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Algorithms and indigenous experience for mangrove restoration

The intergenerational model of the non-profit Ceriops in Kenya

Josephine Condemi
a story by
Josephine Condemi
Algorithms and indigenous experience for mangrove restoration

Giving communities the technological tools to take care of mangroves and reap economic benefits: two young Kenyans have pioneered a way to bring science and tradition closer together. Here’s how

What happens to mangroves planted in reforestation programmes? Who does the monitoring? The simplest solution would be: the people who live there. However «Projects are often dropped from above, the financiers are intermediaries: they arrive, they take care of the technical aspects, they don’t always listen to the people who live in the areas,» Levis Sirikwa says. «When you return to the site after a year, you sometimes ask: where is our site? Where did you plant? And it is not easy to find it».

Levis Sirikwa is an aquaculturist who, with his friend Derrick Muyodi, a marine biologist, shares a passion for nature, for their Kenyan country, and for the possibilities of doing things together opened up by coastal and marine ecosystems. Fresh out of their Bachelor’s degrees, between 2016 and 2018 they volunteered with the community-based organisation Big Ship on mangrove restoration projects in the County of Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city after the capital Nairobi. «The communities close to the mangrove forests had established mangrove nurseries as a source of alternative livelihood» Sirikwa says. «The best way to reforest the degraded blue landscape is to start with a nursery made by people close by who can take care of the trees: so why not have these nurseries become direct project providers?» 

The result was the Adopt-a-Site Model programme, in which Sirikwa and Muyodi experienced the potential of combining local experience and technology: «We felt the impact of empowering communities to do basic scientific things like collecting data, mapping their territory, being supported from the creation of the nursery to the active restoration of the mangroves, which includes monitoring» Sirikwa recalls. From this experience, during the Covid-19 lockdown, their bet, the non-profit organisation Ceriops, was born.

The non-profit organisation Ceriops was founded in 2020 in Kenya by Derrick Muyodi and Levis Sirikwa. It operates in Mumbasa and Kwale counties. It works to bring different languages of knowledge together to foster community capacity building and create development opportunities in the green and blue economy. Projects include the Greening the Blue Initiative.

Discover the organisation

Mapping mangroves digitally

«If you have been in the mangroves, you know that it is very difficult to navigate through the thick mud which defines most of the ecosystem in Mombasa» Sirikwa smiles. «Think of it this way, imagine that you collected your data and recorded it on sheets with pens and pencils and then you slip and fall in the mud and lost everything! So it is easier to use automated questionnaires hosted by mobile phones and computers and other techniques that we are exploring». 

Ceriops uses a Geographic Information System (GIS) to manage forest monitoring, both in terms of tracking and analysing changes in vegetation cover. «In the beginning, we labelled every tree, Tree stand model, but we stopped due to lack of resources,» Sirikwa recalls. «It took expensive subscriptions to get the best satellite images. But we can still easily use open source platforms and mobile GIS applications for both data collection and geolocation stories: we have a function called story maps that we use to tell our story through video, images, text and interactive maps, all in one!»

If mapping is also done in open source, the data is updated through popular cloud suites, private but free, which allow real-time monitoring via the web, then remotely. «We worked to support communities to understand how to have an account, an email, and how to access, view and track data together,» explains Sirikwa. 

The analysis, by Ceriops, is based on in-house programmed algorithms. «These are the basic technologies we are using to support small operations because we haven’t become a big company yet but we are just supporting communities and trying to grow professionally,» Sirikwa points out.   

Source: Levis Sirikwa. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author

Ceriops ‘Mikoko na Jamii’ and ‘Greening the Blue Initiative’ projects

Two reforestation projects have been carried out over the past four years: one is Mikoko na Jamii, or, in Swahili, Mangroves and Communities, one of the unique project models in the country focusing on restoring the ecological functions of the degraded marine ecosystems. «The projects have now been turned into One Million Tree Campaigns which advocates for more partners to support in the restoration work» explains Sirikwa. «The sites are geo-localised and one can then monitor the progress remotely. After these years, the communities have become autonomous in the collection of the data: we are now in the second phase, training in the use of graphical modelling applications,» says Sirikwa.

The second Ceriops project is Greening the Blue Initiative, supported in 2023 by the Kenya Forest Service and funded by the Global Landscapes Forum (CIFOR-ICRAF), the largest global knowledge platform on the landscape, and selected as a good practice in the recently published LEK Guide Masterbook1 supported by the Global Mangrove Alliance, the forum led by, among others, World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy.  

Greening the Blue model is formed by practices such as site assessments before planting, the minimum spacing between planted seedlings or propagules, and continuous monitoring for at least twelve months: 2000 small red mangroves were planted from the community nursery in Mwakirunge, Mombasa County, and half a hectare of forest was restored thanks to the paid work of twenty men and women from the Amani Jipange Community group. More than 93 per cent of these seedlings have survived. «Additional livelihoods are incorporated in the model beyond the monitoring phase to enhance conservation initiatives. For instance, incorporating beekeeping as the last phase of the ecosystem model has been one of the most viable approaches since we want to conserve the population of bees in the mangrove ecosystems to enhance ecological restoration aspects through pollination,» says Sirikwa. 

«But these results would not have been possible without the sharing of the ancient knowledge of the older people in the community: these incredible people know their places, and they have a history and a connection to the ecosystem. They have been fishing, extracting firewood and even hunting mud crabs. These experiences help the community to navigate the ecosystem during mangrove restoration programs, to identify the factors causing the mangroves to change, and to improve food security». 

«The old is worth its weight in gold in the age of digitalisation»

Collaboration between science and experience

Today Ceriops works with six communities in two different counties: Mombasa and Kwale. «In Kenya, communities working with projects in mangroves must be legally registered and recognized by Kenya Forest Service (KFS), through Community Forest Association (CFA)» explains Sirikwa. «So a community with one group can have between 20 and 450 members, depending on the membership». 

Synergetic collaborations between scientists and indigenous communities in mangrove restoration space have been antagonistic in the past. «There was a huge gap between the perceptions of the outside experts and the people on the ground» Sirikwa recalls. «The scientists thought they knew everything and hence needed not to consult the local communities. On the other hand, the community players deliberately retracted and did not share their knowledge during such projects». As a result, such gaps resulted in massive mortality of the planted trees in various locations.

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«It is only recently that it has been found that both parties host valuable knowledge of the ecosystem. For instance, people did not call a Rhizophora Mucronata but Mkoko in the local language. So, our community entry strategy entailed being part of the community, and learning together until we got accepted. It was only then, that it became easier to share information, without inferiority complexes and provide constructive feedback whenever necessary. I will always give credit to the locals, they have been there since before we were born and they have something that money cannot buy: experience», says Sirikwa

The result is a collaborative model whereby «everyone does what they know how to do and tries to integrate the language of the other,» explains Sirikwa. People learn how to collect data digitally and scientists how to incorporate the elements of local tradition. «For both the planning and the implementation of a project we do roundtable discussions to get as many people as possible to participate,» says Sirikwa. «We share every publication, including scientific ones that we do, to foster knowledge sharing and understanding».  

levis sirikwa ceriops mangrovia
Source: Levis Sirikwa. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author

The challenge of a sustainable business model

Ceriops is, at the moment, a non-profit, supported by government or corporate grants. «We manage to ensure that the communities’ work is paid for, not entirely our own,» explains Sirikwa. «In the past two years, I moved to Vietnam to do my master’s degree and, although I was not on budget, I won an award because of the work I did with the organisation. We, young people, have to find a way to survive while the association stays afloat: we are doing this with advice based on our experience, but the goal is for Ceriops to become sustainable and able to function without us».

The surprise has been to discover over the years that the concern is not finding talented people but being able to retain them: «Derrick and I tried to train more young people and share our skills so that they would become useful to the community and help us drive the organisation’s vision,» says Sirikwa. «But what we found was that once their skills were honed, we could not support them financially and so they were absorbed by other organisations with more financial resources. The unexpected positive aspect, on the other hand, is that some of these extraordinary youths continue to support the organization out of team spirit».

Over the next two or three years, the goal will be to develop enabling investments and then, once a threshold of mangrove restoration has been reached, to experiment with “tree credits”: «These are not carbon credits but payments for ecosystem services rendered through the mangroves, such as ecotourism, for example, on which companies can be contacted and paid a fee for their work,» he concludes. Will intergenerational collaboration help?

  1. Grimm, K. E., Spalding, M., Leal, F. (2024). Including Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK) in Mangrove Conservation & Restoration. A Best-Practice Guide for Practitioners and Researchers. In Global Mangrove Alliance. ↩︎


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