Avocado trees have shallow, fibrous roots that are good at holding topsoil in place. They’re also fast-growing, and can yield fruit in a few years. 

When members of GLOBAL G.L.O.W., working with the Rift Valley Reading Association in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, were thinking of ways to support students, the soil-anchoring and fruit-bearing qualities of avocado trees seemed promising because the region has been affected by landslides, dust storms, and desertification as a result of widespread environmental degradation and the worsening climate crisis. 

“The soil has been destroyed,” Margaret Muthiga, partnership coordinator and president for Rift Valley Reading Association, told Global Citizen. “There are so many animals grazing in our fields, they have destroyed the trees, destroyed the river valleys. 

“Most Kenyans are also over-planting maize, without considering the nutrients of the soil, so when the rains come, the soil is carried away,” she added. “Now it is really dry. There is hunger everywhere. For two years, we have not experienced enough rainfall.”

Many of the more than 5,000 seedlings that have been planted at 13 participating schools since 2016 are now bearing fruit. Around 200 students have been directly involved in the program, learning how to plant, care for, and harvest the trees, while gaining valuable insights into the fields of restoration and community organizing. The avocado tree’s roots are nourishing the soil, shielding schools from air pollution and natural disasters. When the fruits ripen, they nourish students eager to learn.  

“The trees give us shade,” one student named Rose in the Ol Joro Orok village said during a group Zoom call. “They are a source of food in the community, they are helping the growth of the community. We can plant these trees and they benefit us in terms of our economy, and our health. Eating a piece of avocado each week improves your life, your immunity system, and reduces your chance of heart problems.” 

Image: Rift Valley Reading Association

School lunches have become both cheaper and healthier, according to GLOBAL G.L.O.W. That’s important because many families whose children benefit from the program struggle with poverty, which makes food extra expensive. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the benefits of school meals, and the harm caused by their absence. 

Hungry students struggle to pay attention and retain information; over time, this inability to focus snowballs into deteriorating educational outcomes. Girls, already more prone to being pulled from the classroom for work, forced marriage, or other social reasons, become even more vulnerable to miss school when they’re hungry. But simple interventions like lunches supplied by school gardens and local farmers can provide families with an incentive to keep girls in school, while also improving overall student well-being. 

Both COVID-19 and the worsening climate crisis have hurt school meal programs around the world. 

School closures related to the pandemic caused more than 370 million students to miss out on daily meals, according to the World Food Programme. At the same time, the climate crisis has squeezed local food systems, especially in developing countries that may lack the resources to effectively adapt. 

“Africa, as a region that is already heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe, faces a more dire prognosis,” Richard Munang, the Africa regional climate change coordinator at the UN Environment Programme, told Prevention Web earlier this year. 

“This state of emergency has also been a glaring anomaly for the region for quite some time now,” he said. “From a 20% decline in precipitation to a 20% increase in storm intensity, to an 8% increase in arid and semi-arid lands, and an up to 50% drop in rain-fed agriculture potential, the writing of the climate emergency has been clear and consistent.”

Smallholder farmers in Kenya have been devastated by these shifts, often having to sell livestock and other resources to get by. Market pressure to produce maize has worsened matters, depleting the health of the soil and making farmers more susceptible to changing weather patterns. 

GLOBAL G.L.O.W.'s turn to avocado trees is part of a broader shift toward diversifying crops as a form of risk management that helps to boost income, promote environmental health, and provide a broader array of nutrients for communities.  

Image: Rift Valley Reading Association

Their project also focuses on empowering young girls, ensuring that they can develop leadership skills by managing avocado plots and learning about climate action. And there’s even an opportunity to make money. Excess avocados can be sold at local markets and families are encouraged to plant their own seedlings at home to boost household income. 

“We got into the avocado project to give an opportunity to the children in our schools to connect to the issue of environmental conservation,” Muthiga said. “They also appreciate that you can actually do this as a living. You can sell the seedlings and create employment for other people in the community.

“We thought that if we had a project like this, this is something that children could connect to, do at home, do at school, and be able to do without supervision,” she added. “It’s easy to learn, execute, and share. It’s a project that we hope will be carried out.”

During the Zoom call, students and mentors gathered around to share the importance of environmental conservation. It was clear that the avocado trees had become an important community pillar, and Muthiga saw the project as an example for communities worldwide who want to build a sustainable future.   

“We are lacking water,” Muthiga said. “Everywhere, people are fighting because of water. Along the poles, we are hearing that the snow is melting. It’s high time that people think twice. We should be bringing the trees together. We should bring the trees home. Every time we are eating we should think: plant trees.”


Defend the Planet

How Avocado Trees Are Transforming Communities in Kenya

By Joe McCarthy