Seventeen years ago, if anyone would have told Serah Munguti that she would be a name to reckon with in the conservation circles in Kenya, she would have probably shrugged off the idea. Her work of influencing policies precedes her laid back persona. Numerous awards and certificates serve as proof of her enormous contribution to conserving Kenya’s Habitats. She is the Policy and Advocacy Manager at Nature Kenya – the East Africa Natural History Society, a position that has seen her contribute to important decisions. One of her biggest projects, the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan, won a prestigious international award for planning excellence in 2016 and also saw her receive a Tusk Conservation Award in 2017. Serah has also made notable contributions towards the conservation of the Yala Swamp, Kenya’s largest freshwater swamp, as well as Lake Natron. Nature Kenya’s Esther Wangari recently had a chat with Serah.
Esther: How far back can you trace your love for conservation?
Serah: My passion for nature and wildlife goes back to when I was a little girl. I remember growing up in Makueni and my mother and I would visit my father who worked in a hotel at Amboseli National Park. The hotel’s staff camp sat on an elevated position and from that point I could see different wild animals freely moving around. My fondest memory was watching elephants soil-bathing. I would marvel at how they would majestically take turns to throw soil on their backs with their trunks. Later on in both primary and secondary school I joined the wildlife clubs. That early interaction with nature played a big part in nurturing my interest in conservation and wildlife.
Esther: Did you ever see yourself being at the forefront of conservation?
Serah: Not really. The passion was in me but it was somewhat unconsciously natured along the way. I have always been vocal so I picked law as my first choice course in campus. However, I ended up being selected to study Wildlife Management, which was my second choice. With that I felt it would be wise to combine my activism nature with my love for wildlife. As fate would have it, my masters degree centred around advocacy and policy formulation which was totally different from my previous areas of specialisation. For me, ceasing opportunities before me, the zeal to make a positive impact on the environment and having communities that are aware of their rights are what eventually brought me to this level.
Esther: When you returned to Kenya after your masters degree, you were offered a new position at Nature Kenya. How was it settling down into a position that you had no previous experience in?
Serah: It took me sometime to see what the Nature Kenya Executive Director had seen in me when he created the advocacy position. He always said I was eloquent in the way I presented my views. I remember how I initially felt lost after attending stakeholder meetings. Slowly, I got acquainted with terms and how things worked in matters conservation before finally getting the hang of it. For me the first big project was being part of the team that spearheaded campaigns to save Lake Natron from a prospective developer who wanted to put up a soda ash mining factory. Lake Natron is a major breeding site for most Lesser flamingos in Africa. Being part of the team that halted plans that would have threatened the future of the Lesser flamingos became a stepping stone in my quest to protect other key biodiversity areas in Kenya. That experience encouraged me to yearn for more areas where I could put my ideas to use.
Esther: In 2006 you embarked on a journey to save the Tana Delta from exploitation by both local and foreign companies at the expense of conservation. What challenges did you face in Tana Delta?
Serah: Nothing had prepared me and by extension Nature Kenya for what we found in Tana. The area had a bad history of ethnic conflicts originating from unresolved land issues so the air was always tense for us. There was also resistance from the community. Being a largely patriarchal community, taking in ideas on how to safe guard their rights and those of their resources from a young woman did not sit well with some men. They eventually warmed up to me and we worked together to realise our common goal. I think the worst challenge for me was the many threats we faced from people who claimed to have links with powerful leaders in the world. The fear of not knowing what the threats would lead to somewhat dampened my spirit. But, I had set my mind to succeed in Tana.
Esther: How did your success in Tana Delta influence your foray into the conservation of Yala Swamp?
Serah: The ruling by Lady Justice Mumbi Ngugi was proof that it was important to involve the community when making major development plans involving their resources, and that there was need to sustainably manage our natural resources and also protect our biodiversity areas. With that confidence our team started working on restoring Yala Swamp. We encountered challenges but I was confident. The Land Use Plan was being implemented in the Tana Delta and had also been adopted as model for water and coastal management in Europe, it would therefore work in Yala.
Esther: You work in a male dominated field. How have you been able to rise above the stereotypes about women as key policy makers in the field of conservation?
Serah: I am inspired by God and I draw a lot of strength from my life experiences. I joined campus for my undergraduate studies with very high hopes that I would not find gender stereotypes only to find out later that the course I was taking was somewhat cut out for men. There were only two girls in our class. I however pursued the course to the end. My current interaction is mostly with men so I have learned to earn the right to be heard. I always counter the gender stereotype using my ideas. Nobody can ignore a good idea.
Esther: As a renowned policy advocate how do you remain grounded?
Serah: Humility was one of the things I had to deliberately work on because I am not any better. I also want to help the communities achieve more and I would also like to mainstream biodiversity policies into areas that are in dire need of conservation.
Esther: What is the best advice you would give to a young woman interested in following in your footsteps?
Serah: This may sound cliché but you need to believe in yourself. You can do whatever you set your mind to do. I have always believed that nothing is too difficult. It doesn’t matter how big it looks or how small you think you are as long as you believe you can do it, I will be done.
Esther: Have we seen the best of you?
Serah: The best is yet to come. I am working on several restoration and conservation programmes – I love to think of them as programmes and not projects – for Kenya’s biodiversity areas. We depend on nature for our existence and some of these sites are in dire need of conservation. I will keep working on these programmes for as long as I can.