A marathon effort

Posted on July, 30 2023

In Kaptagat, Kenya, a landscape famous for producing long-distance runners is turning green again
The forested highlands of Kenya’s Rift Valley have produced many of the world’s greatest marathon runners – and nowhere more so than Kaptagat, home to the high-altitude Global Sports Communication training camp. Among the elite athletes who have trained here is Olympic champion and world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge, the man who has run four of the six fastest marathons ever recorded.

Marathon runners are not the only ones who depend on the Kaptagat forest. The tree-lined hills are a vital source of water for communities in six counties, as well as storing carbon and providing a habitat for a rich array of wildlife. But over the years, this important landscape has become severely degraded as forest cover has declined and grassland has suffered from overgrazing. With few opportunities to develop sustainable livelihoods, local people clear the native vegetation to grow crops and cut down trees for charcoal – the main source of fuel for cooking. All this leads to declining soil health, increased erosion and a reduction in both the quantity and quality of local water sources – further reducing people’s opportunities to make a living sustainably.

To break this vicious cycle, WWF teamed up with the Eliud Kipchoge Foundation to launch the Greening Kaptagat programme, supported by the UK government’s Partnering for Accelerated Climate Transitions (PACT) programme and continued through WWF's ongoing Forest Landscape Restoration in Africa initiative.

“I can’t speak about my personal journey in athletics without talking about Kaptagat forest,” says Kipchoge. “I’ve never trained anywhere else. My dreams came true because of the forest. But over time, I’ve seen a forest that was intact and rich with indigenous trees become degraded, most of the trees cut down.”

The project has worked with local communities to restore more than 1,000 hectares of degraded land. Local teams have planted hundreds of thousands of native trees, including in one 50-hectare block adopted by Eliud Kipchoge, where he plans to set up running trails as well as an ecotourism site. Tens of thousands of fruit trees have also been distributed to local farmers, providing a source of income and food as well as helping to stabilize soils and improve the local environment.

The tree seedlings are sourced from locally run nurseries, including one set up by the Tumaini Self-Help Group, which comprises of 10 men and 40 women. “We have seen a lot of benefits from this initiative,” says chairwoman Elizabeth Kigen. “When we sell seedlings, we get income to support our families at home.”

Fuel and water

But restoring a forest landscape is about more than just planting trees. Just as important is addressing the underlying issues that drive deforestation and landscape degradation, and enabling people to improve their quality of life in sustainable ways.

One major achievement has been the construction of a water tower and a solar-powered pumping system, which now pipes running water to 172 households as well as a primary school, a vocational training college, a church and a mosque. Before, local people – mainly women and girls – had to trek long distances through the hilly terrain to collect water from springs. Now, they have more time for other work, study and leisure. Farmers too no longer have to bring their cattle to drink from the springs, reducing erosion and water pollution.

Local farmer Margaret Kiprono was only too happy to donate part of her land to house the water tower. “I said yes without a second thought,” she says. “Before the water tank was installed here, I used to trek down the steep path to fetch water. Others trek several kilometres since they are far away from any well or a stream. I’m so happy with the new developments.”

Now in her eighties, Margaret knows how hard it is to farm without a reliable water supply. The previous year, almost all of the more than 400 avocado seedlings that she’d planted died in the drought. “Had the water tank been here, the avocado tree seedlings would have survived,” she says. “I later planted tree tomatoes [tamarillo] but I now water them with water flowing from the tank.”

The project has also installed 20 household biogas units. As a result, more than 100 people no longer have to rely on firewood from the forest or inhale the smoke from indoor fires. Instead, they cook on clean, low-carbon gas produced from manure from their cattle.

As well as improving people’s living standards, this takes pressure off the forest in two ways. First, people don’t need to collect wood from the forest. Second, farmers are no longer grazing their cattle in the forest but keep them close to home. Another bonus is that they can use the leftover slurry from the biogas digesters as an organic fertilizer for their crops.

WWF is continuing to support the work in Kaptagat through FLR in Africa and Trillion Trees – a joint venture between WWF, BirdLife International and the Wildlife Conservation Society that works to protect and restore forests around the world. Kenya has committed to restoring over 5 million hectares of forest landscapes by 2030, and WWF is aiming to deliver half of that target through the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative.

It’s an ambitious goal – but achieving ambitious goals is something Eliud Kipchoge knows all about. “I believe running marathons and planting trees are the same,” he says. “If we can break a world record in a marathon, we can also create a world record in tree planting. I want to help make Kenya and the whole world green.”

“I believe running marathons and planting trees are the same,” says Eliud Kipchoge. “If we can break a world record in a marathon, we can also create a world record in tree planting. I want to help make Kenya and the whole world green.”