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Regenerating Rusinga (Kenya)

FMNR workshop, Feb 2012, Kenya

Rusinga Island is situated in Lake Victoria in the Western parts of Kenya. It is known for its prehistoric findings of primate fossils dating from 17 million years ago and for being the birthplace of the famously assassinated Kenyan politician, Tom Mboya, whose scholarship fund enabled Barack Obama’s father to study abroad. Not too many years ago it was still known to be a beautiful forested island, rich in unique bird species and with access to great fishing. Today the island is considered a vulnerable ecosystem with marginal agricultural land, leading one author to call it ‘one of the driest and most environmentally marginal agricultural zones in the region’(1).

Rapid population growth in the 1980s led to intensified pressure on natural resources such as trees and fish. At the same time, other communities started coming into Rusinga’s fishing waters to exploit the fish resources. Fish stocks started declining and the fishermen of Rusinga were forced to start looking for other ways of making an income. Many turned to agriculture but the Luo’s on Rusinga were traditionally fishermen, not farmers. Trees were cut down to make houses for a growing population, firewood to feed an increasing number of hungry stomachs and charcoal to make an income. Within a generation, what was once a richly forested island had become bare — suffering increasing droughts, soil erosion and crop failures due to the loss of trees.

I arrived to Rusinga Island in March 2011 in the early morning hours, to assist Warren Brush on the first PDC to be run on the island. I had recently arrived in Kenya with my husband who was setting up an appropriate technology business and had come across this opportunity to work with permaculture. The landscape that stretched out in front of my eyes was almost heartbreakingly dry — brown mud huts surrounded by dusty brown fields where nothing seemed to grow. It had not rained since August last year I was told. They had missed out on the short rainy season in October and the spring rains were late. Everything was dying, there was no water, no fresh vegetables and people were hungry.

During the PDC we spent long hours talking with Evans Odula, our host, and his father, a local environmentalist and tree planter awarded the UNEP Global 500 award for planting trees at the secondary school where he served as headmaster. They spoke of what the island used to look like. Even Evans, only 28 years old, remembers thick indigenous forest covering the top of the hills when he was a child. We walked across the hills and identified the natural springs on the hill-sides, finding them dried up, with dead cattle lying in them. It was during this PDC that inspiration started growing for addressing the issue of deforestation. It was very clear to Evans, who has lived and worked on the island all his life, that though he could provide inspiration through his demonstration site at Badilisha Ecovillage, where the course was held, the community at large would always be compromised in their ability to provide a stable harvest unless the wider issues, such as the deforestation on the hill-sides, were addressed. Inspired by the course and Warren’s enthusiastic support, Evans started writing a proposal for a reforestation project.

This is how the project started growing into an idea that seemed feasible to realize. With the support from Warren Brush, Nicholas Syano, Chairman of PRI-Kenya and one of the few in Kenya to have practiced FMNR (see also) and the teaming up with Village Vocations Programme (VVP) the project really started to take form. It was Evans together with Dennis from VVP, both local to Rusinga, who enthusiastically managed to bring the community together to discuss the issue of deforestation and look for a way forward.

Several meetings were held where the community discussed what the island used to look like, what it looked like now and what they would like to see in the future. The response was overwhelming. Elders, chiefs and assistant chiefs, men and women all participated and all made their voices heard. There was a surprisingly good understanding in the community of the effects of deforestation and many expressed eloquently how the cutting down of the trees had eroded their soil and the soil fertility and brought an increase in droughts and crop failures.

The problem as identified by the community is the growing population, the lack of knowledge on how to preserve resources and the lack of alternative livelihoods, which pushes women in particular to sell firewood or charcoal to make a living. Several suggestions for how to address these problems were brought up, including what one farmer called ‘in situ conservation’, which is in essence FMNR, the introduction of energy efficient stoves and other appropriate technologies to reduce firewood consumption, training on natural resource management and sustainable farming methods and the regeneration of the springs in the area. The community identified the community’s ability to work well together as key to the success of this but also made it clear that support was needed in terms of training and resources. Several community members pointed out that there had been previous reforestation efforts on the island from large international aid agencies but nobody had seen any difference. The community decided that the projects had failed because they had failed to involve the land-owners, focusing on tree planting in common areas on the road side etc, and hence there was no community ownership. Since the land-owners were all present at the meeting and keen to be involved, the community was content that this project could move forward.

In support of this strong community movement, PRI-Kenya scraped together funds to send Nicholas Syano to Rusinga to teach a two day workshop on FMNR. The workshop taught farmers how to identify ‘underground trees’, soil and water conservation and how to prune them to enable saplings to grow into trees. A Forest Farmers Self Help Group has now been formed, spearheaded by local environmentalist Michael Odula. The group is dedicated to reforest their farms using FMNR and to work with PRI-Kenya to monitor the impact.

It is upon the basis of the outcome of these meetings and the suggestions from the community that the full proposal has been developed. The project design is entirely based on permaculture principles and ethics. It draws from the results of the community meetings and was developed in close consultation with Warren Brush. The overall aim of the project is to reduce vulnerability to climate change and drought by restoring forest cover and the hydrology of the landscape, restoring and protecting the natural springs, creating domestic water supplies, increasing biodiversity, building soil fertility and promoting the use of accessible, appropriate technologies and alternative income streams. This will be done by running several training workshops, including FMNR, permaculture earthworks, spring restoration, agroforestry and rainwater harvesting as well as appropriate technology workshops on energy efficient stoves, low cost biogas digesters and ferro-cement water tanks.

A full PDC course will also be run for the community. The workshops will all focus on ‘training trainers’ and will all have follow ups to ensure that capacity is built not only in how to build, but also how to maintain. The trainers will be supported in training others in their community and surrounding community and support will also be given for the creation of micro enterprises out of these newly acquired skills through the development of a revolving fund. This continual work with the community and local authorities will ensure the project’s survival and continual documentation of both ecological and socio-economic data will provide essential information on the impact of permaculture and FMNR.

This project has the potential of truly regenerating Rusinga Island to be the green and fertile island the community was envisioning for the future and providing them with a productive landscape, rich in biodiversity, with fertile soils, good access to water and improved resilience to climatic changes and the recurring droughts. It also has the potential of providing essential research material on the use of FMNR and permaculture techniques to establish food security and resilience to climate change amongst small-holder farmers in environmentally marginal areas. This is research that does not yet exist….

We’re currently fundraising for this project and your support can make a difference. We’re reaching out to foundations but we also know the power of crowd funding — of many individuals contributing a small amount, with many small streams making a big river. Our goal is US$150,000 for the three years. Our first aim is to raise the US$50,000 to cover the first year.

You can help contribute to this project either by giving directly to PRI-Kenya’s Kenyan Bank account (below) or through Warren Brush’ True Nature Design Paypal account — paypal address being: [email protected]). If you are donating through True Nature Design please send your donation with the reference ‘Rusinga Island.

To donate via Pay Pal please pay to: [email protected]

If you want to donate directly to PRI-Kenya’s account:

Equity Bank
Swift code: EQBLKENA
Bank Code: 68
Branch Code: 108
Branch Name: Mombasa Road Branch
Account Number: 1080297892383
Account Name: Permaculture Research Institute Kenya

If you want more information about this project then please contact the Project Co-ordinator, Elin Lindhagen Duby, on elin (at)

If you want to find out more about the work of PRI-Kenya please go to


  • Connelly, W T (1994) ‘Polulation pressure, labour availability and agricultural disintensification: The decline of farming on Rusinga Island, Kenya’, Human Ecology, Vol 22, No 2, 145-170.

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