How Mombasa’s beach yoghurts powered a Kenyan reforestation drive

As the world’s mangrove swamps keep disappearing and beaches face mounting waste, a Kenyan environmental group is rising to the challenge.

Volunteers with the Kenyan environmental group Big Ship planting seedlings in yoghurt cups found on beaches during a reforestation drive in Mombasa, Kenya
Volunteers with the Kenyan environmental group Big Ship planting seedlings in yoghurt cups found on beaches during a reforestation drive in Mombasa, Kenya [File: Jackson Ambole/Al Jazeera]

Mombasa, Kenya – Hesbon Mwarabu has worked as a beach guide and fisherman in the coastal city of Mombasa for so long that the 54-year-old feels wedded to the ocean. He was only 20 when his father, also a fisherman, introduced him to the trade that has helped Mwarabu build a house for his family and educate his four children.

A decade ago, the beaches and ocean were regularly full of all types of waste, especially plastics. So he and other fishermen were forced to pick waste, even from the ocean.

Mwarabu was worried that regular pollution of the ocean and its surroundings was hurting the marine ecosystem that his life revolves around – and his source of income. “When the ocean and beaches are polluted, our business is greatly affected,” he told Al Jazeera. “Tourists hate dirty environments and marine species cannot survive in populated waters.”

Mombasa, one of the best-known tourist destinations in Africa, is the pride of Kenya. Every year, it plays host to hundreds of thousands of visitors. Its beaches, hotels and sprawling coastline bordering the Indian Ocean, promise a great experience.

Today, the city produces an estimated 19,000 tonnes of waste each month with 10% of it being plastics. These end up in the marine ecosystem, according to the Mombasa county environment chief officer Ilhan Abbas.

It used to be even worse.

Initially, the county environment department would collect plastic waste and deliver them to the main dumping site. But “whenever the dumpsite overflows the waste through rainwater starts finding its way back to the beaches and ocean and that was a problem”, Abbas said.

Apart from plastic waste, paper, food waste, disposable diapers, and shopping bags also form part of the daily waste generated that littered the beaches. During the rainy season, all the waste from dumping sites would be washed down the ocean.

A shared goal

But things are changing.

These days, women and youth organised into four different teams carry out extensive waste collection along the beaches three times a week, an initiative of a community group aptly called The Big Ship.

Twelve years ago, the community-based group was founded in Mikindani, a low-income neighbourhood in Mombasa by six environment conservation activists. When they began, they had no physical office, no funding, no staff and only one computer.

Their initial meeting point was the sitting room of one of them – Bosco Juma, a fisheries biologist. They had a shared goal to fix the plastic waste mess from Mombasa beaches but had no idea that they would accomplish a lot in 10 years, said Juma.

Big Ship mobilises members of the Mombasa communities to collect plastic yoghurt cups dumped along the beaches and coastline. The yoghurt cups are then used to propagate seedlings which are then transplanted in different sections of mangrove forest being reforested in a project called Adopt a Site.

Seedlings planted in yoghurt cups picked from beaches in Mombasa, Kenya by volunteers with the Kenyan environmental group Big Ship on a reforestation drive.
Seedlings planted in yoghurt cups picked from beaches in Mombasa, Kenya by volunteers with the Kenyan environmental group Big Ship on a reforestation drive [Courtesy: Big Ship]

“The Big Ship project has in a big way helped us reduce by 60% the number of plastics that find [their] way into the main dumping site,” said Abbas.

The group has also been helping with the reforestation of Tudor Creek, 6km (4 miles) south of Mombasa, where huge sections of the mangrove forest had also been destroyed. One of the largest mangrove tidal creeks on the Kenyan coast, it forms a critical habitat for the marine life cycle.

Over the years, Tudor – and Kenya’s 54,000 hectares (133,437 acres) mangrove forests, consisting of 18 forest blocks – have been affected by human activity, including massive cutting of mangroves for charcoal burning, fuel and construction.

In the last 50 years, it is estimated that Kenya lost almost 50 percent of its mangrove trees as a result of human activity. In 1997, the government banned the use of mangroves for construction. Today, the ban has been lifted in some coastal areas.

To execute its reforestation drive, Big Ship, which says it has a 200,000 mangrove tree seedlings nursery, had to partner with the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS).

According to Jenifer Situma, head of KFS operations across Mombasa, the project has overseen the planting of more than 300,000 mangrove seedlings on some 50 hectares (124 acres) with 285,000 already sprouting – a 95 percent survival rate.

The project has also helped the KFS in keeping the mangrove ecosystem free of the menace of plastics, Situma said. “Initially, the mangroves would act as dumping sites for plastics and that really affected the entire ecosystem,” she said.

The yoghurt cups are also reusable after transplanting the seedlings into the forest. According to Juma, a single cup can be used to propagate seeds up to 50 times, unlike polythene bags which are usable only once.

“In the first two months of 2022, we have already collected 5,000 plastic yoghurt cups, and this just shows how big the plastic problem is at the Kenyan coast,” Juma said.

According to him, the organisation collects twice that number of yoghurt cups annually along the beaches in Mombasa alone. In 10 years, it has collected 150,000 such cups.

Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) marine biologist Josphat Nguu says another effect of the project is the restoration of aquatic life, including almost half of the corals that had disappeared.

“When the ocean is full of plastics, it’s aquatic species that suffer the effects,” she said. “When the mangroves are cut, it has a direct effect on the corals and this affects the entire aquatic lifeline.”

Big Ship also trains the community members in beach management and has advised community members to practise beekeeping within reforested sections of the mangrove forest.

Experts say beekeeping is helping keep the mangrove trees safe since the community no longer cuts them for fuel or charcoal-burning.

“Initially, due to lack of other income-generating ventures, they would cut trees to burn charcoal which was later sold,” said Jason Runo, a Nairobi-based independent apiculture expert. “Now they have to protect the trees because they know without the forest, the beekeeping venture would collapse and they will have no income.”

Even the youth are engaged, added Mwarabu, because “everyone is busy doing something”.

Source: Al Jazeera