Photo credit: Kenge Content Hive & Oscar Ryan Ouma

As narrated by Oscar Ryan Ouma, Kenge Content Hive, Kenya

Rural villages nestle along the shores of Lake Victoria in Busia County, Kenya. This is where Oscar Ryan Ouma grew up – and where he witnessed profound changes in the local environment, even in his first two decades of life.

He remembers from his childhood days how his community thrived with an abundance of food and ample yields stored in their granaries. The wisdom of the elders, who could accurately predict rainfall, contributed to successful harvests. However, over time, Oscar Ryan witnessed a significant transformation – and it was a disheartening one. Butterflies, once a common sight, began to disappear. The granaries slowly emptied. People struggled to feed their families and began to encroach upon marginal and fragile lands, leading to widespread deforestation.

Direct degradation of forests and the natural environment, combined with the impacts of climate change, have combined to create what Oscar Ryan calls “dire” consequences for local people. High temperatures became higher, the beating sun feeling intense, like “a divine punishment” at times.

His lived experience is borne out by the science: average annual surface temperatures over East Africa increased by 0.7°C–1°C from 1973 to 2013. There are significantly more warm nights, warm days, and warm spells. Since 2005, drought frequency has doubled from once every six years to once every three years.

It was these profound changes in the environment that sparked Oscar Ryan’s deep sense of inquiry and the need to understand why it was happening. Motivated to make a difference and to become an agent of change, he led in establishing the Kenge Content Hive, a youth-led, community-based organization. The name Kenge comes from the Indigenous Peoples who originally populated the area.

Young People Lead Ecosystem Restoration along the Shores of Lake Victoria

The Kenge Content Hive is an organization of young people raising their own climate literacy and awareness and spreading it in the local community. They are also learning by doing: mobilizing to plant trees on the shores of Lake Victoria that will restore ecosystem functions and biodiversity, and boost adaptation and mitigation to climate change. Oscar Ryan and other members are inspired by their forebearers’ knowledge of nature. They aim to capitalize on Indigenous knowledge to guide their activities and tackle local manifestations of the climate crisis for the long term.

The vision is for a Lake Victoria Basin in Kenya where communities are actively aware of, and engaged in, ecological restoration, clean water, health and sanitation, energy access, youth leadership, economic empowerment, and sustainable development. Oscar Ryan convenes information forums for the community, where he disseminates tailored climate information in a manner accessible to all. This includes those with limited literacy in the rural community, considering that a majority of community members drop out of school to pursue fishing livelihoods.

Since 2020, they have successfully planted over 15,200 trees. The Kenge Content Hive also emphasizes nurturing the trees over time. Its members ensure that the trees are well-maintained and protected from threats, and that tree care practices are passed to young group members, for lasting impact. The group primarily selects species that are native to local ecosystems, and robust in the changing climate, such as Gravellier and African Oak (mitumba). They also plant Casuarina (whistling pine), croton, moringa, white sapote, acacia, neem, Kigelia Africana (sausage tree), cypress, jacaranda, Nile tulip (lusiola), Ficus thonningii (Mdodo), Tamarindus indica (Omukhuwa), yellow oleander (Omufulukutu), Bischofi a javanica, Albizia coriaria, ghaf, mango, guava, and custard apple trees.

The efforts of the Kenge Content Hive have yielded positive economic, social, and environmental outcomes. They report that their tree-planting and sustainable agricultural practices have led to an increase in local food production and improved livelihoods. They have restored more than 20 hectares of degraded land, resulting in a 30% increase in crop yields for participating communities. Economically, over 800 people have received income through the projects, including from the establishment of tree nurseries. This has led to an increase in annual household incomes, making a tangible difference in the lives of those involved.

Also, the projects have helped control erosion, which is rampant in areas along the shores of Lake Victoria – this reduces the risk of soil degradation and preserves vital ecosystems.

The work has also fostered community cohesion and intergenerational engagement, as local residents actively exchange knowledge and experiences through the projects. Psychosocially, the initiatives have provided a sense of purpose and hope for individuals grappling with eco-anxiety, as they witness positive changes in their environment. The feedback received from the community underscores the success of the Kenge Content Hive’s initiatives, with 95% expressing a desire to continue participating and enjoying the tangible benefits of the programs.

How Challenges are Addressed

Climate change continues to exacerbate poverty in Busia County, Kenya – especially through the negative effects of higher temperatures and more frequent, weather extremes on agricultural output. This indicates that far greater efforts in climate-resilient development are needed – not just by the Kenge Content Hive but through coalitions of actors and multi-faceted responses. Members of the group recognize the complexity of adaptation, as well as their need to continuously assess and adjust strategies accordingly. Members are also mindful of the long-term sustainability of their work. They want to create a long-lived ecological infrastructure that will lay the foundations for generations’ worth of sustainable development in the future.

In Oscar Ryan’s view, past efforts to conserve natural resources of the Lake Victoria basin have been largely ineffective due to the short-term period of projects, limited awareness of results, and limited funding. His vision is to address these challenges through a combination of approaches, such as strengthening the capacity of institutions to support and share climate-adaptive and low-carbon best practices, and forming partnerships among institutions for sustainable development goals. This further calls for aligned policies and regulations across institutions and agencies, educating the public on various alternative sources of livelihoods, and creating a conducive space that will allow organizations to tap into investment opportunities. As a relatively new and highly motivated youth organization, the Kenge Content Hive has its work cut out!