- Kelly Roberts Banda is a Kenyan property and family lawyer best known for his work as a conservationist, planting mangroves and advocating for climate justice.
- According to government data, Kenya lost 20% of its mangroves between 1985 and 2009 due to overharvesting, clearing for salt mining and shrimp harvesting, pollution and sedimentation.
- In addition to planting trees, Banda and his colleagues help local communities earn money through beehives in the mangroves.
- Banda’s passion for the environment stems from a childhood incident in which his home was flooded and he witnessed the damage from heavy rainfall throughout his neighborhood.
KILIFI, Kenya — An incident in Kelly Roberts Banda’s childhood set him on the path of climate advocacy. Although Banda did not realize it at the time, what appeared then as a tragedy was the foundation of his passion for environmental and climate justice. Banda is a property and family lawyer in Kenya who spends more time as a climate and environmental justice advocate than as the advocate of the high court that he is, professionally.
When Banda was 9 years old, it rained heavily and his home was flooded. He watched helplessly as his family and their neighbors lost property to the flood waters. He wondered why people had to suffer because of nature — and if there was anything he could do.
Although Banda studied law, he is best known today for his conservation work in the coastal town of Kilifi, where he has lived nearly all his life. This has earned him the moniker “protector of mangroves” among his community.
According to the National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan (2017-2027), Kenya lost roughly 20% of its mangrove cover between 1985 and 2009, 70% of which was recorded in regions adjacent to urban areas. This translates to a loss of 450 hectares (1,112 acres) per year. Primary causes include excess wood harvesting, mangrove clearing for salt mining and shrimp farming, pollution and sedimentation. Kilifi has 8,536 hectares (21,093 acres) of mangrove cover accounting for 14% of Kenya’s coastal mangroves. Banda says that 243 hectares (600 acres) of this is already facing severe degradation from indiscriminate harvesting, and he is determined to protect the rest and restore the degraded areas.
Banda has planted thousands of mangrove trees through his own initiative and with the help of other environmental organizations. On Dec. 18, he took part in the annual year-end mangrove restoration day, during which 10,500 mangrove trees were planted. The event started in 2021 through Banda’s initiative and the Kilifi Climate Change and Governance Platform, a community-based organization he started that focuses on coastal conservation. Banda was able to raise more than half a million shillings ($4,000) toward planting mangrove seedlings.
Apart from Banda’s individual work in conservation, he consults for the Panafrican Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), under its subsidiary Kenya Platform for Climate Governance. PACJA is a consortium of organizations, drawn from 48 African countries, that champions environmental and climate justice. His work entails advising the climate justice nonprofit on advocacy, policy and governance in the coastal region. Moreover, Banda is a youth representative in the blue economy front, a position he says involves empowering fishers within marginalized groups in Kilifi while also creating awareness around marine conservation.
Banda is currently pursuing a master’s degree in environmental law. “I want to be able to knock on all doors in the climate change and conservation arena, and I’m certain my master’s degree will help me do that,” he says.
Banda stepped aside from a conservation meeting with local leaders in Kilifi on Dec. 14 to speak with Mongabay. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mongabay: Can you pinpoint an incident or the moment when you decided: I really care about the environment and so I want to be a champion for environmental justice?
Kelly Roberts Banda: If you remember El Nino [which caused heavy rainfall that wreaked havoc in Kenya in 1997-98], that is what drove me to be a champion for the environment. I was so young but I saw what happened to people, I saw what happened to property, I saw how desperate people looked as their property got submerged in water. As kids, we didn’t even have a place to play. It pained that some of our immediate neighbors were going through all this. So I really asked myself: Why are these people suffering because of nature? Someone had built a house on riparian land where it’s not supposed to be, diverting the river’s channel toward our house. That hit me so hard, and from then I started actively engaging in environmental clubs in school, and this went on to campus.
The resilience of nature also intrigues me. Sometimes I even wonder to myself, Why did I study law? My passion is in the environment. I would even skip classes in college to attend environmental activities.
Mongabay: How did you get into law and what does it have to do with your passion for climate and environment justice?
Kelly Roberts Banda: My dad wanted to be a lawyer [but] he never made it into law school, so he decided to be an accountant. So, he compelled me as a first son to make sure I do law because he didn’t. I also have a degree in public relations. I also studied policy and governance. However, the passion I have for the environment goes way back, and that is why as much as I practice law, I still find myself working on issues to do with the environment. It is a passion in me, and I have had it for a long time. If I wasn’t forced to do law, I would have studied something to do with the environment. Actually, right now, I’m pursuing a master’s in environmental law.
Mongabay: What do you hope to achieve with your master’s degree?
Kelly Roberts Banda: I want to come and fight for my people. I want to be one of the lead climate change negotiators in Kenya; I want to fight for compensation for loss and damage. I want to fight for climate change and climate justice. I want my people to get what they deserve. I’m driven by the state of the community I live in because I see how much they are riddled by poverty, and it is not their fault. I want to change the hard situations people are going through. With that knowledge, I know I’m capable of knocking on all doors and conferring with [renowned] people and telling them the needs of my people and negotiating their best interests. My hope is to fight for my community, to be a voice for them.
Mongabay: How do you plan to achieve your objectives after graduating with your master’s degree? What will you do differently?
Kelly Roberts Banda: I will be able to bring in partners into the whole process. I want to work with partners, I want to work with the government itself — because at the end of the day, a lot depends on the government’s actions. For instance, the president’s pledge of planting 5 billion trees is a good gesture toward mitigating climate change. I want to sit at the table and negotiate how our people are going to benefit in terms of loss and damage attributable to climate change. Climate change is already affecting us. I want to be part of the discussions on how to adapt to the situation.
Mongabay: How do you balance your career and conservation work?
Kelly Roberts Banda: My career is not a big deal because I’m a private lawyer – I’m not employed. Most of what I do is environmental advocacy work. I only do law as a part-time [job], but the advocacy work is everything; that is where my passion is. That is why I can wake up in the morning and ask myself: Have I told someone to plant a tree? Or, have I planted a tree? Or, what am I planning in conservation this week? For instance, the end-year mangrove restoration [Dec. 18]. And we are going to plant 10,000 mangroves. I have mobilized people as far as Nairobi [315 miles away] to just come and enjoy the sandy beaches and plant mangroves. It’s going to be fun!
Mongabay: When we first met, it was during the Oct. 13 Climate Justice Torch campaign march in Nairobi. What was your objective then?
Kelly Roberts Banda: We [PACJA] wanted to bring to the attention of the Kenyan government our four-agenda communique to be presented to the COP27. The agendas were climate change, mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage. Those were areas we felt the Kenyan government needed to present to the COP27 and ensure that Kenyans get something out of the negotiations. We also wanted the world to know our intentions and needs heading toward COP27.
Mongabay: Tell us more about your involvement with PACJA.
Kelly Roberts Banda: I have been mentored by PACJA for quite a long time. My first engagement with PACJA was in 2010, immediately after college. We had a community group called Tujivunie Mazingira Yetu [Pride in our Environment], and through that group, I got an invitation to attend an environment forum. I have been working with them since then — I am like a life member in PACJA. They have mentored me and actually made my passion for environmental conservation stronger. I work for PACJA as a community resource person overseeing six counties within the coastal region.
Mongabay: Why are you particularly interested in mangrove conservation?
Kelly Roberts Banda: That’s a very good topic. Mangrove is just a tree that grows along the coastal line, but the term is also used for tropical coastal vegetation. Mangrove is an indigenous hardwood that is at high risk and we are trying to save it. People are really cutting it down. So, we are working with communities to make sure that we restore the mangrove and also provide security. We usually look for donors, buy mangroves from the community and plant them with members of the community. This makes them feel like they own it because we bought the trees from them and planted the trees with them.
Moreover, we give the community incentive to protect the mangroves by establishing economic activity through the mangroves. We give them beehives, and since mangroves are good at attracting bees, they put the beehives on the mangroves and can earn a living through harvesting honey and selling it.
Since mangroves provide a rich breeding ground for fish, cutting them down means fishermen have a hard time getting fish, and the alternative is keeping bees for a livelihood. In a ripple effect, the community will not allow anyone to interfere with where their livelihood comes from, thus protecting the mangroves. If anyone cuts down the mangroves, the bees will disappear; and when the bees disappear, there is no honey and, consequently, poverty. Currently there [are] about 600 acres of cut-down mangrove that we are keen on restoring.
Mongabay: Why are people cutting down mangrove trees? What do they use them for and are they aware of the damage?
Kelly Roberts Banda: They are aware of the damage, but because of hard economic times, they do it anyway. Mangroves are hardwood and therefore very good for furniture, building or charcoal. So they cut them to go and sell.
Mongabay: What would you say you are most proud about in your conservation work?
Kelly Roberts Banda: I’m proud of being a provider, because apart from conservation and activism, I have given a chance to people to have money in their pockets. When I source for donors and donate beehives to families, they don’t sleep hungry. They may have challenges in getting the market for the honey but they at least get something. The other thing is I know that I will be counted among the names in mangrove restoration in this country. One day, they [the government] will know about my efforts — one day. And I will continue pushing.
Mongabay: How much have you achieved in mangrove conservation?
Kelly Roberts Banda: I have mobilized a group called Kilifi Climate Change and Governance Platform, which is the mother of all CSOs [civil society organizations] concerned with environmental conservation and climate change in the coastal region — I built that. Right now, I am a brand name. When you mention Kelly, they’ll tell you, “Kelly the Mangrove Guy.” Besides, I feel proud because I can easily get into any office and ask for support in my conservation work, and because of my initiatives, I get the support. Because of my brand, donors understand my seriousness and know that whether they give me funds or not I will find a way. The other thing I’m proud of is mobilizing the community to come together for such a cause. It is not easy; people will fight you. But when the community can listen to your voice and say, ‘This is our man; he can take us somewhere and change the environment. We are going to follow what you tell us,” it is a very unique thing!
Mongabay: What motivates you?
Kelly Roberts Banda: It is about restoring Mother Nature; it’s about sitting somewhere and feeling a good breeze; it’s about looking everywhere and it’s all green — that is my happiness. My happiness is not seeing a desert but seeing the greenness of Mother Earth. I want everywhere to be green. Whenever I see anything green, I feel fulfilled. It has never been about the money because I’m a practicing lawyer anyway. If it was about the money, I would leave climate change issues and concentrate on being a lawyer. It is a passion I have for greening the environment and making it cleaner.
Mongabay: What don’t people know about you that you think they ought to know?
Kelly Roberts Banda: I’m a funny guy. I love the environment. And then I have a passion for changing lives. I want to be the reason someone is living a happy life. I want to motivate someone to say, “I want to be like Kelly.” I want to be a mirror in the society that people can look like and see themselves in a different way. You know: like how cats look into a mirror and see a lion — that is what I want people to see. When they look at me, they see themselves bigger than what I am.
I want to motivate youths. I want to tell them there is hope, whether there are jobs or not. For instance, they can make nurseries and sell trees. One mangrove seedling goes for 100 shillings [$0.81] and we are buying 10,000 — that’s almost a million shillings [$8,100]. It is never about employment; it is about the passion you have. The little things that you do matter.
People need also to know that I like walking with people, I don’t like walking alone, and I don’t like leaving people behind me. When we say we are walking together, we are going together!
Banner image: Kelly Roberts Banda (center, standing) with volunteers and community members on the mangrove restoration day. Image courtesy of Kelly Roberts Banda.
Community project helps Kenya aim for climate goals one mangrove tree at a time
Republic of Kenya Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Authorities. (2017). National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan 2017-2027. Retrieved from http://wiomn.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/National-Mangrove-Ecosystem-Management-Plan_Final_170628.pdf