March 11 – our day with Adam Tuller in Mombasa
“It’s the difference between chalk and cheese!” Adam said, as he climbed out of the boat and into the ocean. We were off the coast of Kenya, examining the coral reefs. Just an hour earlier, Adam had taken us to an otherwise healthy reef just a few miles away from this one. He gave me a snorkel and urged me to look at the life below.
The first reef was covered in low lying green weeds. No fish were anywhere. After about ten minutes I was able to locate a handful of little ones. But here at the reef inside a protected marine sanctuary, fish glided past in such numbers as you might expect on the L.A. freeway. I reached out to grab one and missed it by inches. Below the weeds grew taller and swayed in the undercurrents. Among the reef weeds I saw a few large fish. There were brilliant blue ones, striped ones, and a pair of yellow and blue ones I swear I’d seen in a fishtank in an expensive restaurant. Only these were three times in size.
I popped my head out of the water. “This is what I mean,” Adam said. “The first area is officially a marine reserve and only ‘traditional fishing’ techniques are allowed there. But there are just too many fishermen these days.”
“Why don’t the fish migrate from here over to there?” I asked.
“Oh they do, and each morning ever last fish is scooped up.”
Our confidence in unlimited resources is so strong that we feel in a proverbial sense. “There are plenty of fish in the sea,” one might say to another in discussing the problems of men and women. Adam invited us here to tell you there are not.
Adam Tuller founded the Africa Conservation Trust about 10 years ago. As a fourth generation Kenyan (of British descent), Adam works to merge economic and environmental sustainability into all of his projects. “You have to begin with people,” he said. “Because they are the ones causing problems for the animals.” The Kenyan government recently recognized his lifetime of effort in parks and the ocean to restore health by making him an honorary warden of the wildlife service.
“It’s more than just honorary,” Adam added. “I have the power to arrest poachers. And I have used it on the many occasions we happened to come across them.”
Even on our routine day trip to the marine park, Adam is upset. He is staring at the sonar, which measures the depth and the number of fish below. “People have been poaching,” he says. “There are usually more fish than this. You can see why it is so important that we build more artificial reefs.”
Afterwards we headed back to the dock. All along the coast white sandy beaches beckon the million tourists that will come to Kenya’s beaches near Mombasa. “I would like to show you one more thing,” Adam says as we race pass the docks into a narrow inlet lined with Mangroves. As we went deeper the sides steepened until we were in a ravine. At the end of this inlet we found a gully and a small earthen dam with a metal mesh gate controlling access to the pool beyond. A Kenyan is standing on the dam watching the water flow through.
“Good! we haven’t missed it,” Adam said. “Here is where I would like to build my aquaculture.”
I had a some idea, but it is always helpful to ask. So I asked him, “What is aquaculture, exactly?”
“You fill an area with prawn larvae in the water, close it off, and feed them. This pond belongs to a friend. It is just a crude example, and we would be more scientific about it. You could increase your yield ten times if you included a hatchery that introduced a known amount of larvae, for example.”
By now our presence had attracted a dozen children from the huts on the hill. The children played on the damn and watched us.
“These are the people who will harvest the prawns.”
Michael, my colleague, asked, “what is to stop someone else from grabbing them first?”
“Or birds from eating them?” I added.
“They must watch the pool day and night in the days just before harvest. And there are always enrivonmental challenges, like birds.”
Adam’s vision for Mombasa’s well being begins with people. To Americans, Fish farming may seem like a business, but he views it as a way to reduce the economic burden on Kenya’s marine wildlife. You cannot enforce fishing regulations if the people are denied a means of putting food on the table. So Adam focuses on building a sustainable balance into the fishing industry.
His marine project is building artificial reefs along the coast and giving each village ownership of that piece of water. As Michael noted, this is a “build it and they will come” approach to ocean management. Each reef should provide enough fish to support one village without reducing the breeding stock to dangerous levels. The barriers give some fish a place to hide from predators (e.g. nets). In time every fishing village will have their own reef and will have the authority to guard that spot against their neighbors. The better each reef is managed, the wealthier that village becomes over time. Finally the “tragedy of the commons” problem – where everyone is responsible for taking care of a space used by everyone – is more manageable. If you personally know the others who share your reef, your relationship will their families will put all of you on better behavior.
Adam believes that if you first provide people with opportunities, they will help you enforce the rules on the handful of greedy ones who continue depleting the ocean of every last fish.
Funding these efforts has been a ten year task. Of the many places Africa Conservation Trust gets money, about 30% comes from GlobalGiving donors. Individual donors support it and hear back on progress. We are here to listen to the beneficiaries. Specifically, we would love to find ways of giving the people whom Africa Conservation Trust serves a direct voice in the process. Imagine if a hundred funders of one artificial reef in the U.S. were matched one-to-one with a hundred fishermen who use it. Many Kenyans have mobile phones now, at least one per boat. If we could encourage them to use twitter or email2sms then people would be talking directly to people. Two-way communication breaks down assumptions on both sides. From my experiences living in Africa, this what a conversation might go like:
Fisher: I caught some fish today. Was better last week.
Friend: Can’t talk right now, working.
Fisher: I sat on the boat all day laying nets. Wind and storm is coming.
Friend: Picked up my kids from school and took them to club meeting. Working later tonight on my reports.
…. Later in dialogue …
Fisher: Every time we talk are you working! When do you see your family?
I can’t say where the conversation will turn. The world has never done anything like this.
Returning to the funding problem, the Africa Conservation Trust gathers most of its money from an “Eco-city” project a few miles away. Aside from the artificial reef project, Adam’s day job is financing and manging the construction of Africa’s first sustainable city. About the size of a large housing project in the US, this new city will provide housing for 7000 families, commerce, security, and transportation to Mombasa (10 minutes away). The views from this hill-top are spectacular. And 10% of proceeds from each home goes directly to the African Conservation Trust.
The town is powered by a hybrid wind-solar-water energy system. One sunny days they use thin-film solar devices (that cost $1/watt). On cloudy/windy days they switch to wind turbines which face the ocean. The energy from both systems is used to pump water into a reservoir, which on other days can be released to provide hyroelectric power when wind and solar fail. Finally, rain water from the hillside drains into the ravine below and feeds into a natural wetlands where it is purified and used for agriculture and drinking.
“My friends bought a house in a community like this in Fort Collins, colorado,” I said, “It cost close to $300,000.”
“These units range from $20,000 to $40,000 and have two to four bedrooms,” Adam said.
“So Middle class Kenyans can afford them?”
“We have a waiting list of 5000 and the bank predicts people will pay them off in 8 years (average) given their incomes.”
Building Africa’s first Eco-city as a Kenyan carries a huge political risk. Adam tried to finance large projects before but a change in political winds led the government to seize his aquaculture. He spent 16 years in court trying to recover his losses. Meanwhile Kenyan officials stole hundreds of millions of shillings from Kenyan banks using his project as collateral for loans they intended to default on from the start. Still, Adam refused to give up. He started over with this Eco-city.
Why haven’t you heard about it on GlobalGiving? Because a truly innovative idea is self-sustaining. Adam found foreign investors (also useful as protection against another case of property ceasure) and built the Eco-City with them. They make a profit, but there is no other way to guard against a corrupt politician ceasing the project in the future. These are still low-cost houses, despite the investor profits. So much so that Adam’s current headache is preventing other holding companies from buying the housing and reselling it at twice the price – the market price – that he is asking. Even the banks insisted that he double the price, because they prefer to have Kenyans paying off the houses for 20 years instead of 8.
If you have ideas on how to avoid this reselling problem, you need to advise him. Adam is actively seeking interns from colleges in the US that want to help him design good self-governance and administration systems so that families move in rather than investors. Families will commit to improving each person’s quality of life by sharing and maintaining this ecosystem; investors won’t. If other Eco-cities use this one as a model, investors could transform communities to consume less than they produce while turning a profit, while people can afford to live in a nice area. Neighbors make all the difference, and while we usually cannot choose our neighbors, the Mombasa Eco-city has a rare opportunity to attract more people who are conscientious and less that are greedy.
On our way to tour the site Adam introduced us to one of his less welcome neighbors. We pulled off on the side of the road for a moment. “This is Lafarge,” Adam said. He pointed to some palms in front of the giant cement factory. “Notice the grey color?” All the trees around the cement factory were blanketed in a fine white powder, not unlike the plumes of smoke coming from the factory’s smoke stack.
“Years ago a local company sold to the French international comglomerate. The new owners cut all their environmental measures. Look around!” Adam said, pointing across the street. “Their workers live right there and breathe this dust every day! This company would never be able to make cement in the E.U. Instead they pollute in our country.”
Michael leaned out to snap pictures. Just then a private guard in the iconic blue uniform dawning a company logo patch on his shoulder approached us.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“None of your business,” Adam said.
“I see you talking pictures. Why are you doing this?”
“Go away. This is a public place!”
They argued for a while and eventually Adam just drove away in a huff. The guard had no authority.
“If we were not late I would have phoned the C.O. and done something about him,” Adam steemed, “I am a warden, after all.”
“There is a Kenyan owned cement plant a little farther away that has low pollution. That’s why we buy from Rhino. It really gets my goat to have this man try and intimidate me!”
You can be sure we haven’t heard the end of this. Adam is an expert is political maneuvering. I believe he can put pressure on the LaFarge cement factory to reform. It wasn’t always this way. The former owners built a game reserve beside the factory. Today the trees choke on cement ash and the fields are vacant of wildlife.
What Adam is just learning is how messages spread worldwide through social media. He came to our GlobalGiving workshop to learn a thing or two about reaching millions of people through those who believe in your cause and help you to spread the word.
The next morning at breakfast Adam took some fruit and eyed me across the table with a serious expression. “If you add up all the destuction and weigh it against the conservation, mankind is not going to survive,” he said. It’s the sort of lamentation many would find depressing. But when a fighter says it, there is always an inkling of hope underneath.
He stared out the window. A little bird had flown into the room and was pecking at the floor. Adam took a bite of toast. He paused. He looked at the little bird.
“I am going to learn about twitter now,” he said.
Where had I seen that little bird before? It reminded me of the little bird on the GlobalGiving logo. The one that tweets in your ear, “It is up to you to speak.”