Fred Kihara is the Water Fund Advisor for TNC’s Africa Program. He brings more than 15 years of experience in conservation, including previous work for the UNDP World Heritage COMPACT Program and the Ministry of Agriculture, and holds a post-graduate degree in Agricultural Engineering from Nairobi University. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
nature.org: What is your role with the TNC Africa Program?
Fred Kihara: I am the Water Fund Manager for the Nairobi Water Fund. I have held this role for the last four years within which we have built the first water fund in Africa: a true public-private partnership focused on conservation. [In 2016, Fred was promoted to Africa Water Funds Advisor.]
nature.org: What are the unique challenges to working on a water fund?
Fred: Being the first one for Africa, it was fairly hard to read manual and narrate to critical partners. People here also had a variety of ideologies on how to solve water supply problems though nothing had worked so far. Having all of them believe that the water fund would be the best bet took a lot of convincing. Driving the ideology that water comes from nature was also a challenge to deliver at the beginning. Many people also thought that we had started with a pool of money from a generous donor and hadn’t realized that their contributions were a critical pillar for success.
nature.org: Tell me about your childhood and growing up on a working tea farm.
Fred: My family has a long history in the Eastern Aberdares. My grandfather worked for a white settler during the colonial era before becoming a tree nursery attendant working on tree plantation establishments around the Aberdare forest. When he was my age, he had risen to a supervisor and earned a decent pay of twenty cents a month. Once the clamor for independence started, he buried his fortune close to a tree he liked resting under. However, shortly thereafter he was betrayed as a ‘mau mau rebellion’ sympathizer and was detained for seven years.
Tea farming was introduced in the region while he was in detention and the settler’s family cleared the entire area and filled it with tea. When my grandfather returned, nothing resembled his once loved tree that served as his bank. The family had suffered a setback since they could not afford schooling during the time and tea became my family’s primary occupation.
I got introduced to picking tea as early as I started walking and the word “tea” must have been one of my very first words to pronounce (in the Kikuyu vernacular language, of course). Being the first born in a family of 10 kids, I would shuffle between my three most common occupations: attending half-day classes at the local elementary school, picking tea during flash harvests and occasionally assisting my mother in carrying my twin siblings to the local dispensary for immunization jabs and flu treatment.
Days went by and though I was a well-accomplished tea picker, I had to spend time at a boarding high school and later a local university before coming out a well-cut conservationist ready to take up the charge from where my aging grandpa had left off. Since joining TNC, I believe I have chance of a lifetime to ensure that my daughter Catherine, who will be my age in 2050, will not need to invest her time and intellect protecting the same watershed her dad and great-grandpa did. There will be 10 billion people in the world by then, and I believe she will need to invest her time really carefully to survive.
nature.org: What is your favorite childhood memory in nature?
Fred: One Saturday morning when I was 8 years old, while entrusted to graze the family livestock heard of three cows, I stumbled upon a hideout of an extremely beautiful mountain bongo antelope that had made a home not very far from my livestock tracks. The creature was so beautiful that after minutes of staring at each other, I made a decision to stretch my hand and feel its fur. However, the animal couldn’t trust me that much and it took off.
I kept going back there to try and see the pretty animal again with no luck. Slowly fear gripped me: It could have been captured in a hunter’s snare or met some predators. They are now highly endangered with only less than 100 living in the entire Aberdare forest, their endemic habitat.
nature.org: Where did your interest in conservation come from?
Fred: As I grew up I dug deeper and deeper into my family’s history. I believe at an early age while trying to identify a role model, I compared my grandpa’s tree planting background with my father’s failed attempt as a village tailor. It must have been my grandpa’s success in establishing a beautiful tree canopy now comprised of mature trees that won my heart. Also coupled by the fact that I didn’t care much that we could walk around in fairly tattered clothes and not give a damn whether a tailor existed or not.
nature.org: What did you study in school?
Fred: My schooling started with half-day lessons in a local elementary school where most of numbering and letters were best scribbled on the earth. We would then recite them in turns before erasing them to try some art. A heroic song would then follow, praising the teacher and promising to see her again the following day.
In upper classes we were introduced to English language, which prepared us for the grading examination that saw a few of us transition to secondary school. Wearing a pair of shoes for the first time, we were now heroes in the village. Before long I joined the University of Nairobi for a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s degree.
nature.org: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Fred: The water fund is no longer a game of green forest canopy. It’s a game of numbers. Getting a few more thousand local farmers to implement a set of conservation measures in a few more thousands of hectares to bring down erosion and cut down tons of sediment discharge at the water intakes is a compulsory ritual. A backlog on this front makes dawn look like midday to me.
nature.org: What keeps you up at night?
Fred: We have been very successful in mobilizing important stakeholders to enlist and support the Nairobi Water Fund. Not knowing what is in their minds, and what they need from the secretariat to announce their next round of support gives me sleepless nights. The same happens if I am not sure I am guarding our institutional reputation in the best way possible.
nature.org: If you could be transported anywhere in the world for a day trip, where would you go and what would you do?
Fred: I would go to New Delhi, India. I love seeing many people engage to undertake a task that all assumed someone else was doing until they just realized no one actually paid attention. India just made a decision to establish the first Water Fund in their sub continent. Being a populous country, I would be delighted to join them to systematically plan how each Delhi person could contribute to generating success never seen before.
nature.org: What is your favorite thing to show or share with someone who is visiting Kenya for the first time?
Fred: Farmers’ testimony on how the water fund engagement has transformed them and their livelihoods kills me. I belong to a generation that must work extra hard if we are to sustain global growth levels achieved by those before us, create wealth and opportunities for future generations and not get disrupted by climate change challenges.
nature.org: What is the best part about working for TNC?
Fred: The Nature Conservancy allows one to practice good scientific skills learnt during training, try things one thinks can help make the world a better place and totally encourages innovations and creativity. This makes staff bring out their best!
nature.org: Do you drink tea? If so, what kind is your favorite?
I love tea. High-grown black tea in natural flavor is my favorite. I just wish it could be availed to all people around the world. Many people would finally discover what they had been missing all this time.
Watch Fred discuss the importance of the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund.