By Claire Markham, KF16, Kenya

In the developed world, the recent increased attention to global warming and the importance of environmental preservation and restoration efforts is something that’s hard to ignore.  It’s because of this ongoing Environmental Revolution that the majority of the population is aware of the increasing need to pay attention to our footprint. Regardless of whether or not people actually do their part or even believe in global warming, most people have at least been educated of the potential consequences of neglecting the environment and the harm we are causing both in the present and for future generations.

In Kenya, I have found this is not necessarily the case in my experiences so far.  This realization becomes abundantly clear to me as I sit in traffic worse than anything I’ve encountered before and watch as passengers in my matatu nonchalantly throw their trash out the window, despite the stench of the burning garbage piles next to the road already permeating the vehicle. I am not saying this is true across the country for all Kenyans but am basing these observations solely on my experiences thus far from living in Nairobi and travels to several other urban and rural areas.

One of my tasks at SMEP is to help grow their green and water loan program. When I realized the cultural barriers to going green, I appreciated the enormous challenges that would lie ahead of me. When the borrowers that we work with so often have to worry about ensuring there is enough food on the table or money for school fees, adding the responsibility of being conscious of their environmental impact can be a hard notion to sell. How can an MFI break through these obstacles and implement a successful green and water loan program when so much of the population, including our borrowers, aren’t environmentally aware?

This two-part blog post will attempt to answer this question. In this first part, I identify what the barriers are. In the second part, I will elaborate on the strategies that can be used to overcome these obstacles.

Typical Nairobi traffic on my way to work

What are the barriers?

There are a wide variety of reasons that going green is a foreign concept in Kenya:  lack of environmental education, inadequate waste collection, shorter time frame of decisions, and the side effects on the well educated, higher income population.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather what I have been able to observe in my experiences in Kenya thus far.

When asked about whether Kenyans are aware of their impact on the environment, one of my colleagues responded, “People with lower to middle income levels are not aware of their impact. Everyone else knows but just doesn’t care.”  I will first focus on the enormous group of people who do not know about their impact and the challenges they face.

Lack of environmental education

In the developed world, children are educated about the environment from a young age. They are subject to repeat reinforcement of this message through means such as Earth Day.  In Kenya, these educational programs are simply not in place to inform children about such matters.  Children see their parents and friends act in a certain way and they follow; this serves as a repeat reminder to them that littering and polluting are acceptable. Without educational programs to inform them otherwise, how are they supposed to know to act differently?

Inadequate waste collection

Littering is considered to be an acceptable practice in Kenya. It is exceedingly common to see people throw their garbage on the street without hesitation. I think this is in part a result of the waste collection system; it is not a free service and if you would like somebody to pick up the garbage from your home, you are going to have to pay. In the slums, where disposable income is scarce, the residents simply cannot afford to pay someone to collect their garbage. Their only other option is to throw their garbage on the streets, and when the pile grows too large, they burn it.

Differences in time frame

In a country that struggles with famine, poverty and unemployment, the time frame of decisions become much shorter. The difficulty with environmental degradation is that many of its effects are often not immediate. One of the main selling points of caring for the environment is being able to ensure that future generations are able to enjoy the same beauty and cleanliness of the earth as we have been fortunate enough to experience. One of the motivations comes from knowing that our great grandchildren will benefit from our efforts now.

In the areas of Kenya which are devastated by poverty, such a long term time horizon does not exist. When concerns over whether someone will actually be able to provide food for their children that week are prominent, providing a clean environment for their great grandchildren becomes less of a focus.

There are certainly also immediate effects of environment neglect including a shortage of potable water due to a lack of proper waste management.  The lack of access to clean water can in itself cause a variety of illnesses.  Additionally, the conditions of many that live in polluted environments are at a heightened risk of diseases spreading more rapidly throughout the community. The difficulty here links back to one of the previously discussed barriers: lack of education. Many people are not aware that the challenges they face now with disease and poor water quality is in fact related to their own current actions.  Another reason the immediate effects are ignored is lack of proper infrastructure and waste management as mentioned above.

Side effects on the educated higher income population

The preceding three points are issues facing people in the lower to middle income segments of the population. What about the well-educated, higher-income individuals who do know about their impact on the environment but choose not to act on it? One of the reasons they often fail to change their behaviours is because there is very limited negative stigma attached to acting in a non-environmentally friendly manner.   It takes the contributions of everyone in society to make an impact; it is discouraging to make an effort towards a goal and look around and see rarely anyone else doing their part. What can be done to motivate all individuals to take their impact on the environment into consideration?

As you can see, there are significant obstacles to implementing a green and water loan program. However, this is not an impossible task and there are many ways to help microfinance clients to go green and educate them about their role in working with the environment rather than harming it.  The growth in environmental awareness has huge potential in helping generate additional income and cost savings for Kenyan borrowers. Please stay tuned for my next blog post where I address strategies that can be used to overcome these barriers.

Claire Markham is part of KF16, serving with SMEP Deposit Taking Microfinance Limited (SMEP) in Nairobi, Kenya. To lend to SMEP’s borrowers, become part of the SMEP lending team.


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