- Karen Kimani has spent many of her 10 years working to save the environment in Kenya, planting thousands of trees, speaking out against air pollution and representing her country in international events, including COP27.
- Kimani is also a model and has created clothing from recycled plastics; she uses modeling as an opportunity to spread her message about the environment.
- Kimani hopes to become a doctor and says a better environment will make her work easier, as fewer people will become sick from environmental pollution.
Kenya’s youngest environmentalist, 10-year-old Karen Kimani, takes inspiration from a role model who died before she was born: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, a champion for both people and the environment. Maathai was the first African woman to receive the prestigious prize, in 2004. She was known for her work defending democracy, and for the grassroots Green Belt Movement she started to fight deforestation. In that vein, the young Kimani has already planted more than 10,000 trees.
Kimani’s work has won widespread accolades and given her the privilege of speaking with the Kenya’s head of state, President William Ruto, about forestry and rangeland restoration. In addition, she has met and caught the attention of high-profile leaders across the world — from the British high commissioner to Kenya, Jane Marriott, to African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina, Kenya’s first lady Rachel Ruto, Environment, Climate Change and Forestry Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya and, of course, her teachers.
Her efforts have been acknowledged by President Ruto as well as Tuya, who says her work is central to the country’s larger environmental goal of planting trees, which offer a buffer against human and naturally induced climatic pressures witnessed in the country. According to the National Forest Resources Assessment Report 2021, Kenya has an overall tree cover of 12.13%, which exceeds its constitutional requirement of 10%. This is due in part to tree planting initiatives, according to the report.
In addition, Kimani’s work addresses the country’s burden of air pollution. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 19,000 people die each year in Kenya due to air pollution, with an estimated 20 million Kenyans suffering from respiratory illnesses that are exacerbated by poor air with increased risks of acute illness for small children.
Kimani is also working on another environmental problem in Kenya: plastic waste, which continues to destroy habitats, kill wildlife and contaminate food supplies. Nairobi, for instance, produces about 2,400 metric tons of solid waste each day, 20% of which is plastic, according to the National Environment Management Authority of Kenya (NEMA). At her school, Kimani has established waste collection cages where all plastics are collected before recycling. Together with her friends, she collects plastic waste from the neighboring community.
Her work has focused on reducing, reusing and recycling plastics. For instance, she designed a dress with recycled plastics and drinking straws that was ranked the most innovative in her school (Kimani is a model, too, and she uses her modeling to speak about the environment).
Kimani has and continues to make her own path and is very intentional about what she wants to pursue in the future. Her initiative has given her a whole new focus — a positive approach to conservation. The young environmentalist spoke to Mongabay in December about her aspirations of making a notable difference in the environment and conservation — and she is just getting started. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: Who is Karen Kimani?
Karen Kimani: I am a 10-year-old natural conservationist, an environmental ambassador and a model. I was the youngest cabinet secretary (CS) of environment elected at Harvest View Academy in Nairobi, and I am currently in grade 5 at Rophine Field Junior School, where I plan to establish an environmental club. I am inspired by the Green Belt Movement activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the late Wangari Maathai, who defended democracy, human rights and the environment.
I am also inspired by the story of the late Ella Kissi-Debrah, a 9-year-old girl from South East London who died of air pollution in 2013. Possibly Ella could still be alive today if there were more trees to purify the air. I also believe there is less forest cover in Kenya and air pollution can lead to deaths — this is the reason I have decided to plant as many trees as possible.
Mongabay: What have been your greatest achievements?
Karen Kimani: Last year I was awarded [the] Green Kids Awards trophy at a beautiful annual ceremony at Kenya National Theatre, Nairobi. This award was a result of my resolve to green Kenya by planting trees and encouraging other people to do the same.
When I was 5 years old, I was enrolled in a modeling school, Little Miss Kenya in Nairobi, where I showcased my modeling skills and took part in environmental projects. My argument was that the environment affects everyone.
My modeling project focused mainly on reducing, reusing and recycling plastics. I designed a dress made of recycled plastics and drinking straws. I was impressed when my eco project was declared the best of all.
At that moment, I won a place to represent Kenya globally in Tenerife, Spain [in the Canary Islands], in 2019, where 40 countries were participating [in an eco project awards competition]. At the event, I recited a moving monologue on how plastic pollution was killing people and marine life. My monologue won the silver international trophy.
In modeling activity, I have won several titles. Just to mention, they include: winner, best eco project in Little Mr. & Miss Kenya 2018; Mini Miss United World Silver award in Little Mr. & Miss United Word 2019; Tiny Princess Africa in Little Prince & Princess Africa 2019; brand ambassador, TeamEnvironment Kenya 2020; first runner up, Green Kids Awards 2021; Green Kids Awards winner 2022; brand ambassador, African Forest 2022; and member of Global Young Greens 2022.
Mongabay: What lessons did you learn in Spain and how did you apply them back home?
Karen Kimani: On returning to Kenya after my stay in Spain, I had learned a lot in terms of waste management and environmental conservation. Tenerife waste management is one of the best in the world. All bins are separated for different wastes. Tins, plastics, paper, etc. And the country mainly uses biodegradable bottles, which are good for the environment.
My passion for conserving the environment grew tenfold on my return from Spain.
I established a 3Rs club in my school, which currently has 30 members. Club members in school collect plastics together for recycling. I established collection cages in school, where all these plastics are put together before being collected for recycling. Sometimes we collect waste from the neighboring community.
Mongabay: How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your work as an environmentalist, and what opportunities did you take advantage of during this period?
Karen Kimani: In 2020 when COVID-19 hit, I used the period to focus more on my projects. This was because schools were closed, which gave me more free time. I engaged in tree planting with various charities and nongovernmental organizations, including TeamEnvironment Kenya. Together with others, we managed to plant over 10,000 trees in different counties in Kenya, including Kisumu, Muranga, Nandi and Taita Taveta, among others.
Due to my sense of commitment and international exposure, I was honored by TeamEnvironment Kenya as their international brand ambassador in 2020, a position I am highly proud of.
At the peak of the pandemic, I formed and registered an organization dubbed Karyn Forte Environmental Conservation Limited. My idea of this organization came from my experience of planting trees across the country and distributing seedlings to different organizations and individuals. The objective and mission of the organization is to help increase forest cover in the country, which will come with many benefits including improved rainfall and fresh air for all.
Karyn Forte Environmental Conservation, where I am CEO and a director, has a tree seedling growing project with more than 30,000 seedlings of over 10 different species of trees, including beautification trees — which is a plus.
The tree project has the support of the Kenya forest department. I am delighted that many of my friends are learning from me and many are planning to start their tree-planting projects.
Mongabay: What is your approach to balancing conservation and schoolwork?
Karen Kimani: My academic performance has continued to improve. My conservation work rhymes well with my academics. I have my way of balancing the two.
When am having an exciting activity in my conservation or modeling work, I feel happier sharing the experience with other pupils. This motivates me and with the current syllabus. I am doing much of what is being taught at school. In a way, some of the schoolwork is just like an extension of my work. My school is supportive of my work, which gives me the confidence that I am doing the right thing.
My modeling life and environmental conservation also go hand in hand; they are entwined. I model for the environment. My first international environmental award was a result of my eco project, which was a modeling project. This work gives me the courage to speak in public — a quality I need in addressing environmental-related issues.
Mongabay: What has been the role of your parents in your success?
Karen Kimani: My parents tell me that I have been passionate about the environment since I was 4 years old. That’s a long time for me to remember. My mother and father guide me in every work I do, every step of the way.
They are small-scale business people, however, with so little; they have nurtured me and encouraged me each day to follow my dreams. I walk with my mother, side by side, even when going on international trips and events.
My parents ensure that I balance my education, conservation and model work; they teach me how to carry out myself in the limelight and that despite where this journey takes me, I should never forget where I came from: humble beginnings. My grandparents’ love for the environment is unmatched, and I am just walking in their footsteps; they are very proud of me and I won’t let them down.
Mongabay: As an environmental ambassador, how have you used your title?
Karen Kimani: I have used my title to sensitize the public on the dangers of neglecting our environment and cutting trees.
I made history as the youngest-ever delegate in COP meetings. Last year, I was the youngest delegate to COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The attention I received at the summit has made it easier for me to convey my climate change message to a bigger audience.
After COP27, I proceeded to the UK for the MTM Environmental Excellence Award ceremony, where I was honored for my exemplary work in conservation. Thereafter, I was a special guest at Prince William’s Earthshot Prize 2022, hosted by the British high commissioner at her residence.
Mongabay: How do you envision your environmental work in the future?
Karen Kimani: My future aspiration is to green Kenya by planting trees and plant trees while marking my birthdays and different anniversaries. I hope to work with President Ruto in his national tree-planting and growing initiative.
I aspire to become a medical doctor who believes a safer and cleaner environment is good for our well-being. Fresh air with less pollution will make my work as a doctor in the future easier, as fewer people will be falling ill.
As of now, I believe it is still early to decide whether or not to have an environmental-related career in the future.
My plans for the future are to have more and more children emulate my work. I believe that children will live on this planet the longest. Therefore, [there is a] need for children to be on the front line in environmental conservation.
Banner image: Karen Kimani waters her tree nursery. Image courtesy of Ann Njeri.
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Kenya Forest Service. (2021). National Forest Resources Assessment Report 2021. Retrieved from https://www.kenyaforestservice.org/index.php/national-forest-resources-assesment-report-2021-kenya/