Joan Tonui was just 22 years old when she won the Miss Environment championship title in Bomet. She told the jury she wanted to work with women and children to raise their awareness about living in a clean environment and teach them about waste management in urban areas. With a background in public health, with a focus on water and sanitation, she had learned how some countries separate waste into different categories, such as glass, plastic and paper, and she wanted to introduce that concept to local primary schools.
She started visiting schools to introduce them to her initiative and taking it beyond waste management, to mobilize them to set up tree nurseries to raise fruit tree and indigenous tree seedlings that the community could later plant on school grounds. This turned into the Green Champions Programme where she sets up competitions, and the students who are most eloquent on environmental issues in their poetry, essays, drawings or school plays win the title of Green Champion.
The idea is that these champions will, in turn, encourage other pupils to join the Green Champions Club. The club members take care of the nursery and organize green days at their schools with activities such as collecting rubbish or planting trees. The school children each adopt a tree, name it and take care of it until it matures, and when they leave the school, they hand it over to a new pupil.
“Currently, I have managed to introduce this programme in a couple of primary schools in Bomet County, but I am looking forward to expanding to other counties,” says Tonui.
“Even when people cut down trees, nobody can stop you from replanting, as I do, again and again,” says Sumaya, 10. She has also encouraged her parents to plant more trees. “Trees help against soil erosion and they are also a home for animals and make your environment more beautiful.”
Apart from working with children in schools, Tonui also mobilizes youth and women that are living near riverbanks. She calls them her River Guardians. They are volunteers that help replace and replant the eucalyptus trees threatening the Mara River and exacerbating problems with drought.
“I approached the village chiefs and elders to make my way into communities to ask them to elect volunteers to work with me to take out the eucalyptus and replace it with bamboo and indigenous trees, including avocado trees. In return, I organize trainings for them in the provision of alternative livelihoods such as crafting handbags out of bamboo leaves. The volunteers also come up with their own ideas of what they would like to learn, so recently beekeeping was added to the programme,” she explains.
In the course of just six months, she has brought five different villages on board because they understand the long-term benefits of protecting the river.
“We have to work with nature, not against it, to tackle climate change,” says Tim Christophersen, Head of the Nature for Climate Branch at the United Nations Environment Programme. “Nature-based solutions can help to build resilience, capture carbon, improve health and diversify income for farmers. For the United Nations, forests and other key ecosystems are at the core of our strategy to achieve sustainable development, and we use our United Nations flagship programmes like the UN-REDD Programme and the upcoming UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to work with all stakeholders who want to join this journey.”