PATE ISLAND, KENYA (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - When she was growing up, Ms Tima Abudhi remembers watching her neighbours cut away at the mangrove forests around her village on Pate Island, on Kenya's east coast, chopping down the coastal trees to build houses or to sell as timber.
As the mangroves disappeared, so did the fish that live and breed among their roots - a disaster for the fishing village of Kizingitini, recalls the now 55-year-old mother of five.
"We depended on fish for food. We ran out of food and money as well because we also trade in fish. Our children suffered the most," she said.
The villagers also knew the mangrove forests acted as a vital barrier against the increasingly violent cyclones brought on by a warming climate.
The threat to their livelihoods and homes motivated Ms Abudhi and other women to start replanting the mangroves, often spending all day at the beach, taking time away from caring for their families and running their small businesses.
Protecting the mangroves over the past few decades has taken a toll on their incomes, but they felt it was a matter of urgency, Ms Abudhi said.
"Replanting the mangroves is not easy. We have to go early in the morning to get the seedlings and then come to the beach and plant them until evening, just before the tides come back again. We couldn't make enough time for our businesses," she said.
Today, the women of Kizingitini no longer have to struggle to both make a living and conserve the mangroves, thanks to a loan scheme that helps them keep food on the table so they can afford to continue planting.
"This has led to increased participation of women and youth in conservation and community development, as well as reduced gender inequality," said Mr Hassan Yussuf, a regional director at the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), the Kenyan conservation group that implements the project.
Mangrove forests are considered key to curbing climate change and protecting people against warming-linked disasters.
Their complex root systems can slow flooding and weaken storm surges, and the trees absorb and store planet-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) as well as shelter fish, providing rich fishing grounds.
Since 2018, the NRT has worked with a consortium of government agencies and non-governmental organisations to give low-interest loans to women and young people involved in restoring mangrove forests in Lamu County.
So far, said Mr Yussuf, more than 780 people have received US$177,000 (S$242,000) in loans from the revolving fund, with the money used to expand small businesses many families rely on.
The money is continually topped up by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Nature Conservancy non-profit and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), as well as the county and national governments, he said.
Among those receiving loans are Ms Abudhi and the other members of the Kizingitini Women Fishers Group who have been protecting mangroves along the Indian Ocean coast on Pate Island for years.
For her work, each woman first got 25,000 Kenyan shillings (S$300), Ms Abudhi explained. After a two-month grace period, the women are expected to repay the loan in chunks of 3,000 shillings per month for a year, then they are eligible to borrow more money.
Such low-interest loans can be a huge help to women who lack other means of borrowing the money they need to support and expand their businesses.
The project also offers training on mangrove restoration, which Ms Nuzla Misbahu, the group's chairman, said has been a huge boost to their efforts.
Before the project, their method of simply taking cuttings from mature mangrove forests further inland and planting them along the beach saw many of the young trees die, she said.
"But after we were taught in workshops about the right (varieties) to plant, we are now able to achieve about an 80 per cent growth rate of all the mangroves we plant. That, to me, is a great achievement," said Ms Misbahu.
A passion for conservation
Lamu County is home to more than 60 per cent of Kenya's mangroves, according to a 10-year national management plan published in 2017 by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.
Overall, mangroves make up 3 per cent of forests in the country, which lost about a fifth of its mangroves between 1985 and 2009, the equivalent of about 450ha per year.
Ms Sumaiya Harunany, founder of the Blue Earth Organisation, a community-based conservation group, said destruction of the country's mangroves has been driven by a combination of factors, including demand for timber, infrastructure development and spreading urbanisation.
But according to NRT figures, more than 75,000 mangroves have been planted around Lamu County since the local project started three years ago.
Mr Evans Maneno, who was the KFS ecosystem conservator in Lamu during the first few years of the project and now works for Kitui County, said the project is aimed mainly at women because they are more dedicated to protecting their environment.
"Based on what we have seen in Lamu, these women have a passion for conserving the mangroves because they understand their importance, so we leverage that passion," he said in a phone interview.
"These are people who identify themselves with the mangroves in the area and therefore they feel very comfortable doing the conservation."
Planting without worry
Mr Yussuf, regional director at the NRT, said the group plans to bring 185 more women in Lamu County into the project next year.
While those involved consider the project a success so far, it is not achieving enough, he said - fish stocks in the area are still shrinking, in part as a result of overfishing.
Another problem is continued illegal logging of mangroves, driven by weak enforcement and a lack of market incentives to encourage sustainable use of the forests, he added.
Mr Maneno said the government is working to ensure the country's mangroves are better protected.
He noted that since 2019, Lamu County has been issuing identity cards specifically aimed at distinguishing genuine fishermen and loggers from poachers who raid waters and cut down mangroves.
In Kizingitini, Ms Abudhi has already used the first tranche of loan money she got in 2018 to expand her businesses selling fried potatoes to students at a nearby secondary school.
She has been able to repay the money and recently received her second loan of 50,000 shillings, which she plans to use to increase her stock and bring in more income.
"When the mother of the house does not have to worry too much about where she will next get food for the family, we are flexible to go out and plant the mangroves freely, knowing also their importance to our environment and our lives," she said.