Blog: How young volunteers are restoring coral reefs in Kenya

10 March 2022
Artificial coral reef

By Judith Ochieng, Commonwealth Correspondent

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is part of a series launched at Youth4Climate and COP26, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us.

Coral reefs serve as a habitat to about 25% of all marine species. About 250 million people, the majority from developing countries, depend on them for food and income. Sadly, they are the most threatened ecosystem due to unprecedented climate change, global warming and ocean acidification.

Over the last two decades it is estimated that 50% of the world’s reefs have already suffered irreplaceable damage threatening the livelihoods of millions that depend on them. Human activities are the biggest contributor to global coral reef threats, calling for urgent sustainable and working solutions to ensure a thriving marine ecosystem.

At the coastal shores of Kenya in Mkwiro Village on Wasini Island, Kwale County, Mohamed Hamisi is a young volunteer working in coral restoration. He laments, “when you break a coral reef today, it will take a hundred years for it fully grow.” Therefore to reverse the damage caused to coral reefs and ensure the return of fish, Mohamed is harnessing his skills attained through years of volunteer work by planting coral nurseries and artificial corals in the ocean.

His success shows how volunteerism can involve young people as creative problem solvers to marine ecosystem challenges, and at the same time, create modest social enterprise opportunities for young people.

The problem

Famous for its dolphin tours, scuba diving and snorkeling, seafood, sunset dhow cruises, tranquility and warm climate, Mkwiro Village is considered an ideal tourist destination. The locals lead fairly simple lives and there is a significantly low crime rate thanks to a strong community policing culture. Nearly all the 3,700 residents know each other well. Because of its location, the community heavily depends on marine and coastal resources.

In previous years, to protect their livelihood, people avoided fishing in coral rich areas. They called these places ‘tengefu’, a Swahili word for ‘set aside’. However, with time the significance of coral reefs faded, and a new generation of fishermen began to invade these protected areas.

With little or no care for the reefs, they indulged in harmful human activities like overfishing and destructive fishing using spears. As a result, coral reefs already facing the threats of global warming, had little chance of survival. It took a depleting fish stock for the villagers to realize the consequence of their actions, and the importance of coral reefs.

coral reefs

Sustainable management

To arrest the situation and bring back economic stability, in 2008 Mkwiro Beach Management Unit (BMU) was established. The main objective of the group is to conserve biodiversity and improve livelihoods of Mkwiro residents through the sustainable management of coastal and marine resources.

Other functions of the BMU include:

  • eliminating destructive fishing techniques
  • protecting critical habitats and threatened species including creating awareness of them amongst the stakeholders
  • reviving fish populations and improve fishing and tourism opportunities
  • establish a closure zone and no-take zone, and stimulate them for use as eco-tourism, mariculture, reef restoration and research sites
  • demarcation, patrol and enforcement of the no-take zones
  • coral reef restoration, education and training.

Members of all ages have both formal and informal education backgrounds in marine ecosystem and biology, although the majority of them become skilled in this niche area through years of volunteer work. Once they are trained, they end up passing these skills to others through mentorship, residency and training of new members, tourists and the community at large. 

Coral reef restoration

Mohamed Amisi is a volunteer and the group’s patron in coral restoration. Ever since he was a young boy, the only environment he was acquainted with was the beach and the ocean. And over the years, he came to deeply connect and care for the water and ocean around him because it sustained not only him, but the people he cared about in his community.

“When I was in high school, I wanted to study marine biology and that passion made me volunteer in a local NGO called Global Fisheries International for three years. Then I moved on to Reefolution, where I was trained on coral reefs, coral nurseries and artificial reefs. They also taught me how to conduct fish surveys, coral surveys and the different species of fish, corals, sea urchins, and sea grass,” he says.

These skills have come in handy for Mkwiro BMU in working to encourage the return of fish and boosting the local economy. But first Mohamed had the huge task of reminding the community why they need coral reefs in the first place.

“One of the things that we do is create awareness of the importance of coral reefs. You see there are people who believe that coral reefs are just stones. So when fishing they don’t care and end up destroying them. We want the community to be aware that coral reefs are animals. And without them we won’t be able to get fish,” says Mohamed.

Coral reefs are important for a variety of reasons, they protect coastal shores from storms and corrosion, they are breeding grounds for fish as well as tourist attractions. All these directly or indirectly generate income to the local community. As a result, protecting and providing care for them requires a community collective effort. Creating awareness is an effective mitigation measure against local detrimental impacts on the reef, while creating a sense of community responsibility.

Artificial coral reef

Artificial coral nurseries

Alongside creating awareness, under the guidance of Mohamed, the group builds coral nurseries and artificial coral reefs which are then transplanted back into the ocean. The concept of coral nurseries was first introduced by Charles Darwin's theory of coral reef formation in 1842. He observed that if broken corals are rescued and cared for in time, they could survive.

In using this concept, coral nurseries usually comprise of damaged coral reefs, that are collected and cared for in a controlled area. The nurseries provide a favourable environment for injured corals to recuperate, and because they reproduce asexually, they are able to produce healthy young corals that are ready to be transplanted into previously devastated areas.

The BMU also makes artificial reefs which they refer to as bottle reefs. These are also submerged on the seabed to mimic functions of a natural reef. Mohamed and his small team of young people clean the transplanted corals on a weekly basis to remove algae and dirt. They also monitor their growth and conduct fish surveys to find out if numbers are growing and to identify new fish species in the area. The team also build cages and dorms to act as a protective layer for them when submerged in the ocean.

Partnership and support

Since they began their work, the BMU has forged many partnerships with both local and international organizations. One of the main reasons for this is to fundraise for their activities. For instance, to sustain coral nursery activities, coral trees transplanted into the ocean are sold to environmental conservation enthusiasts worldwide. You don’t need to be physically present to nurture the tree. Instead, the BMU nurtures it on your behalf, and may call you from time to time to update you on the progress of your tree.

A single tree goes for US$60 and the sale volumes have been achieved through a partnership with Reefolution, an NGO that BMU considers a key technical partner and major financier.

Some partners support coral restoration activities, with various sponsors committed to investing in 800 more bottle reefs and another 200 dorms to protect the transplanted reefs, and others support initiatives such as capacity building and training.

The Government of Kenya also supports the BMU in achieving its mandate, as it is keen to sensitize the community on marine related issues, and from time to time provide resources like fishing materials. In return, the group is obligated to share their data and monitoring reports.

Rapid growth

Mohamed says one of the biggest successes for the BMU has been the rapid growth of corals. While the group started with only 10 coral trees in 2014, today they have almost 400 trees and 2,000 bottle reefs planted in the ocean.

Not only has this growth helped increase fish stock, there are even new species of fish now breeding in the area. In addition, the entire local community now respects the Mkwiro BMU’s work. Illegal fishing has been replaced with better educated about marine conservation issues and support for BMU's work. 

The community is also seeing increasing healthy marine biodiversity, which is improving fishermen's revenues as well as the economy of the village.

Because of Mohamed's successful work, he has also started training other trainers in coral restoration and marine conservation in other communities. These trainings, coupled with serving as a tour guide to the coral reef conservation areas have become his major source of income.



The group’s biggest challenge has been inadequate resources. Because BMU still have to patrol at least once a week to watch out for poachers, they have to hire a boat which can be expensive. They also lack the funds to properly demarcate their conservation areas and prevent local fishermen from entering unknowingly.

Due to inadequate resources and skills, they also lack a strong online brand to create publicity for their work and assist in fundraising, as well as attract more volunteers and further educate locals on ocean and marine conservation.

COVID-19 also presented new challenges for the BMU, with lockdowns in Nairobi, Machakos, Kiambu, Kajiado and Nakuru affecting eco-tourism activities for the group. “Right now, there are no tourists coming to these areas. So it has crippled our earnings,” says Mohamed. He also adds that as a result of lockdowns, the lack of fish markets has further restricted their income.

Future plans

During his research, Mohamed realised while there are other corals that bleach in warm temperatures, there are those that remain resilient. This type of coral is called the Acropora. This observation has urged him to conduct in-depth research to understand the source of resistance, and later transplant their coral restoration sites.

Mohamed has also learnt about the importance of sea grass, which he says is always overlooked in ocean conservation activities. He says a thriving fish community requires both corals and sea grass.

He also aspires to go back to school and become a scientist in the field of Marine Ecology. Until then, he will be working to restore coral reefs in the village and beyond.

“There is a saying that goes; when you break a coral reef today, it will take a hundred years for it fully grow,” Mohamed says. He says this is a wakeup call to those who take little care of the ocean and the corals reef in them. Reversing the impact of their actions might take a lifetime. Instead of waiting for the devastating impacts, he warns we must act now to restore our coral reefs.

Mohamed says volunteering is an impactful way for young people to actively engage themselves in environmental conservation activities. “We want to improve marine life by 80% of what it is today. We want to see better habitats for fish, healthy coral reefs, sea grass and sea urchins. We also want to see a change in the society where we are able to create jobs and be self-employed from marine conservation. Climate change is affecting people globally and I am happy I am helping with the knowledge I gained through volunteering,”

Across the Commonwealth, young people are volunteering for groups like BMU to help create a safer, healthier ocean and living planet for us all.


This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is part of a series launched at Youth4Climate and COP26, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us

Share this blog series on social media using hashtags #CommonwealthForClimate, #CommonwealthYouth and #BlueCharter.

All images are by Mohamed Tashwish Hamisi