KERICHO, Kenya – Less than a decade ago, the hills of Tuiyobei village in Kenya’s Rift Valley were nearly bare, with few trees or shrubs beyond the coffee plantations that yielded very little. The rain was sporadic, temperatures were rising, and crop yields and livelihoods were deteriorating. High deforestation triggered by increasing demand for firewood, lumber and charcoal had degraded the ecosystem.

These factors, plus high erosion rates after rains and chaotic winds, prompted Maureen Selem and five others to form the Toben Gaa self-help group to improve their standard of living through environmental conservation.

Some in this community are descended from the Ogiek people, a group indigenous to the Mau Forest. But they no longer practice the traditional ways of their forefathers, like gathering honey, and instead farm the land, like their neighbors. To improve their food security and nutrition, Selem says the group has embraced trees.

“We came up with a community action plan to plant 50 trees a year per household as access to energy, wind [protection] for the coffee, and improving the village vegetation cover by 10 percent,” the 32-year-old mother of five and Toben Gaa self-help group secretary told Mongabay.