Forests are the backbone of Kenya’s economy through agriculture and tourism. Additionally, they support livelihoods through the provision of food, medicine, wood for construction and fuel, and services such as water catchment areas. They also perform important watershed functions, in addition to providing sites for high plant and animal biodiversity [1]. FAO’s State of the World’s Forest (2014) estimated that Kenya’s forestry sector contributes about USD 365 million to GDP annually. However, these statistics do not include forestry’s contribution to household wood energy (charcoal production), non-timber forest products, and ecosystem services, which directly employ over 750,000 and indirectly 4 million people. Forests support more than 530,000 households living within 5km of them. They also contribute to the country’s climate change mitigation [2].  

The latest comprehensive forest cover assessment conducted in 2013 estimated national forest cover at 4.18 million Ha, representing 6.99% of the total land area. This assessment by the Kenya Forest Service used 2010 satellite imagery, ground-truthing, and sampling for inventory data collection. In 2015, forest cover was estimated at 7.2% based on the national projection from the 2010 forest cover data. Analysis of change in forest cover over the last 25 years has revealed improved afforestation activities in Kenya, especially between 2000 and 2015, though forest cover decreased between 1990 and 2000. In this period, Kenya lost approximately 1.2 million ha of forest land, equivalent to 25% of forest cover. However, between 2000 and 2015, forest cover increased from 6.01% in 2000 to the predicted 7.2% in 2015 [2].  

Natural gazetted forests constitute the bulk of Kenya’s forests, with a total area of 2.29 million hectares which is 95.5% of the total gazetted forest. However, the integrity of natural forests has been compromised, and as a result, some of them are degraded [2].  

Kenya’s five montane forests (Mau Forest Complex, Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, Mount Elgon and Cherangani) called “water towers” because of their ability to store water during the rainy season and release it slowly during dry periods — provide 75% of the country’s fresh water supplies [3], [4]. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated that between 2000 and 2010 more than 28,000 hectares of forest was lost from these water towers, leading to reduced water availability of approximately 62 million cubic metres per year. The resulting costs to Kenya’s economy far exceeded the financial gains from forestry and logging during that same period [3]. According to UNEP, deforestation deprived Kenya’s economy of US$68 million in 2010. The negative economic consequences of deforestation included: decreased river flows in dry season reducing water supply to irrigation agriculture; a 12 million Kenyan shilling reduction in hydropower generation; increased wet-season flows lead to erosion and sedimentation, resulting in a loss of productive soil resources; increased incidence of malaria as a result of deforestation; and above-ground carbon storage value forgone through deforestation [4].

The coastal parts of Kenya continue to suffer from degradation and loss of mangrove forests. An estimated 20% of mangrove cover was lost between 1985 and 2009, mainly due to unsustainable expansion of coastal tourism.


Human activities are the main drivers of forest degradation, including agriculture, mining, infrastructure, urban expansion, timber extraction, fuelwood collection, charcoal production, and overgrazing. In addition, there are indirect drivers of forest degradation, including social, economic, political, cultural, and technological processes, international markets and prices, national drivers like population growth, domestic markets, national policies, and governance issues. Local circumstances, which include subsistence and poverty levels, also influence forest degradation [2].  

A major factor contributing to deforestation in Kenya is the prevalence of biomass use for energy. An estimated 80% of the national energy supply is met by fuelwood. The current wood deficit is projected to increase from 10 million m3 to at least 15 million m3 per year by 2030 [2]. In addition, charcoal is a key bio-energy resource in Kenya, providing domestic energy for 82% of urban and 34% of rural households [5]

Another difficulty is related to the unclear land tenure. It is not always clear who owns the land that would need to be reforested or restored. Conflicts over land ownership can hinder potential restoration projects.


Key policies and governance approach

The Constitution of Kenya, 2010 provides a robust governance framework for managing natural resources by the two-tier Government system while stipulating devolution and equity in benefits. It sets a minimum of 10% tree cover target by 2022. The lead agency in Forest management in Kenya is the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), a state corporation under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. KFS derives its mandate from the Forest Conservation and Management Act, 2016, which is "to provide for the development and sustainable management, including conservation and rational utilization of all forest resources for the country's socio-economic development and connected purposes" [2].

The Kenya Forest Policy (2014) is the major national policy governing the forestry sector. Its provisions range from the enactment of laws for implementation, mainstreaming into land use, and clarification of roles and responsibilities among the public sector institutions. Its governance approach is characterized by the adoption of an ecosystem approach for the management of forests, and recognition of customary rights and user rights to support sustainable forest management and conservation [1].

In 2020, a draft for the revised Forest Policy was published. This Forest Policy provides a framework for improved forest governance, resource allocation, partnerships and collaboration with the national and county governments, and non-state actors to enable the sector to contribute to meeting the country’s growth and poverty alleviation goals within a sustainable environment. It aims at promoting and facilitating good governance in the protection, restoration, conservation, development and management of forestry resources; and equitable, sustainable and climate smart development. The Policy will facilitate legal and regulatory reforms that promote sustainability of the environment and forest resources, facilitate transition to green growth and chart ways of mitigating and adapting to climate change [7].

The National Forest Programme (2016–2030) builds on the constitutional values and principles of the Kenya Vision 2030, and advances forest development to 2030. It seeks to increase tree cover and reverse forest degradation through sustainable forest management and enhance forest-based economic, social and environmental benefits including, improving the livelihoods of forest-dependent people [1].

Other measures include a total ban on tree logging in 2018 by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to allow studies to be carried out and recommendations to enhance sustainable forest resource management in the country [2]. The government has also established various funding mechanisms for forest conservation. These include Forest Conservation and Management Trust Fund, Forest Investment Facility, National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND) and Water Service Trust Fund.


Successes and remaining challenges

In 2016, Kenya pledged to restore 5.1 million Ha of degraded landscapes under the Bonn Challenge, the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, the New York Declaration on Forests, and the nationally determined contribution to the Paris agreement. This target included 200,000 hectares of Bamboo to be planted in Gazetted forests. Progress to date includes the development of a strategy to increase forest cover to 10%, development of an implementation action plan for forest landscape restoration, development of policy and regulatory framework and enhanced tree planting campaigns and protection for natural regeneration.

However, pressures and demands imposed on forest ecosystems and resources are often caused or influenced by factors outside the forest sector, regional and international agreements and treaties. The forest sector is closely linked to wildlife, agriculture, housing, national security, water, tourism, industry, energy, education, among others [7]. Inadequate integration of the forest sector with other stakeholders results in unclear forest responsibilities and weak conflict management capacity, resulting in conflicts over natural resources [2].

This scenario is manifested into weak forest governance and institutions, corruption, illegal logging, weak enforcement, inadequate benefit sharing from forest resources, diverse perceptions of the importance of forests, communal land tenure systems, and their application and lack of private ownership, unclear tenure and access to forest resources [2].

In addition, technological issues exist that directly drive forest deforestation and forest degradation including poor uptake of new technologies and poor awareness of deforestation impacts. Further, poor knowledge of tree planting methods and indirect issues such as uncertainty of availability of timber and wood for processing enterprises and low investment in wood processing poses a challenge [2].


Initiatives and Development Plans

The government is currently attempting to reverse the country’s forest losses, including through the Greening Kenya Initiative, which aims to plant 1.8 billion trees and achieve more than 10% forest cover in the country by 2022. In support of this initiative, the government established the National Tree Planting Campaign (2019), and is attempting to ease pressure on trees by ramping up electricity connection to households in rural and urban areas and by promoting a transition to green energy. Related initiatives include enhancing tree planting campaigns through national and county events, public education, and awareness raising in schools  [8].

Green Treasures Farms is a Kenyan youth initiative that teaches women and young people in rural Kenya organic farming skills and how and where to plant trees. The project has been running for several years and has had a real impact on local communities by teaching them how environmental concerns and sustainable agriculture go hand-in-hand [3].

  • Thorough implementation of the Forest Policy (2014) which is the major national policy governing the forestry sector. Related opportunities link to other relevant laws and policies including: the Kenyan Constitution (2010), the Forest Act (2016), Vision 2030, and the National Climate Change Response Strategy.
  • Assessment of climate change vulnerability of various forest ecosystems.
  • Mapping potential forest and landscapes restoration sites and development of a national spatial plan to support national and county governments in land use planning.
  • Capacity development and monitoring with the establishment of an information system to detect forest cover and forest area changes as part of a national forest monitoring system.
  • Development of drought tolerant trees for adaptation to climate change in the drylands.