when Andrew Dokhole, a community leader in Isiolo, northern Kenya, took on the job of explaining a proposed soil carbon removal project a decade ago, he had to convince largely illiterate people of the benefits of a concept” foreigner”.
“Our people didn’t know what carbon was,” Dokhole says. “There is no word for carbon in our local language, not even in Swahili, the national language. However, the success of the project depended on the shepherds understanding how the concept works and how it would affect their daily activities.
Dokhole had done his research. It included all the nuances of carbon sequestration: the capture, removal and storage of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) – so he opted for some vivid illustrations to reach out to people.
“In a forum I asked them: ‘Why do you expel bad gas from your body?’ They said stale air was not good for the body. I then asked a rider in the meeting to rev his bike until black smoke came out of the exhaust. I told them those exhaust fumes were akin to unwanted gases that warm the world causing more droughts and livestock deaths.
“They were now interested in why the ‘bad’ air was affecting their livelihoods. But they still wanted to know how it could be removed from the atmosphere. I came with a seedling and covered her with plastic for some time until she died. I told them the plant would survive if it absorbed enough carbon from the atmosphere and stored it in the soil. The idea sunk,” he says.
To date, these pastoralists in the drought-stricken region have helped rehabilitate 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres) of land through rotational grazing practices, thus increasing land cover, in a move that will seize 50 million tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years, equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 10 million cars.
In what Kenyan President William Ruto called an “exemplary project” at COP27, the Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project is the world’s first large-scale grassland soil carbon removal project that relies on modified grazing practices of livestock and the first to work with shepherds using municipal land resources.
The project that started in December 2012 is also the first of its kind to use the new VM0032 methodology that focuses entirely on soil carbon removal. The project area of 14 reserves under the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) is monitored through the remote sensing Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) system, which analyzes satellite photos of the land surface to assess plant health and detect how grazing it is affecting the vegetation.
In 2017, the NRT enlisted the services of Native, a carbon trading company to market the carbon credits. Three years later, 3.2 million emissions reduction credits were verified for the period 2013-2016, generating $14.6 million (£12.25 million).
Each participating guardianship received $324,000 in 2022, with similar amounts expected to be paid in 2023 and 2024. The project is expected to generate $300 million over its lifetime.
“The entire project depends on pastoralists adhering to a strict grazing management plan overseen by a grazing committee in each reserve,” says Priscilla Kushi, senior project manager for carbon. “The committee plans grazing patterns in different areas within a reserve. By practicing sustainable pastoralism such as rotational grazing, grass can regenerate, harvest and store more carbon from the atmosphere.
The sale of the sequestered carbon will bring money to local projects like education and sinking wells, while improving the conservation of four endangered species: the eastern black rhino, Grévy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and the oryx beisa.
“If we have more carbon stored in the soil, we have more grass and healthy livestock that will fetch higher prices in the market resulting in healthy livelihoods. In addition, the project will help wildlife thrive and reduce unnecessary human-wildlife conflicts,” says Mohamed Shibia, director of regional strategy at NRT.
In addition to slowing environmental degradation, supporters say the project has brought dividends for peace. Northern Kenya is home to the Samburu, Borana, Turkana, Rendille and Somalis, communities who have in the past engaged in bloody conflicts over dwindling resources.
When some communities ran out of grazing land, Kushi says, they drove their livestock onto land belonging to other communities, often with fatal consequences.
“We are now saying that more than 200,000 people in the project area have 14 reserves as grazing fields. We’re also talking 60% of the revenue from the sale of carbon credits funding local community projects, while 40% goes to conservation operations, peace and governance initiatives,” says Kushi. “Members of different communities can now welcome each other as they all have an interest in the project”.
The issue of carbon offsets continues to be controversial, with the United Nations Environment Program warning a few years ago that “carbon offsets have been used by polluters as a pass to inaction”, adding that such offsets “risk to give the dangerous illusion of a ‘fix’ that will allow our enormous emissions to continue to grow”.
Carbon Market Watch, a non-profit that focuses on carbon pricing and climate-related policy, says: “Carbon offsetting is (at best) a zero-sum game and doesn’t lead to emissions cuts.” globally as reductions in greenhouse gases in one place are canceled out by continued pollution elsewhere.
Despite the warnings, several African countries are poised to cash in on the dollar flows from carbon trading following the unveiling of the Africa Carbon Markets Initiative (ACMI) at Cop27. Some of ACMI’s ambitions include producing 300 million carbon credits annually by 2030 and 1.5 billion annually by 2050. The programme, proponents argue, will see 30 million jobs supported by by 2030 and more than 110 million by 2050, and will “unlock billions for the climate finance needs of African economies”.
With the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that CO2 emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030, compared to 2010 levels, Kenya’s carbon mega project is welcome.
“Although there are 43 reserves in NRT, only 14 participate in the inaugural project limited to 2 million hectares. With pressure from other reserves, there are plans to start four more parallel programs,” says Kushi. “It’s a win for the environment and a win for pastoralists.”