’s Makueni County in the Lower Eastern part of the country. Growing up in the village was not easy though. My childhood memories of receiving elementary education in a local school, herding cows and fetching water in the river while watering the family herd are still fresh in my mind today.

The village I come from is in an area that scarcely receives rainfall and is exposed to recurring droughts. Thus, drought and famine frequently used to hit our communities leaving us without food and water for many months or years depending on the intensity and length of the drought episode. More often than not, during such periods, we would survive on one meal a day. I still remember the day, when I came home from grazing our cows and my mother announced we were going to sleep without food because she had nothing to fix us for dinner.

I guess this experience shaped my career path in Water Engineering and later on, in Disaster Risk Management (including droughts among other risks that exposes vulnerable communities to untold suffering in Africa). Indeed when I started my career path, I never settled down until I made sure that two community water points were rehabilitated and expanded to meet the immediate water needs of the mothers and children in my village and ensured that relief food assistance was available for the most vulnerable households during the years that had the worst droughts.

2. ) For people who don't know much about Kenya, what would you like us to know about it?

2.1. About Kenya

Kenya is an amazing country with a landscape of extreme contrasts and a people with a modern culture born out of the influence of being at the hub of centuries old trading and migratory routes in the Eastern African Region.

Kenya straddles the Equator, and is located on the eastern coast of Africa. Roughly one and half times the size of Japan, it covers a surface area of about 586,600 square kilometers. It is bordered by Somalia to the east, Ethiopia and Sudan to the north, Uganda to the west and Tanzania to the south. Kenya has a single time zone, GMT +3.

The Location of Kenya on the map of African Continent

Kenya's highest mountain, Mount Kenya, is also the second highest mountain on the African continent with an altitude of 5,199m (17,058 feet) above sea level. Despite its location astride the Equator Mount Kenya is perennially snow-capped. Kenya has a coastline on the Indian Ocean and is encompassed of savannah, Lakelands, the dramatic Great Rift Valley and mountain highlands. The most barren and remote areas are found mainly in the north and eastern parts of the country. Desert and semi-desert make up 20 percent of the country’s total surface area.

2.2. Wild life

Kenya is famous, above all else, for its incredible game viewing opportunities since it is home to a variety of wildlife including the big five (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino) and is the only country in the world with a National park in its capital city Nairobi.

Most can be seen in Kenya's savannah bush-land. The Country has 16 major faunal reserves designated as National parks, National Reserves and Game Reserves. Kenya's largest National Park is Tsavo, which is in fact made up of two Parks-Tsavo East and Tsavo West. Their combined area is that of Wales! The Masai Mara is possibly the world’s most famous Game Reserve. It is an extension of the equally renowned Serengeti plains in neighboring Tanzania. The annual wildebeest migration, which takes place between July and November every year, involves nearly three million animals moving up from the dry, low-lying Tanzanian plains to the greener, wetter pastures of the Mara, nearly 2,000m above sea level. Other Parks and Reserves in Kenya include; Amboseli, Samburu, Shaba, Buffalo Springs, and Meru.

Photos showing wildebeest migration in Maasai – one of the wonders of the world.

Millions of people visit Kenya each year to see its endless savannah and the animals that inhabit it: elephants, cheetahs, lions, giraffes, zebras, hippos, rhinos and more. The Kenyan government has set up more than 50 game reserves and parks to protect these animals. People hoping to spot some amazing African wildlife usually focus on Kenya’s lowland savannah. But Kenya’s ecosystems also include deserts, swamps, mountains and forests. Each region has its own mix of plants and animals that are suited to the area’s particular conditions. Kenya’s highland forests are home to many animals found nowhere else in the world!

2.3. Culture

Kenya's modern culture was born out of a myriad of sources and influences, both modern and traditional. Despite the many and varied influences that have shaped Kenyan society, the culture in Kenya has become truly and purely Kenyan. If there is any one thing about Kenya that gives any indication of this unique character today, it is the melding of traditional societies and culture with modern norms and values.

In Kenya it is possible to leave Nairobi - a city with a thriving central business district powered by the latest information technology - and drive in just a couple of hours to a place where life is lived in accordance with tradition and custom, where warriors armed with spears drive their cattle into thorn bush enclosures to protect them from lions at night. The modern and the traditional live side by side, and sometimes the boundaries between the two blur and merge.

The ease with which Kenyans adopt and adapt to new cultural influences has a long history. Kenyan culture is built on the acceptance and absorption of new and varied cultures, be they migrant nomads or sea-borne traders. The result is a culture of endless influence and yet one that is completely Kenyan in character.

2.4. Climate

Kenya is a warm, dry country with seasonal rainfall. Rain falls mainly in two seasons: the first between March and May (the long rains) as a result of the South-easterly monsoon winds; the second in October/December (short rains). The Coastal region tends to be humid and hot.

The central highlands receive the most rainfall and tend to be cool, due to the high altitude. The Lake Victoria basin is wetter, owing to the moist westerly winds originating in the Atlantic and Congo Basin.

To the North and Northeast, it is extremely dry and hot, with daytime temperatures exceeding 34 degrees. The Suguta Valley in northern Kenya is reputed to be one of the hottest places on earth.

Mount Kenya is glaciated, with a snowcap all year round. Frost occurs in most areas in Kenya, which are above 2,500m.

2.5. Forests Cover

Indigenous forest only covers two per cent of the country; well below the optimum 10 per cent figure. Much of this forest is in the high-altitude central highlands, and on isolated mountains whose altitude is suitable for indigenous forest. Over 80% of Kenyan rural households rely on wood as a source of fuel either as firewood or charcoal. The charcoal industry is a leading contributor to job creation, employing approximately 700,000 people, and estimated to support between 2.3 – 2.5 million dependents. This has immensely contributed to continued destruction of the environment and any solution in place must take into account the delicate balance between environmental reservation and protection of livelihoods of vulnerable communities.

This calls for promotion of alternative energy sources for cooking and lighting, to address the over reliance on wood fuel which is associated with deforestation and forest degradation which contributes to the growing threat of global warming. This also provides a good evidence of the need for planting trees to cater for the needs of the growing Kenyan youthful population.

3.) What do you like to do when you are not working on a project?

I love reading books, traveling, visiting game parks and offering professional services in the areas of my career specialization.

4.) When did you first become interested in trees/ tree planting? Did something inspire you?

I owe all this to my late mother. She really loved planting trees, especially fruit trees for her grandchildren and trees that provide shade in our family compound up to date. Our village experiences long hot and dry seasons every year. Her church friends would seat and sing beautiful songs under the shed of these trees when they came visiting during hot days. Since my parents were pastors, we used to get a lot of visitors from their church congregation; either to seek spiritual guidance/support or advice, others would come for counseling especially ladies among many other church matters. No doubt, my mother imparted me with a lifetime discipline and commitment of planting trees,- as a source of community, to me, trees bring people together. What started, as a mother’s ‘discipline curriculum’ for her last-born son, slowly became - a lifestyle and passion.

I remember the first tree I planted like it was yesterday; it was on my 9th birthday. My mother asked me in the morning on my 9th birthday, “how old are you now Samuel?” I knew it was the start of a serious conversation when my mother referred to me as Samuel. “Am turning 9 and today is September 19th my birthday” I replied to my mother…..And then she was like…. ‘Happy birthday Samuel, to remember this important day in your life, I want you to plant 9 trees which I brought for you yesterday on that side of the family compound’… this started off my tree planting journey.

On my 10th birthday, my mum made slight adjustments to my birthday commemoration; ‘How old are you now Samuel? She asked.... ‘10 years mum’ I replied. …..”Which class are you in?” “I am in class 4’….why?” I asked. ….. “I want you to plant 14 trees this year, 10 trees to mark your birthday plus another 4 to

mark your new grade in school”. This cycle would continue on all my birthdays until I joined a boarding secondary school, unfortunately I was in school during my birthdays but, I would plant a tree or two when I went home for holidays. That’s how I got inspired in tree planting. I owe it to my mother. May Her Soul continue to Rest in Peace! Today, my daughter Marlyne still teases me on my birthday, she reminded me about this historical routine, 2 weeks ago when I was celebrating my birthday... “Dad …. Happy birthday … Here is your birthday gift …. But remember Grandma’s terms and conditions”. … She teased me. I am glad she has taken after my mother on this. - she plants trees every year not necessarily in that order… but she has kept the legacy alive and am glad she loves it! I still remember 2 magnificent trees, which she planted before she travelled to pursue her studies in Australia. They give evidence of an institutional statement of the tree-planting legacy running in the family.

5.) Do you feel there is a lack of education about the link between climate change and droughts in nearby rural communities? If so, do you have recommendations for us to fix this? What would you like our readers to know?

Climate change has become a major concern in Kenya, rural communities are struggling to cope with the changing temperatures and rainfall patterns and increased flood and drought risks. These changes pose a serious threat to food security.

At the same time, efforts to both adapt to and mitigate climate change can bring substantial development benefits for such communities. Indeed today, there is a big disconnect on the understanding of the changing climate and droughts. I see that especially among the rural communities living close to our tree nursery. This is partly attributable to lack of awareness on how their own human activities, especially in the cutting down of trees without planting more have impacted the deterioration of their own environment. This has contributed to the long and recurring droughts in our area, which has seriously affected the livelihoods of many families. To fix this problem, I would strongly recommend awareness/education about the critical inter-linkages between climate change and the recurring droughts that have continued to ravage our communities for years. This needs to be explained in simple language that the rural folks can understand and identify themselves with. Once this is understood, these communities could then be assisted to implement interventions that can contribute to reverse the prevailing situation. This could include: planting of trees, adaptation of climate smart livelihoods, introduction and promotion of energy saving cooking stoves (this will significantly reduce cutting down of trees – a key source of energy for cooking in most rural communities), and deliberate involvement of youth. Youth involvement in this process will ensure long-term continuity of the community climate adaptation efforts and interventions particularly, the planting of trees.

5.1 Why do communities cut down trees?

Poor families in most communities including in our area cut down trees to get wood, which is mainly used for cooking in most rural homes or prepare charcoal for sale. Charcoal trade is a source of income for many families who then use the money to meet their daily family needs

such as food and taking their children to school. This means that there is a tricky balance between survival of community livelihoods and conservation of the environment. Unfortunately, this far, vulnerable poor communities do not have sufficient capacity to cope with, or adapt to, the adverse effects of extreme weather conditions, especially drought. Drought leads to low crop productivity, limited pasture for livestock and water shortages. This results in chronic food insecurity among rural poor households practicing subsistence farming in my community and negatively affecting the sustainability of their livelihoods. This calls for deliberate intervention strategies to help these rural folks strike a sustainable balance between community livelihood survival practices and environmental conservation. Indeed, this could contribute in minimizing the impact of climate change in these communities in the long run.

5.2. How can this be fixed?

The following are some interventions that could fix the problem of cutting trees in my community:

  • Promotion and supporting the planting of trees in community schools: Continue the education and creating awareness on the value and importance of planting trees – working with school pupils/students as change agents to their communities.

  • Support schools to access sufficient planting tree seedlings – This will ensure that every student can plant and take care of at least 2 tree seedlings per year in their school compound. The expected impact- for example – if a school has 300 students, this will translate to 600 trees every year.

  • Rain Water harvesting in schools: Support community schools to procure water storage tanks to enable them harvest rainwater from the roofs of their school buildings. This will provide drinking water for the students and watering of the young planted tree seedlings.

  • Child support in education: Support school fees for children from extreme poor families to enable them to access education. Beneficiary communities of sponsored children could be encouraged to plant and take care of trees at their own family homes- looks insignificant but, collectively - it will make a big difference in addressing the impact of climate change in future.

  • Support establishment of Climate Smart Villages in rural communities: Promote household water harvesting where each household owns a hand dung water holding structure (pond) for harvesting surface water run-off when it rains –The family will use this water to grow high value crops like vegetables etc under irrigation as a Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) drought adaptive farming strategy. These farmers could be supported with working tools, planting seeds and training on adaptive farming methods.

  • Energy cooking stoves: provide households with energy cooking stoves to minimize the cutting down of trees for cooking energy.

  • Support in marketing of women crafts from rural communities: Around our tree nursery we have 2 communities, the Maasai and Kamba. These women use different crafting methods as a source of income. For example the Maasai women craft and make handmade jewelry while the Kamba women weave baskets and mats. Money realized from these initiatives will go to economic empowerment of these women and planting trees in their community.

6.) How did you create such a detailed and insightful knowledge database for Tree Nation?

After many years of planting trees, I realized that to sustain a long-term commitment on planting trees, I must have a sustainable source of seedlings. Unfortunately, when I was growing up (the annual birthday celebration my mother set –up for me), there used to be a big challenge in getting tree planting seedlings and my mother used to travel about 15km one way to get the planting tree seedlings. This experience encouraged me to set up a tree nursery to ensure constant supply of planting materials for my community. It is from our vibrant activities taking place in this tree nursery where I am able to post updates of our tree planting efforts on our Konza Tree Nursery webpage hosted free of charge by Tree Nation. I am grateful to Tree Nation for this opportunity to get our tree planting efforts out there.

6.1. How has it helped others learn more about tree species and reforestation?

Konza Tree Nursery has immensely contributed in tree planting culture in my community. We often post and share the names of the different tree species available in our tree nursery throughout the year. We also try to make sure we provide the local names of our trees so that our communities or followers can easily identify the species that are adaptive to their area, the potential benefits of the different tree species e.g, timber, shade, construction posts, medicinal value, trees among other many species including tree species that have attractive flowers for bees – yielding good honey. We have planted trees in many community schools and we also have received many school visits coming to learn about different tree species in our tree nursery. This provides an excellent opportunity for students to learn more about different species of trees. For example last year, with support from the 8 billion based in Las Vegas, we planted over 5000 trees in 15 community/public schools through our #greenschoolsinitiative and for this - we are extremely grateful to Jon Chambers the CEO of 8 billion trees for this support trees-partners-with-konza-greens-to-plant-trees-and-educate-the-youth

This year we have received many more requests for tree seedlings from new schools who want to plant trees and we are expecting these requests to surge when schools reopen in 2 weeks time, after they were forced to close down from April because of the COVID-19 global crisis. Again, in the midst of the coronavirus, 8 billion further supported us to plant another 1000 seedlings with one of our vibrant Maasai women groups along with another 2 more groups of women from our other neighboring communities. We are also grateful to 8 billion for accepting to promote the marketing and advertisement of handmade jewelry and bracelets from Maasai women on their website. While this effort has not received funding yet, the concept is quite exciting, especially in the promotion of economic empowerment among the Maasai women while at the same time support the planting of trees in their community.

6.2. Maasai Women planting Trees

6.2.1. The concept on the Maasai hand made Jewelry and tree planting

If Maasai women are afforded a reliable and sustainable market for their traditional artwork and jewelry products, then these women who are highly gifted in crafting colorful handmade jewelry and other cultural artworks - will experience alternative sources of income and stop cutting down trees to support the livelihoods of their families.

Maasai women planting trees in

their community. This was made

possible with support from 8

billion trees.

7.) What was your journey to get where you are today?

It has been tough; I come from a region in Kenya, which is semi-arid (receives limited rainfall). In fact, our tree nursery is located close to the borders of 3 counties (Kajiado, Makueni and Machakos). Communities living in these 3 counties more often than not, experience recurring droughts, which undermines the livelihoods of many poor families. This has witnessed an upsurge in cutting down of trees to make charcoal, which is sold to provide income to buy food and educate their children. This trade has serious environmental ramifications in the long term and our #greenschoolsinitiative was motivated by this challenge. This movement was put in place to educate the youth on the value of trees and give them an opportunity to appreciate how trees are interconnected with a sustainable environment for the future; a future that largely belongs to them. Thus taking charge of their own destiny. Additionally my hands-on experience from my childhood up-bringing where my mother- taught me how to plant trees, I have learnt that children and youth learn best when they are socialized to do things or participate in doing things with their own hands. Hence, our rallying call and motto- #greenschoolsinitiative where each student in our partner schools, not only plants a tree/s but also takes care of the tree/s she/he has planted.

I am excited that this tree planting culture has already started to trickle down to the families of the participating students and now to their own communities. Today we have 3 women groups in 3 respective communities from the 3 counties of Makueni, Machakos and Kajiado who are working with us to plant trees in their own communities. To create awareness on tree planting and continue to deepen the culture of tree planting among our youth and target communities, each tree planting exercise is presided with a general awareness and campaign on the value of trees.

8.) What have been the biggest challenges?

Water is a big problem in our area and indeed in our targeted communities. The biggest challenge was initially establishing a reliable source of water for growing and nurturing the tree seedlings in our Nursery in order to start off the project, I used family savings to drill a 215M deep-water borehole, which supplies water to the tree nursery.

8.1. Greatest successes? – To see school students/pupils actively participating in planting trees in their schools is a great success and indeed gives me a lot of satisfaction. This, closely followed with the increased awareness on tree planting in their own families and communities especially among the pastoral Maasai communities from the neighboring Kajiado County, is extremely exciting to me. Most of the time, when I help other mothers and their children appreciate the planting of trees, I silently reflect on the teachings from my mother.

9.) What are your dreams regarding your tree planting project?

I would really love to see every student/ child from at least 100 schools planting a tree/s in their school compound and planting a similar number of trees or more back at their own homes and in their own communities. Seeing children becoming agents of change in the restoration of the environment in their communities is a worthy dream. These are my dream tree ambassadors of tomorrow.

10.) How can people help your cause?

The uppermost environmental priority in the areas around Konza area where our tree/plant nursery is located is to try to arrest the prevalent degradation of the environment by supporting and promoting a ‘culture of tree planting’ among children in public schools. We envisage this approach will contribute in the long-term restoration of the currently destroyed environment and gradually address the prevailing climate variability, which is seriously impacting on the lives of our local communities who are not privileged with resources or know how to navigate their lives in the midst of the changing climate in the world. These communities, by all means would require to be empowered on adaptive livelihood strategies and opportunities to actively participate in reversing the impact of the prevailing climate change. To arrest this situation:

  • We are looking for support to continue promoting tree planting in order to restore the environment and increase green cover, provide shade, enhance nutrition through additional planting of suitable fruit trees and create the right environment to clean air in our community schools public spaces.

  • Further, we would like to support local communities to also plant trees in their homesteads to take care of family daily cooking energy needs while at the same time conserving the environment. Most of these communities are poor and would really benefit if supported/ assisted to access planting tree seedlings and other alternative livelihoods. Fruit trees will not only provide family nutrition but also alternate sources of income from the sale of surplus fruits.

  • The second objective in our tree-planting project is to support and strengthen the establishment of green clubs in 50 community schools located within a 25kms radius of Konza Greens Tree Nursery. This will include supporting and educating students/pupils from these schools on environmental conservation, and supplying these schools with tree seedlings and other supporting materials to nurture the planted seedlings that will gradually change the landscape of every targeted school in this project to a green school.

  • In addition, the project will create awareness among teachers and parents to appreciate the benefits of restoring the degraded surrounding environment. It is envisioned that a healthy tree cover will not only restore the destroyed environment in the targeted communities and schools, but pupils/students from these schools will grow-up knowing & appreciating the value of trees and environmental conservation. It is anticipated that, once the planted trees are fully-grown, they will moderate temperature extremes and improve air quality in participating community schools.

To achieve the above - people can help in the following:

  • Adapt schools to strengthen tree-planting efforts in community schools: Continue the education and create awareness on value and importance of planting trees using school pupils/students as change agents to their communities.

  • Support or provide Child sponsorship for education: for children from extreme poor families to enable them access education and in return - encourage them to plant and take care of trees in their own family homes and gradually contribute in addressing the impact of climate change in their community.

  • Support community schools to purchase Rain Water harvesting storage tanks: A water storage tank of 10,000Lts would cost about $1000. 3 tanks per school would be sufficient to provide enough water for drinking, cooking, school and pupil hygiene and watering of the young tree seedlings when planted.

  • Support schools to access sufficient tree plantings seedling: Ensures that every student can plant and take care of at least 2 tree seedlings per year in their school compound. Initially targeting 50 schools within a radius of 25km from our Tree Nursery. Most tree seedlings would cost between 0.5$ - 1$.

  • Support about 500 families to acquire -working tools: These tools will be used to dig ‘water-storage ponds’ for harvesting surface water run-off during the rainy season. Adequate tools for a family would cost about 30$. Additionally, each family could be provided with a ‘plastic water pond liner’ to line up their ponds and ensure water collected in the pond doesn’t seep through the soil. The Dam liner will cost about 200$ for per pond. This initiative could provide poor families with water to grow Nutritious food especially vegetables throughout the year. This will create climate smart families consequently leading to climate smart villages and gradually contribute in building climate smart communities. Thus ensuring no child will sleep hungry or go to school without something to eat.

  • Support families to construct energy saving stoves – this will reduce the amount of energy required for cooking in a family. The construction of an energy saving cooking stove would cost between 20 $ - 50$ depending on size.

  • Consider Supporting 8 billion trees in marketing of our Maasai women handmade jewelry: If this initiative is supported, Maasai women will earn a decent living from their hand made jewelry while at the same time continue planting trees in their communities.

11.) What advice would you give young people who care about sustainability and want to help change the world, like you are?

The future belongs to them, they should get actively engaged in matters that they believe have a long term impact on their present and future lives. They should be the voices of the voiceless. They should appreciate that with the present means of communication, the world today is gradually becoming a small village; it is possible to reach out to other young people who have similar views and goals across the world and share ideas. There is no other world to run to. They must stand up and say no to Government policies that have a negative global impact on the environment. And above all, stay away from trouble, especially drugs that can seriously erode their capacity to make informed decisions. Each young person must remain focused and work hard so that they can leave behind a better world than they found. They should not tire to dream, because all genuine dreams are valid and they should pursue them to their logical conclusion. Finally, they should plant at least one tree every year. Imagine if every young person could plant a tree every year, the world would be green, global warming and climate change would be controlled and may be stopped.

Students from one of the

girl Schools pose for a

photo before they

proceeded on a tree

planting exercise at their


School students walk to the planting site after collecting tree seedlings supported by 8 billions trees.

The leaders of the Maasai women group who make handmade bracelets and also participate in the planting of trees in their community - dressed in their traditional colors.

The Proposed Improved Cooking Stove

The traditional open three-stone stove fueled by wood which is currently being used for cooking food in the community- this system uses a lot of firewood to prepare food – leading to excessive cutting down of trees to sustain household cooking energy needs.

Below are examples of different shapes of improved cook stoves locally-made of clay or bricks that caters for various size pots for cooking and heating water. This type of cooking stoves reduces fuel consumption by improved combustion and improved heat transfer. This will directly reduce the amount of firewood used for cooking – and consequently save the lives of many trees.

Huge thank you to Sammy Mutua for partaking in this interview!! We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors!


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