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Protecting Kenya’s sacred forests and changing people’s lives through ecotourism and village banking

 

For almost 20 years now, we’ve been working hard to promote the conservation of Kaya forests in Kenya, supporting local people to build their communities and protect their environment. Encouraging ecotourism helped bring in money to support people and nature, but communities still faced barriers. So here I explain how a Financial Services Association, set up with WWF’s support, is now growing year-on-year – helping to build communities and protect the beautiful Kaya forests, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A member of Kaya Kinondo Financial Services Association © WWF KenyaA member of Kaya Kinondo Financial Services Association © WWF Kenya

Ecotourism helps build communities and protect the forest

Whilst most of the ancient Kaya forests had already been declared as National Monuments under Kenyan law, about 15 years ago we realised we needed to find additional ways to make sure that these beautiful forests were being managed in a sustainable way. Giving them the status of National Monuments was just one way of conserving them, but we needed to find other ways to bring the communities they supported closer to them.

We soon realised that the communities living next to the forests were often very poor and highly dependent on the forests for their well-being. It was clear we needed to find a way of increasing the amount of money going directly to the people themselves and help them be more involved in the decisions about how the forests were managed. That’s why it was decided that a pilot ecotourism project was needed in one of the sacred Kaya forests. Soon, the project would see visitors paying to experience the sacred forest, meeting locals, and buying their goods, while some of the money raised would be used to support conservation work in the forest, which is reported to be home to 52 bird species and 192 plant species!

The sacred Kaya Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to rich wildlife and supports local communities © Cath Lawon / WWF-UKThe sacred Kaya Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to rich wildlife and supports local communities © Cath Lawon / WWF-UK

But we need to do more!

But after two years of piloting the project from 2001 to 2003, we found that that over 95% of the women involved with the project didn’t have access to commercial banks, so they had no way of saving the small amounts of income that they got from selling their handcrafts to tourists, dances and entry fees to the forest. As a result, they couldn’t borrow money either to support their families or develop their communities. We needed to do more! So in 2003, the Kaya Kinondo Financial Services Association was set up.

At the start, the Association had 125 members across two villages but since then, has expanded to cover the whole of the Kinondo area across 25 villages surrounding three forest blocks: Kaya Kinondo sacred forest, Kaya Muhaka sacred forest, and Gogoni Forest Reserve. By today, the Association serves over 4,000 members of the community, including 869 women, 779 men and 140 groups (which have an average of 20 members each). Since the first loans of £180 were given to five women, the Association has grown massively – in terms of membership, savings, and loans. In fact, last year the bank issued credit of over £160,000!

Kaya Kinondo Financial Services Association now has thousands of members © WWF KenyaKaya Kinondo Financial Services Association now has thousands of members © WWF Kenya

Changing lives in Kenya’s sacred forests

Most of the money is used to set up ‘micro-enterprises’ in the villages – things like food kiosks, buying and selling coconuts, motorbikes for taxi services, tree growing, setting up tree nurseries and improving farming practices. We’re also using loans from the bank to help communities implement the Clean Energy Village Initiative. With greater financial security, people have the opportunity to use natural resources in a more sustainable way. The Association also provides a really great way for us to engage with the communities on wider environmental and conservation issues.

Many people have had their lives changed completely because of the project. One of them is Rama Ismail, a young man from a very poor background. He used to sell freshwater to the local villages, getting around on an old bicycle which his father gave him, making just 50 Kenyan shillings, about 34p, a day. Today, five years after joining the village bank, Rama owns three motorcycles and a tuktuk which he uses to provide transport services in the villages. He now earns at least 2,000 Kenyan shillings, about £13, every day. He is also an employer now – with three other young men working with him! Isn’t that incredible?

Kenya's ancient and beautiful forests support rich biodiversity and communities to thrive in harmony © iStockKenya’s ancient and beautiful forests support rich biodiversity and communities to thrive in harmony © iStock

Your support helps people and nature to thrive in harmony

Rama’s life, and the lives of so many people like him, would be very different were it not for the continued support of WWF-UK and Size of Wales. Your support helps us in WWF Kenya to work with many more communities near important conservation areas to protect the environment and improve their lives, helping turn WWF’s mission of a world where people and nature thrive in harmony into a reality.

WWF’s work in Boni-Dodori is supported by Size of Wales and the UK Government through the Darwin Initiative and the Department for International Development.

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