Every week, the Aspiration community funds the planting of millions of trees, making it one of the largest private-sector reforestation efforts in the world. But it's not enough to just plant trees, they need to be planted the right way to grow and thrive so they can help fight the climate crisis, preserve the environment, and help local communities all at the same time. As the Carbon & Reforestation Manager at Aspiration, Tracy Bain’s job is to make sure reforestation is done right. Here’s part one of her report from a recent site visit in Africa:
The first things I saw were trees—tree stumps that is. As we crested a grassy hill outside of Kijabe, Kenya, the charred remains of African cedar trees, cut down years ago for charcoal production and timber, popped up among the waving grasses. My guide and colleague, Andrew Kinzer, Africa Area Director at Eden Reforestation Projects (Eden), explained that his team assesses a site prior to implementing a reforestation program to ensure it meets the right conditions for planting and to determine what native species of trees previously grew at the site. He pointed across a nearby valley at the forest growing on the hillside and said that is what the area we stood on looked like before unsustainable timber harvesting cut down all of the trees and destroyed the forest habitat.
Eden Reforestation Projects staff member monitoring tree seedling growth at the Aspiration-funded Kijabe reforestation site
As we continued our ascent up the hillside, the Eden team began pointing at the grasses and rapidly calling out different tree species' Latin names. I looked closer and realized that we were in fact walking right through the middle of an area fully planted with one-year-old trees. The trees were about 6-8 inches tall and just barely peeking above the bushy grasses that took over the hillside once the forest was degraded.
Newly planted tree seedling with grass mulch for protection (Eden planting site)
Two-year-old tree seedling growing well at the Kijabe reforestation site (Eden planting site)
Andrew explained that each tree seedling started its life in their nearby nursery where they grow up to 1.6 million tree seedlings each year. From there, the seedlings are brought as close to the site as possible by truck, and then planting teams carefully carry up to 40 seedlings at a time up the steep mountainside to their final planting locations. The seedlings are then planted, weeded, mulched, and cared for particularly in those first crucial years to ensure the highest rate of survival. It can then take up to ten years for the trees to form a forest canopy.
Eden’s seedling nursery that provides seedlings for reforestation sites within the Rift Valley
Aspiration partners with Eden in Kenya to reforest thousands of hectares of degraded habitat, restore ecosystem function, and support local communities through employment and natural resource restoration. Aspiration has funded the planting of over 10.6 million trees in Kenya to date (out of more than 112 million trees worldwide), working to restore 6,209 hectares of land across Kenya's Afromontane and mangrove ecosystems. Eden employs on average 196 local community members monthly at Aspiration-funded sites throughout Kenya as seedling or propagule planters, site monitors, nursery caretakers, and seed collectors, providing a vital source of income in areas where employment opportunities can be limited.
“We like to say that we are not just planting trees, but growing trees,” Andrew said to me as we crested the hilltop and began a descent into the valley, which took us past trees planted 2-3 years ago that were now growing steadily, beating out the grasses around them as they reached for the sun. “People always think of tree planting as a one-time event, but in fact, we are restoring an entire ecosystem, which takes time, dedication, and resources to do well.”
Eden Kenya’s monitoring manager explains how they evaluate the health of a planted tree (Eden planting site)
Aspiration values the dedication and expertise that Eden brings to their reforestation program and is proud to be one of their largest funding partners allowing them to restore thousands of hectares of critical habitat around the globe.
From Kijabe we traveled next to Kilifi, on the coast, to visit one of the mangrove restoration projects that Aspiration is funding. We geared up with dive boots to protect from the sharp razor clams attached to the mangrove roots and sun hats to avoid the coastal rays. As we walked down a small trail toward the river, we saw what appeared to be lush mangrove habitat with swaths of open mudflats like scars across the landscape. The team explained that it is natural to have smaller open mudflats, but at this site, many of the mature mangroves were cut down for timber and charcoal at an unsustainable rate, which left large clearings in the estuarine ecosystem that became too dry and harsh for most mangrove propagules (seeds) to reestablish on their own.
Aspiration funded Kilifi Creek reforestation site showing healthy mangroves along the river and degraded land beyond that is under restoration by Eden
We walked across the scarred landscape toward the river and began passing clumps of mangroves jutting out like little islands and peninsulas. Fiddler crabs scurried back into the safety of their underground holes or climbed the mangrove trees that were beginning to reach our shoulders. I looked down around our booted, muddy feet and saw little mangrove seedlings aiming straight for the sky nestled around the larger mangroves.
Alex de Sosa Kinzer, Eden’s Director of Forest Landscape Restoration, explained that Eden has developed a unique strategy for mangrove restoration called Mangrove Caregiver. Through experimentation, Eden’s Kenya team found that they could achieve higher survival rates in highly degraded sites if they planted mangrove propagules closer to the edge of healthy mangrove patches and then progressively plant outward in bands, radiating from the mangrove “islands” into the barren clearing. Each year, the growing bands have created more favorable conditions for new trees.
Young mangrove seedlings recently planted and growing up around the roots of mature mangrove trees (Eden planting site)
To get to the location under current restoration, we jumped into a motorboat and cruised down the river for a few minutes. As we rounded a corner, we could hear singing and clapping and soon saw the bright laughing faces of the local community planting team, many of them women, filling their bags with mangrove propagules. They welcomed us warmly and demonstrated how they collect, sort, and prepare the propagules for planting—all of which happens within 24 hours to ensure the seeds remain viable and have the best chance of success. They handed me a bulging bag laden with propagules and said, “Let’s get to work!”
We picked our way carefully through the mature mangrove roots and tiny mangrove seedlings growing amongst them. Most planting occurs when the tide is out to make it easier to plant the seeds directly into the muddy ground. Our visit delayed them a bit and so we were walking through knee-high water which tested my balance but did not phase the planters one bit. As we were planting the propagules (which I was instructed to plant about one meter apart in a random pattern to more closely mimic natural regeneration), I asked them how the project had affected their lives. Some shared stories of how they were able to use the additional income to send their children to school or afford to purchase more nutritious food for their family. Another woman shared that she was able to build a house with her income, while others bought motorbikes to allow them to expand small businesses.
Community members employed by Eden planting mangrove propagules among mangrove roots (Eden planting site)
At the end of our day, we waved goodbye to the planting team and let them continue without us (as we were surely slowing them down). Back on the boat, I turned to Rita, Eden’s Monitoring and Evaluation Regional Manager— an exceptionally talented and tough woman—and asked her what changes, if any, she had seen in the community members since they were hired by the project. She considered and then said to me, “When they first joined Eden as planters, they did not smile, they did not laugh, and their faces were tired and worn looking. But after a few months of working on the project and receiving a steady income, their whole attitudes and appearance changed. They were able to eat healthier food and contribute toward their families' needs. They began smiling and laughing and were even able to do their hair and build their confidence again.”
Community planting team with bunches of sorted mangrove propagules ready for planting (Eden planting site)
One month later, when I was home sitting in front of my computer calculating how many trees Aspiration’s customers and partners had generously funded for the previous month, I could see the women’s faces. I could hear their singing and laughing in my head and see the seedlings growing straight and tall toward the sun. Each number that ticked through my software tool was no longer just a digit, but rather a direct link to those communities and another tree that would repair the forest habitats around them. I started smiling myself, knowing that we were growing a forest and community together.
Tracy Bain is the Carbon & Reforestation Manager at Aspiration. With a scientific background and experience in the nonprofit, research, and philanthropy sector, she is a sustainability leader with 15+ years in the environmental and social impact space, specializing in habitat and wildlife conservation, restoration science, and more. She graduated from Ohio University with a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and earned her Master’s degree in Conservation Biology from Sonoma State University.