Building a resilient and sustainable Blue Economy in Kenya through small grants

August 26, 2020

Ismail Suleiman, a fish trader from Kwale County, poses with his inventory. Whereas artisanal fishing is a vital part of the economy of Kenya's south coast, the coral reef on which this industry depends is degrading; additionally, economics gains from fishing disproportionately go to men rather than women, despite long-standing female involvement in the sector (Photo: Kevin Ouma/UNDP Kenya).

Stretching around 600km along the western Indian Ocean, from Lamu County on the Somali border to Kwale County neighboring Tanzania, the white sand beaches, mangrove forests and Swahili cultural heritage of the Kenyan coast make it an internationally renowned destination visited by millions each year. Beyond tourism, however, the sustainability and diversification of the Blue Economy of Kenya’s coast is increasingly recognized as a key development challenge and one which UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) seek to address.

One of the most distinctive features of the Kenyan coastline is its almost continuous fringing coral reef that runs parallel to the coast: the stunning and biodiversity rich reefs support a wide variety of species, including reef-dependent fish such as rock cods and surgeonfish as well as crustaceans and invertebrates including crabs, lobsters, prawns, sea cucumbers and squid. Whilst preservation of the coral reefs is key to the sustainability of the region, the reefs are actually deteriorating due to a number of reasons including over-fishing by an increasing population, water pollution and the detrimental effects of climate change.

Coral reefs are the basis for one of the main economic activities in the coastal region: the artisanal fishing industry. The sector is estimated to employ over 10,000 Kenyans directly and indirectly may be supporting the livelihoods of a further 60,000 households, vital given the unfavourable conditions for local land-based agriculture. Fishing is, however, male-dominated: whereas women have long been active in artisanal fishing, there is still as strong gender dimension to poverty in coastal regions and many women face disadvantage and discrimination. The limited opportunities for women on the coast in education, leadership and business, owing in part to religious and/or cultural practices, promote inequality and hinder socioeconomic progress.[1]

The unique, biodiversity-rich marine ecosystem of southern Kenya is one of the ecologically sensitive areas of global and national significance that has been selected by UNDP and the GEF to address within the Small Grants Programme (SGP). The main objective of the work of UNDP and the GEF in implementing the SGP on the coast is to ensure a healthy marine environment that provides sustainable benefits for present and future generations, taking a sustainable development lens to also address the inequalities of the Blue Economy, such as gendered poverty. The SGP is implemented in partnership with local community-based organizations (CBOs) which undertake grassroots development interventions.

One such CBO, the Indian Ocean Water Body (IOWB) based in Pongwe/Kidumu in Kwale County, was supported to implement a project on training women to manage their daily business activities and value-addition for artisanal fishing through processing, packaging and preservation. In partnership with GEF SGP, 112 women from 4 beach management units (BMUs) have received practical training on value-addition. The BMUs are organizations of fishers, fish traders, boat owners, fish processors and other beach stakeholders who traditionally depend on fisheries activities for their livelihood. Another group of 112 women have also received training on entrepreneurship skills on running small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Ms. Mercy Mghanga, IOWB Project Manager, is enthusiastic about this initiative:

 “The SGP project has empowered women of Shimoni-Vanga seascape and more women are requesting for training on value addition, quality control and marketing strategy to meet European standards of certification. Through this project I have also realized that women appreciate the BMUs more and are interested in working together them,” notes Ms. Mghanga.

The Wasini Women Group (WWG), another CBO, were supported to implement a project to empowering women with skills and capacity in their community on Wasini Island, Kwale County. This involved training on technical, leadership and entrepreneurship skills to address the inequality faced by coastal women in business. So far with UNDP-GEF SGP support the group has conducted trainings in eco-tourism business planning and management: 10 women from the community have been trained, and according to Ms. Swabra Mohamed, WWG Project Manager, support from the SGP has inspired the women to push this initiative further:

“Through the SGP project, Wasini women have improved their skills on business planning and management and are motivated to apply for more grants so that they can help the community,” said Ms. Mohamed.

A bottle reef hand-planted by Mkwiro BMU to encourage the return of coral and aid the local marine ecosystem. Through UNDP-GEF support as part of the SGP, Mkwiro have increased the number of local coral reefs from 50 to 100 (Photo: REEFOLUTION).

WWG also received financial support through the SGP to address the degradation of natural resources, including tackling waste to protect the coral reefs around Wasini Island.  So far, 10 people have been trained as community scouts for the management and conservation of the ecotourism area. A feasibility study on waste management was also conducted and several measures proposed for adoption in Wasini Island for long-term change in local sustainability.

“Solid waste management activities have changed the perspective of the community on solid waste management and their awareness level has increased.  Because of this there is hope of a cleaner Island,” Ms. Mohamed adds.

Further, a CBO based in Mkwiro, the Mkwiro BMU, was supported to conduct a coral nursery workshop to train members of the BMU on how to prepare and maintain coral reefs on their own. As a result of the training the BMU members have acquired new skills and can now prepare and maintain coral nurseries on their own: a notable achievement of the group is the upscaling of local coral nurseries from an initial 50 to 100.

Grassroots interventions of this kind are the first step to driving change from the community-level upwards, protecting Kenya’s biodiverse marine heritage and building a sustainable Blue Economy which works for all communities, and active community involvement and ownership is a key part of driving long-term solutions of this nature. Further to this, leveraging the role of women in building healthy and resilient marine ecosystems is a priority for UNDP and the GEF, and we are making it a priority to partner with CBOs whose objectives align with these goals.


[1] Ochiewo, Changing fisheries practices and their socioeconomic implications in South Coast Kenya, 2004


About UNDP in Kenya:

Under the Country Programme Document (CPD) 2018–22, UNDP leverages innovative approaches working under three pillars of: Governance, Peace and SecurityInclusive Growth and Structural Transformation; and Environmental Sustainability, Climate Change and Resilience.

The Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme of UNDP, which was launched in 1992, the year of the Rio Summit, channels financial, technical and capacity building assistance directly to community organizations for activities that conserve the environment while enhancing people’s wellbeing and livelihoods. Special consideration is given to projects that support women groups, the youth, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities.

SGP’s grant-making facility is currently operational in 125 countries; GEF SGP started operations in Kenya in 1993 and has provided financial and technical support to over 450 community projects in various parts of the country.

Authored by: Esther Kaudo, UNDP Kenya.