Leah Mwangi has worked with the Kenya-based organization Kijabe Environment Volunteers (KENVO) since 2001. She started as a volunteer but rose to executive director and currently serves on the board of management.
Under Ms. Mwangi’s leadership, KENVO grew from a volunteer-led organization that focused on deforestation to a nonprofit organization employing 14 people.
Today, KENVO tackles a range of conservation issues across the Kikuyu Escarpment Forest, a Key Biodiversity Area that is home to 17 globally threatened species, seven of which are found nowhere else.
In addition, the area covers two water catchments that hold five rivers, providing water to more than one million people, including those in the city of Nairobi.
In 2008, KENVO’s efficacy was recognized when it received the prestigious Equator Prize, which acknowledges “outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.”
As a beneficiary of the Conservation International program Women in Healthy Sustainable Societies, the organization also made great strides in empowering women in the communities where they work.
With the help of two CEPF grants, KENVO launched an initiative to connect those “upstream” in Kikuyu—including farmers and foresters—with those “downstream,” such as breweries and power companies. The relationship provides incentives for those upstream to implement sustainable practices, including less-intensive agriculture, tree planting and invasive plant removal.
Ms. Mwangi holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Nairobi and is pursuing a master’s in development studies from Mount Kenya University.
In Her Words
CEPF: What keeps you motivated despite the fact that conservation work is difficult and often comes with setbacks.
Leah: The biodiversity status in Kikuyu Escarpment Forest is improving. Employment within the organization as well as in other nature-based enterprises, like ecotourism (which is highly practiced in the hotspot), is increasing. In addition, seeing the life-changing impacts among the community members makes me not see the setbacks, but rather the long-term goal.
One day in the local market, I met with a woman who stopped to thank me for saving her the hustle and trouble of using firewood after we supported the installation of a biogas digester in her home.
Her exact words were, “Thank you for improving efficiency in my kitchen. I no longer have to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for my children as they go to school using wet firewood. I now wake up at 5:45 a.m and by 6:30 a.m. my children are on their way to school. My kitchen is smokeless; I was indeed a slave in my own kitchen.”
Such words are a great motivation. I want to wake up every morning and do more.
CEPF: What is your proudest professional achievement thus far?
Leah: My proudest achievement is having been a lead person in seeing the growth of KENVO from a small community-based organization to a nonprofit organization that has not only changed the approach to conservation but has impacted life for the local community and proved that local communities have the capacity to address their own problems, they only need someone to hold their hands.
CEPF: What is your number one piece of advice for making a project a success?
Leah: Do not work for the community, work with the community. Involve them throughout the project cycle and build their capacity to ensure sustainability. Be the bridge not a wall.
What advice would you give to a budding conservationist?
Results of conservation efforts do not come easily and take a long time for change to be noticed. Just be patient and focused.