Greening the Concrete Jungle: The Importance of Urban Trees for Temperature Control
NAIROBI, November 13
For the first time in Kenya's history, the government has dedicated an entire day to nationwide tree planting. This public holiday is an effort to plant and grow 15 billion trees by 2032 and increase the forest cover from 7% to over 10%.
Upclose with Miti Mitaani
In the spirit of tree planting, I struck up a conversation with Ronny Mutua, co-founder of Miti Mitaani, on the role of trees in cooling cities, increasing energy efficiency and bridging inequalities. Miti Mitaani is also one of the 2022 winners of the This Is Cool Challenge. This challenge by Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) was launched in 2022 to identify and scale sustainable cooling solutions across the globe.
This is how the conversation went.
Hello Ronny, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you as the first guest on the blog. Please introduce yourself.
My name is Ronny, born and raised in Nairobi and I am the co-founder of Miti Mitaani, a social enterprise that we started last year (2022) in August with a pilot in Mwiki & Githurai. We work with young folks across Nairobi, particularly in marginalised communities to restore green cover. In essence, our enterprise pays youth to plant trees and take care of their survival over time.
Tell us about the history of Miti Mitaani, where it all began and where you drew your inspiration from.
All my school life, I was based on the western and northern sides of the city which tend to be more affluent. Therefore, I grew up seeing a lot of inequalities on my way to school and back as I traversed Nairobi's socio-economic divides. I would always ask myself why some people had more than others and over the years I developed a passion for bridging these inequalities.
We’ve experienced losses in tree cover within the past decade. I am 32 and old enough to have witnessed the transformation of some parts of the city. We’ve had a significant amount of industrial and residential development that has pushed back our tree cover and urban wildlife that we, as residents of Nairobi, sometimes take for granted. A great example is when the Nairobi Expressway was under construction, there were some massive mature trees such as the Ficus benjamina (weeping trees) and acacia trees etc that had to be cut down to make room for the expressway.
Please elaborate on how the concept of Miti Mitaani feeds into sustainable energy consumption and the overall achievement of the Paris Agreement/global climate goals While researching the benefits of trees, I came across the urban heat island effect. This is a phenomenon that occurs mainly in concreted areas with asphalt such as pavements, roads, and walkways, whereby the physical infrastructure reduces the amount of heat that is reflected back into the atmosphere in order to cool down the immediate environment. One of the benefits of trees is that they provide shade and canopies that reduce the temperatures and also give cities a cooling impact when they undergo transpiration. This is a sustainable way to cool our city and it also has the potential to be replicated.
The concept of Miti Mitaani was pegged on the need to instigate a radical change in the city and would require a reassessment of avenues to restore tree cover while involving demographics that have been historically marginalised.
I also observed that the more affluent a neighbourhood seems, the more tree cover is present and ultimately, the cooler the temperatures around these areas. The inverse, unfortunately, is true and therefore, the populations in the less affluent areas would have to spend more finances to cool down their households. Overall, with the influx in population in cities, energy consumption will be higher and will produce carbon emissions. Hence, the need and demand for cooling solutions tend to be high in cities due to the influx in population especially in the cities.
What were your expectations when submitting an application for SEforALL’s This Is Cool Challenge and how has winning this prize progressed your initiative?
Our work tends to be more expensive than regular tree planting because we have several components starting with paying the community members to plant the trees and also look after them. We were looking for a grant and that is how we came across this challenge.
What have we been able to gain? First off, we had a fantastic experience at COP27 where we met the other competitors and got to understand their cooling solutions for sustainably cooling cities.
Our model is tailored in such a way that the more trees we have, the more young people we can empower and the more we can expand the tree cover in Nairobi. For us, we started last year with a small group of 50 young people and about 300 trees with each group being allocated 150 trees. After securing a grant from SEforALL, we expanded our pilot to 2000 trees with 10 youth groups. We successfully completed our pilot in August and we recorded amazing results thanks to the contribution from the challenge.
Please walk us through how you were able to engage the local government as a stakeholder in this initiative. Was it easy/hard?
We’ve had an easier relationship with the government than with the communities where we’ve planted. It hasn’t been hard because of the incentives by the present-day government headed by H.E President William Ruto who launched a campaign to plant 15 billion trees by 2032.
As with any partnership, you have to be clear on what you want to do, be clear on your counterpart's role versus your own, and show evidence of previous work to build credibility. When the local government got to know that our initiative was looking to plant trees, ready to work with the youth and was not charging them for it; they were thrilled! The government officials helped us scout an area of land to undertake our activities. Most of our work is along the Nairobi River and riparian forests. In Githurai, we have been working with the deputy county commissioner within the sub-county. The local environmental officer attached to the sub-county was able to walk with us to engage the community and find a piece of land where we were able to plant the 2,000 trees in the expanded pilot.
The challenge we experienced was engaging with the community; some communities had stereotypes against young people as drug users, those involved in crime etc. The local barazas provided the platform for us to introduce ourselves, the young people involved and the scope of the work. This was important because the majority of the work would take place close to people’s homes which is a sensitive matter.
Congratulations on all you have been able to achieve thus far. What can we expect in the coming year?
Our current engagement period with partner youth is 6 months long from the time we plant our first tree to the time we exit. Ideally, we would want that to be longer i.e. 2 or 3 years because trees take a while before they reach the stage where they are more resilient on their own. This time frame also depends on the species.
In terms of what’s next - We want to have projects spanning over a long period of time while engaging the youth and the communities. We’ve noticed that apart from being able to plant the trees and have youth taking care of them; a community exists around the forest. Therefore, it's important to build ownership over the forest in addition to scaling our program beyond 3 forests in the city.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out?
You have to be confident in the solution that you have and in the needs that the solution is addressing. In our case, we use trees. Planting trees is not as complex as setting up an industrial cooling plant. It is a simple concept whereby you plant a tree and it grows with numerous benefits such as cleaning the air. The complexities lie in the pooling of resources for funding, structuring of the idea, and approaching the communities. But the fundamental solution is simple, and hence replicable.
For some people, it could be solar-based cooling and others may focus on designing and building our cities differently. Keep making the connection between the need and the solution and hopefully, the ideas will be able to scale.
"Always remember that it takes a village to cool a city."
The second half of this year has presented some sobering realisations. July 2023 was the hottest month on record (1). As the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres put it, "...the era of global boiling has arrived!" Additionally, August 2 was this year's earth overshoot date. This means that on that day, humanity's ecological resource demands had surpassed what the earth can generate. In order to move this date further/back, the global emissions have to be reduced significantly, and as a result, limiting global temperature rise to below 2°C.
Cities are rapidly expanding, becoming more populous, and with increasing demand for cooling. As such, with proper planning and collaboration, cities have the potential to reduce carbon emissions and ultimately contribute to pushing back the overshoot date.
How are you cooling your city sustainably? Let me know.