As narrated by Nelson Chege, Vice Chair, Central Imenti Environmental Rehabilitation Program

Central Imenti, quite literally in the center of Kenya in Meru County, has always been lush green and covered in a patchwork of farms and forest cover. The larger farms grow cash crops like the lucrative khat leaves (sold in neighboring Somalia), coffee, tea, and avocados. Small-scale subsistence farmers grow food crops such as maize, cabbage, and tomatoes for personal use and to sell. This has become more difficult in recent years, however, as climate change has decreased agricultural production and driven down maize yields. Even farmers who were previously unwilling to engage with climate change issues now realize that climate change is “at their doorstep”.

The Central Imenti Environment Rehabilitation Program (CIERP) was established in 2009 by a group of residents seeking income through community farming. The founders, mostly retirees, started tree nurseries and propagated seedlings for sale. The small income they generated from this went a long way. Their efforts initially thrived, but later declined as the founders became older. This prompted the involvement of a fresh cohort of younger members joining the program.

New intergenerational collaboration preparing seedlings.

CIERP’s new young leaders have reoriented CIERP’s work towards addressing climate change. In addition to expanding the tree planting and income diversification activities, they have significantly extended the group’s activities in support of the psychological wellness of farmers who suffer losses due to the impacts of climate change.

This strategic shift was motivated by a commitment to holistic climate resilience. Anxiety and depression are regarded as issues that need to be addressed in their own right, as part of people’s well-being. Mental well-being is also critically important if people are to mobilize effectively to confront the climate crisis.

The transition empowered the organization to actively destigmatize mental health concerns, as well as to foster open dialogues and collaboration with entities such as The Stronger Project, to advance community well-being. The Stronger Project is a youth-led community-based organization in Kenya that supports persons with psychosocial disabilities. Its programs include a Lived Experiences Leaders Program for social inclusion of young people with mental illness and psychosocial disabilities; a Walk in the Park Program that provides a safe space for individuals to share their challenges and best practices; and an Art 4 Wellness Program that combines therapy, advocacy, and art, with certified therapists and counselors offering pro bono services, as well as mental health advocates providing mentorship. The program includes live music performances, talks, competitions, theater, and live art, with a focus on personal growth, awareness, and healing. The Stronger Project Magazine won the Ember Mental Health Creative Fellowship Award in 2022.

Following the collaboration with The Stronger Project, CIERP has adopted an integrated approach for their climate change work that also addresses its psychological impacts on individuals and communities through community-wide initiatives aimed at transforming behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions. This includes encouraging open conversations about mental health led by professionals from The Stronger Project, and youth rehabilitation programs for substance abusers. They have found that youth workers, teachers, pastors, and other community leaders, although lacking advanced clinical training, are well-suited to provide essential support and guidance.

CIERP also found that group activities, such as tree planting and community projects, offer significant benefits for mental well-being. These collective, productive activities foster a sense of belonging, purpose, and accomplishment that can be as effective as other traditional forms of therapy. They also complement CIERP’s broader environmental efforts and contribute to community resilience.

CIERP engages the community in planting a diverse variety of trees for ecological, medicinal, and edible purposes, recognizing that the trees can counter the fierce winds and rains experienced in the area, while also providing health, nutrition, income, and well-being benefits. They plant, for example, African wine palm (for stabilizing riverine areas and curbing soil erosion); Elgon teak (drought-resistant, fast-growing, and providing good leaves for livestock fodder); Elgon oak (excellent for preventing erosion); crotons (for fertilizer and cattle fodder); dragon fruit (drought-resistant and with medicinal uses); macadamia nut trees (for income-generation opportunities and cooking oil); and yellow passionfruit, guava, avocado, and pomegranate trees (for nutrition and food security). The organization either leases land for tree cultivation, or community members contribute previously unproductive land.

Indigenous seedlings ready for loading and transportation for a tree planting activity.

Community members receive training in a range of skills linked to climate-resilient livelihoods, including:

  • Table banking, where members of a local savings group pool – or “put on the table” – their contributions, referred to as shares, and are entitled to a short- or long-term loan at low interest – 97% of table banking members in Kenya are women. This nurtures a savings culture while supporting entrepreneurship, investment, and financial planning and budgeting.

  • Agribusiness skills, such as fruit farming and beekeeping. Value addition by processing fruit, honey, and bamboo products.

  • Green energy solutions, such as installing greenhouses and solar energy in remote areas.

  • Ecological restoration activities.

CIERP also creates awareness, and offers training, on diversity, equity, and inclusion of all people regardless of race, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, and sexual orientation. An estimated 5,000 people have benefited through economic and social empowerment; food and water security; capacity and skills enhancement; and reduction of gender-based violence.

How Challenges Are Addressed

CIERP has succeeded in bringing together different generations and community groups to facilitate collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and collective action to address the multifaceted impacts of climate change, including on mental health. The community’s receptiveness to new learning has enabled CIERP to disseminate information, implement sustainable practices, and strengthen community-based psychosocial support effectively.

However, while there is a strong thirst for knowledge on climate change and resilience-building among the rural population in Imenti, CIERP has found it difficult to scale up its activities by involving more schools, churches, women, and youth groups because of the lack of funding for inputs such as seeds, and capital assets such as greenhouses and land.

CIERP sustains its activities through the strong motivation and generosity of its members. The members volunteer their time and resources, and the program generates a small income from produce. Almost all members (except the retirees) have other sources of income. Some are teachers and traders in the local market. The young men carry out odd jobs in construction and ferrying people/goods on motorbikes. The women are farmers and homemakers.

While funding has been secured from a multilateral organization, contracting and due diligence processes are taking exceptionally long – a year after receiving the good news, the funding is yet to arrive. More rapid, agile, and responsive funding – proportionate to the local scale and need of their enterprise – would benefit the group.