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Coastweek -- Some of the fishponds that are changing lifestyles in Kilifi County.
An Initiative By Communities in Kilifi To Protect Mangroves

Coastweek -- An initiative by local communities in Kilifi County to protect mangroves from destruction has had a double blessing blending conservation and economic benefits.

In some areas, conservation groups have come up with unique ways that ensure food on the table while at the same time securing the environment for posterity.

Elvis Ndundi from Majajani quit his hotel job in Lamu to join a group of young men and women venture into fish farming just adjacent to the ocean breaking the long held tradition that nature would always provide.

Today Mr. Ndundi who leads a conservation team of about 20 members by the name Mtangani Conservation and Eco-Tourism does not regret the decision to leave a gainful employment to soil his hands in the mangrove forest.

“When we dug our first pond here, people thought we were out of our minds.

“They would not understand how we could possibly start fish farming next to the ocean.

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“Little did they know that our initiative did not just come from the blues but responding to the need to reduce pressure on the sea whose fish stock were slowly dwindling through over-fishing,” said Mr Ndundi.

With the support from technical staff from different agencies like the Fisheries Department, Kenya Forest Service, the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) and other organizations, the group started off on a journey for alternative sources of livelihood.

AKMFRI Director in charge of Mariculture Dr. James Mwaluma said mariculture, has the potential to turn around the fortunes of many Coastal communities.

There are different types of mariculture done on shallow coastal-marine areas but with distinct environmental and ecological characteristics.

For instance, crab farming and oyster farming require areas with mangrove habitats.

Whereas seaweed farming requires lagoons and sheltered bays with shallow water at low tides but with enough tidal lush and temperatures ranging between 20’C and 32’C.

“Most of the artisanal fishermen cannot go beyond one nautical mile where there is plenty of fish because they lack the equipment to do so.

“Overconcentration on the shallow waters and use of bad fishing gear has had adverse effects on the fish breeding.

“Uncontrolled cutting of mangroves for timber and wood fuel has compounded the situation because this forest provides the habitat for different fish species,” said Dr Mwaluma.

In one of the rare but successful venture, a group of men and women in Dabaso in Watamu area are making money while at the same time keeping a close watch on the environment protecting it from degradation.

Boasting of some 20floating bamboo cages the Members of the Dabaso Creek Conservation Group can generate over Sh3 million in a year from fattened crabs that end up on the plates of the hundreds of guests who patronize their restaurant.

At first, their main preoccupation was to protect the Mida Creek from further degradation of the habitats as a result of wanton cutting of mangroves for timber and wood fuel and to larger extent over- fishing.

But today, their effort has been rewarded.

What started as a mere conservation campaign over 15 years ago has turned out to be a lucrative business enterprise that combines crab farming and Eco-tourism in the beautiful mangrove forest.

One of the founding members of the group, 50 year old Stephen Mramba Mweni has every reason to smile as he helps usher in visitors mainly comprising of tourists from the Watamu tourist circuit through the picturesque boardwalk in to the restaurants.

With a team of about 30 young people drawn from the local village, they started cleaning the creek and planting mangroves to rehabilitate the degraded areas.

Mr. Mweni said at this point in late 1990s, they had no business idea but their efforts earned then recognition of some individuals and organizations within and outside Watamu.

He said the biggest challenge then was that there was no income and since the work was voluntary some of the members left in search of gainful employment.

Their first breakthrough came from the Kenyan Government when they were selected as beneficiaries of Njaa Marufuku initiative under the Ministry of Agriculture and that was when the idea of crab farming was mooted.

“Our initial project was a mere trial after learning a few tips on crab farming.

“This was disastrous because we used very crude permanent cages that suffocated the crabs.

“With no technical knowhow, we started off on a wrong footing designing pens using nylon nets and mangrove poles only to realize that that type was not suitable to the area as the crabs either died or were washed away during high tides.” he said.

“It was at this point that we got help from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) in an initiative that brought a research scientist to Dabaso leading to a successful journey to serious studies on crab farming,” said Mr. Kahindi Charo.

When Dr. Mwaluma came, said Mr. Charo, experiment on floating cages made from bamboos proved a success in the area.

“It is easy to manage and monitor because the crabs are placed in individual compartments,” said Dr. Mwaluma.

Later, they got another funding to the tune of Sh80,000 from Toyota Japan money that was used to build a boardwalk into the forest where planting and monitoring of mangroves was taking place.

The boardwalk was also meant to give the members easy access to the crab cages.

The boardwalk came in handy for gaining access to the cages for feeding and monitoring the crabs.

“Some of our members and villagers who were working in tourist hotels helped us with the marketing and within a short time, the demand for crabs soared and we could not cope.

“Given the proximity of the hotels to Dabaso where we were doing crab farming, an idea sprung up that in fact we could start some value addition instead of selling them fresh to the hotels,” he said.

The Dabaso creek is a beautiful site for bird watching and sun setting and it soon became popular with tourists jamming the place for lunch, dinner and sight-seeing- and that’ show the restaurant business came up.

Crabs are a delicacy and cost up to Sh1, 500 a meal.

Mr. Charo said they devised other cuisines like crab samosas, crab salad and crab kebabs which make them earn more than when they sold the crabs directly to the hotels.

“We have 20 cages with small chambers where we keep the crabs for fattening for a period of between two to three months.

“But the demand has created a big shortage of seeds and we have to go all the way to Marereni to buy them for stocking in our cages,” he said.

According to Dr. Mwaluma,a Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute KMFRI Assistant Director in Charge of Mariculture, the culture of farming crabs is a common practice but fairly new in East Africa and Dabaso is one of the model projects.

“This team comprising community members most of whom used to work in the hotel industry has taken crab farming to new levels thus debunking the myths that conservation does not pay.

“This practice is very common in many Asian Countries,” said Dr.Mwaluma,

He said that through sustainable utilization of the resource the local people have started enjoying a rejuvenated ecosystem that is home to fish breeding grounds.

Dr. Mwaluma said the project that now boasts of a well equipped kitchen, bar, restaurant bandas that can seat up to 100 guests and a conference facility goes to confirm that fish farming can thrive.

“But even with the successes, we have not lost focus on the seriousness with which communities have to undertake conservation.

“All the activities are carried out within the parameters of strict environmental protection because only then can we guarantee secure and sustainable livelihood.

“But even with strict adherence to conservation, the area has a capacity to hold up to 200 cages,” said Dr. Mwaluma.

Dr. Mwaluma acknowledges the challenge of seeds saying with the success of the project and the quest by other groups to start crab farming, there is a great need to start a hatchery for seed and even feed.

He said KMFRI is looking for funds to put up a hatchery in Shimoni where 25 acres of land is already available for the project that is estimated to cost over Sh100 million.

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