Young Voices

Every Seed Counts: Interview with Lesein Mutunkei, Kenyan climate activist

Reading time: 5 minutes

Lesein Mutunkei is a 17-year-old environmental activist from Kenya. At a young age, he began to learn about the impacts of climate change and decided he wanted to do something to combat them. His initiative, Trees for Goals, combines two of the things that he loves the most: football and the environment. Every time that he scores a goal during a game, he commits to planting eleven trees. So far, Mutunkei has been able to plant over one-thousand trees, and the world-wide impact of his mission is still only at its roots.

Lesein Mutunkei started Trees for Goals in 2018 as a way to combat deforestation and the effects of climate change in his community. The mission is simple: every time he scores a goal playing football he commits to planting eleven trees. Luckily for the planet he seems to be pretty good! The 17-year-old activist from Kenya has been able to plant over one-thousand trees so far, and has been given the opportunity to share his initiative to leaders and activists all over the world.

His story has been included in multiple books, such as United We Are Unstoppable- 60 Inspiring Young People our World by Akshat Rathi and How you can save the Planet by Hendrikus van Hensbergen. He has been invited to multiple summits and conferences around the world, such as the 2019 UN Climate Strike in New York, and has been featured in the Ecologist, BBC Africa, and National Geographic.

Through his work, Mutunkei has been able to inspire many people in and outside of his community to get involved in the fight against climate change. We had the chance to interview him and know more about his story.

So, how did Trees for Goals start?

I have always been an outdoor person. I love mountain climbing, nature walks, camping, fishing, all types of outdoor activities. I would also plant trees with my family once in a while when visiting grandparents, so I was always exposed to outdoor activities and had a good relationship with the environment. Then, at the age of 12, I learned about deforestation and climate change. I realized that if I didn’t do anything about it I would lose the things that I love to do.

I took inspiration from Nobel prize winner Wangari Maathai, after I listened to her story of a hummingbird. The story talks about a forest on fire, and while all of the animals are running away panicking, a little hummingbird decides to do something about it. The hummingbird, which is this very tiny bird, goes to the lake and picks up a droplet of water, and just does that over and over again. The other animals, like the elephants or the monkeys could have had a bigger impact, but the hummingbird was still doing its best.

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I decided that as little as I may feel, I should still do something. I made a commitment that for every goal I scored playing football I would plant a tree. But as I went on I learned more about the urgency of the climate crisis. I decided to change my commitment to 11 trees per goal, to represent each player inside the pitch. Over time I was able to get more people involved, and in 2019 my teammates and I were able to plant 700 trees in one of the local forests. Most of them hadn’t planted a tree before, so I think it was a great experience for them.

What are the challenges your community is facing due to climate change?

In recent times there have been many droughts and mudslides, mainly caused by deforestation. Unfortunately, a couple of thousand people have died. Last year was especially bad, there was a high death rate due to the mudslides. And as the seasons change, there has been a big impact on the agricultural side of the country.

Why did you choose sports and football for your initiative as opposed to something else?

Young people are going to be the most affected by the climate crisis so these are the people I am targeting. I want to be able to reach out to them and help them take something they already love to do and make it into something that also helps conserve the environment, taking that passion and turning it into something amazing.

And sports have a way of uniting young people together. In football when you enter the pitch, you put all your problems aside, you don’t care about race or age. Sports are a great way to tackle the climate crisis, because it’s a place where people already believe in each other and support each other.

What are some things that you have learned or reflected on since you started Trees for Goals?

Young people want to take initiative, they just haven’t been given the opportunity or the platform to do so. They haven’t been given the right space to share their ideas, and those are the things that truly bring out the potential in people.

How have you seen your community change since you started this movement?

There has been a change of awareness and people are acting better, and encouraging others to act better too. I even had a friend start his own initiative called Hoops for Trees, the same concept as Trees for Goals but with his basketball team.

Do you have any tips for people that want to get their community to be more involved?

The best thing to do is lead by example. With Trees for Goals I started with myself and made sure I was taking the time and effort to keep up with my commitment. I kept up with my trees and made sure that people would see their growth.

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The reason people became more interested is because I wasn’t some guy just talking about planting trees and scoring goals; people could see my effort and the impact of it first-hand.

If you want to start change in your community, you have to start with yourself. If people see you doing good, they will follow automatically, it motivates them and gives them that inspiration.

In what way do you think climate summits and conferences are helpful to the movement?

It allows young people to go to a place where they can learn about our environment and the seriousness of this crisis, which is not something we can really get anywhere else. If you want to go to the gym to get strong, you go to the gym. If you want to go to school to learn, you go to school. But there isn’t exactly a place you can go to learn about what is happening to our environment. These summits give an opportunity for young people to learn about these things.

Do you remember your first summit?

Yes! It was the 2019 Youth Climate Summit in New York. I was very excited, it was my first time traveling outside of Kenya. The day we landed was the day of Greta Thunberg’s climate strike. We were so tired, I had to drag my mom there, but it was amazing. We were able to see Greta and other young leaders speak. The next morning we had meetings at the UN and I got to listen to a lot of people with amazing ideas, I was just amazed by everything. So many young people had come together to talk about the climate crisis, it was a heartwarming thing to see.

What are your future goals for the initiative?

To reach more schools in Africa and around the world. I would also like to get FIFA to adopt Trees for Goals, because of how many people it could reach. I believe it has the power to inspire change and create a greener future. Football is such a universal game and the climate crisis is a universal problem: being able to reach the billions of football fans around the world gives it the perfect stage.

What is something that you wish more people knew about the climate change movement?

That it helps: I think that is one thing that we underestimate often. If one million people planted ten trees we would be in a different spot than where we are now. People underestimate the power of taking that first step. You planting that first seed, you recycling this, you sharing that story about the environment, it all helps.

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And you are never too small or too little or too young to make an impact in the world. This climate crisis affects us more than it’s going to affect older generations, so we need to take action now.

What do you want the people reading this interview to learn from your story?

I want everyone to know that I’m just a regular guy, I’m definitely not a scientist or an expert: You don’t have to be a professional to help the environment!

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