the golden coral women of wasini

Meet the Kenyan fisherwomen breathing life back into a dying island

An  island community in Kenya is reaping the benefits of a women-led reef revival that’s bringing lobsters, octopuses – and tourists – back to the unexplored paradise

When the women of Wasini Island founded a coral reef restoration project, they never imagined it would go on to affect every aspect of the community’s lives. Their main aim was to bring the fish back, but five years down the line – and against the odds – the women of Wasini are reaping benefits they never envisaged.

When fish stocks were rapidly declining on Wasini, a tiny island on the south east coast of Kenya, just south of Diani, its inhabitants became increasingly worried. The special habitat is home to a wide range of marine animals and birds, but rising surface sea temperatures had triggered devastating bleaching episodes. As coral whitened, the already over-fished marine life dwindled.

In some areas of the Kenyan coastline, the coral reef was almost totally destroyed, along with sea plants and mangroves. For the communities depending on the sea for their livelihoods, this degradation threatened to overturn an entire way of life as tourism and fishing – the two major activities that kept the island alive – were devastated.  

The island’s major economic activity, fishing, was on its deathbed. With so much at risk, a solution had to be found quickly. “We had no food because there were no fish in the water. The corals were gone, tourists stopped coming and poverty knocked on our doors,” says 45-year-old Wasini resident Aisha Kibibi.

Fortunately, the women and youth of Wasini averted disaster by reviving the island’s fishing. Today, fish populations in the waters around the island having rebounded to three times that of neighbouring areas. And the greatest beneficiaries? The women and kids at the core of the efforts. More fish means greater income and enhanced food security for all. Local families and communities that were torn apart have been reunited, the rates of youth drug abuse have lowered and there are more employment opportunities for women where jobs used to be the preserve of men.

“With money from fishing, we can now buy other food stuff from the mainland and this has enhanced the nutrition and health of our families,” Kibibi adds.

So, how did they do it?

In 2018, the women and youth of Wasini’s 2500 person population began a coral restoration project, working with the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute to rehabilitate degraded coral reefs as well as bring back seagrass and mangroves.

Coral reefs provide shelter and breeding grounds

for hundreds of species of marine life.

The women started creating artificial coral reefs

using locally-available materials.

Rock boulders found

on the shoreline are held together

with hydraulic cement to create artificial reef structures.

But before corals are planted on these man-made reefs

they are raised in a nursery for a few weeks.

Returning the island to its former glory was a perfect example of community collaboration. The fishing community, women and children worked together with the Coastal Development Authority and the National Environment Management Authority to achieve the big results desperately needed by all, operating as the Wasini Beach Management Unit.

Muhiyadin Musa, its Chairperson, observes how the fish stocks have grown. “Initially, food security was an issue and women were struggling to feed their children, but with the restoration efforts, we have been able to change things.”

“I can confidently say that Wasini Island is both food and nutrition secure because of the increased fish production and enhanced income. The protection of seagrasses, corals and mangroves has resulted in more catches and more money for the local fisher folks,” he adds.

Uniting families

Women on the island say that the projects have given their husbands more time with their families.

Umar Noordin is a mother of four who is part of the rehabilitation project. “We not only have enough food for our children, but as women we have an assured source of income and this means we can now support our husbands in providing for the family.” She explains that men used to struggle to cater for their family’s needs because their wives had no income, often leading to domestic disagreements and family breakups. “Men were the sole breadwinners, but now things are changing because the project has so many income-generating streams for women and this has led to happy and prosperous families.”

Zainabu Deen, a mother of two, says that men previously had to spend days on end diving in the deep water, searching for fish. This left the women in charge of families, something she says affected social development. “Before the rehabilitation drive, our husbands would go far away, into the ocean and they would take weeks before coming back. This led to split of families – but now this is a thing of the past.”

Rehema Musa, a single mother of three, says she was initially jobless but the project’s success gave her a source of income, allowing her to comfortably take care of her family. “Because we have plenty of fish in the water now, I have started buying fish from fishermen and selling to buyers from the mainland. This has enabled me to take care of my three children. With my income from fish selling, I can now comfortably pay for their school fees, clothing and medication,” she says. Today, Rehema makes between USD 200-300 in fish sales daily.

Hubah Balack (right) attends to tourists at her curiosity shop on Wasini Island

Hubah Balack, a 26-year-old tour guide, works on the island and is part of the coral rehabilitation team. She says that the project has helped livelihoods turn around. “We had lost tourism as source of income, but the project has brought visitors back to the island and put more money in our pockets.” Balack says tourists are trooping to the island to get a glimpse of the giant corals that have been rehabilitated and planted by the women. “When tourists come, they pay a fee which goes to the women involved in this project and to them that is a huge source of income.”

From the proceeds she receives from guiding tours, Balack has been able to establish a small curiosity shop on the island where she has employed two other women.

The flavours of Wasini

Rahma Salim is one of the women involved in the project. She says that the rehabilitated mangrove forest has become another big tourist attraction and another source of revenue for women. “We have managed to construct trails inside the mangrove forest, which are used by tourists who want to view the rich biodiversity of the island.”

Dr. James Kairu works as a marine scientist at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute: “Mangroves have helped in elevating the coastline which helps in limiting effects of rising sea levels.” He added, “They are also key in the absorption of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide which is a key contributor to global warming and climate change.”

The Wasini mangrove conservation project was set up and funded by the Biodiversity Conservation Program, a joint venture between the Kenyan government and the European Commission, as part of an income generating eco-tourism project to help preserve the giant coral rocks on the island and the mangrove forest while providing a livelihood for the village community.

Some of the women have established small restaurants, which serve Swahili delicacies to visiting tourists. “Both the mangrove trails and the restaurants are a good source of income to women managing them and this is one more positive outcome of the rehabilitation project,” Rahma added.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) helped the women in constructing a boardwalk around the site which tourists use to get a glimpse of the giant corals which have been planted in the sea. The Wasini Women Group operates the boardwalk, collecting visitors’ fees and providing tour guiding services.

Through their work, the group has also been able to publish a recipe book, Flavours of Wasini, which is has been a hit with tourists and the wider public alike. These revenue streams have also enabled the construction of an absolution block, and paid to train women in business management, planning and fraud prevention. Furthermore, female scouts have been trained to manage the recovering areas.

A blueprint for change

Said Abdallah tells us he was left jobless at the age of 30, that dwindling fish stocks had pushed him towards a life of drug abuse and addiction. He was unable to provide for his family, and his wife abandoned him. He was brought into the project as a diver to join a team removing plastic waste, sand and other debris from the reefs and seagrass, as well as transplanting healthy coral fragments into the ocean. Through his involvement in the project, Abdallah has overcome his addiction, has remarried, and earns at least $10-20 a day from fishing, enabled by the booming marine life.

Said Abdallah works as a part time worker at a restaurant on Wasini Island. He was saved from alcoholism by the project

So far, the Wasini Beach Management Unit has put some 230 women into direct regular employment as tour guides, divers, conservationists, fish sellers and restaurant operators.

Swabrah Mohamed Ahmed, the Wasini women group chairperson, celebrates another milestone achievement; the training of female divers. They now monitor illegal fishing activities on the island and protect mangroves from illegal loggers.

In addition to new jobs, the project has is helping shape the futures of generations to come with the BMU’s sponsorship programme enabling underprivileged children on the island to get educational scholarships.

For women like Sanura Ali, a 43-year-old mother of seven, the programme has provided much needed support. Three of her children have been able to attend school through the sponsorships.

The project has also invested in the future by enabling the community to equip schools, rehabilitate classrooms and even pay for nursery teachers. Ahmed adds that pregnant women on the island can now easily access health services due to the availability of community motorboats that were bought through the project’s earnings. “We have been able reduce cases of maternal deaths because we have boats on standby to act as ambulances for ferrying women who need both prenatal and postnatal care to hospital,“ said Ahmed.

To date, Kenya and the Seychelles are the only African countries to implement this type of coral reef restoration. The Coast Development Authority is using the success story of Wasini Island as a blueprint for wider conservation work along Kenya’s coastline and are teaching Wasini’s lessons to the neighbouring Pate Island in Lamu. Its Managing Director, Mohamed Keinan, says “The project has been beneficial not only to the women but also to marine life and biodiversity. But the greatest achievement has been food security and economic uplifting of the women and youth.”

A young diver taking art in the biodiversity restoration project, who was trained courtesy of the project

Swabrah Mohamed Ahmed concludes by lauding the effect on the island’s young people who, having invested themselves in their island’s transformation, are now busy enjoying the fruits of the opportunities they’ve secured. “With modern fishing boats, tour guide work, restaurant work and conservation work, it’s hard for people to find time to engage in former vices like drug abuse.”

So what’s next? Although the project took a break during the pandemic, work resumed in 2021. Muhiyadin Musa states that their long-term plan is to restore the entire 1,236 acres of mangrove forest on the island. They also have plans of starting a fish processing plant with eyes on the export market.

What’s so good about this?

The economic and social benefits of the Wasini environment rehabilitation system is a clear testimony that women in Kenya have the power to shield families and communities from environment degradation and climate change effects. Environment degradation can have effects not only on flora and fauna but also the family unit. All this obviously also serves to give new impetus to ecotourism, which is becoming an important revenue stream in some areas of Kenya. Even local operators are beginning to understand that nature conservation can become a gain.

Meet the writer

Jackson Okata is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Nakuru, Kenya. He has got experience in both broadcast, print and online journalism spanning over seven years. Jackson has been specialising in agriculture, environment, women, and gender, political and governance as well as education stories .He also has experience in radio broadcasting, radio production, radio news anchoring, interviewing, research, features writing and editing. When not writing, Jackson is a human rights activist.

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