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Feature Story

Sharing the benefits of Kenya's soda lakes

November 24, 2020

A water buffalo surounded by flamingoes in Kenya's Lake Bogoria National Reserve
A water buffalo surounded by flamingoes in Kenya's Lake Bogoria National Reserve. Photo: GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock

Lake Bogoria in Kenya’s Rift Valley region is a soda lake – extremely salty and alkaline, unable to support fish. It has deep spiritual and cultural significance for the Endorois people, who have been its custodians for centuries. But it’s only in the last few years that they realized they are sitting on a potential gold mine.

The lake – famous for its flamingos and freshwater spouts – contains rare microbes and micro-organisms from which valuable enzymes can be produced. These have been harvested and used by companies in Europe and the United States for antibiotics, detergents, and to dye fabrics. Some of these companies have been subject to lawsuits for not sharing the financial benefits of with Kenya.

The Nagoya Protocol

In 2014, Kenya ratified the Nagoya Protocol, a global agreement that implements the access and benefit-sharing of genetic resources for biotechnology research and development. The protocol celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

With the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility, since 2014 the Kenya Wildlife Service has been working with Kenyan researchers to identify active components in Lake Bogoria and Lake Magadi to develop commercially viable organic substances for textile processing and biopesticides.

“Kenyan scientists are isolating enzymes for textile processing – turning cotton to yarn and then into fabric – to replace inorganic chemicals such as caustic soda that are currently used. The use of biopesticides for agriculture is a second line of research,” says Levis Kavagi, a UNEP biodiversity expert who has worked closely with the project.

Under the Nagoya Protocol, the researchers – from the University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and Moi University – were required to obtain “prior informed consent” from the local community through a structured consultative process.

“The Nagoya Protocol ensures that no one is left behind. It calls for inclusivity of local communities and all stakeholders, with attention to the needs of women, children, and people with disabilities,” said Juliette Biao, Head of UNEP’s Africa Regional Office.

Working with local communities

UNEP has been working closely with the Endorois community, who live around Lake Bogoria, and have been instrumental in the project.

“The support by UNEP has helped the Endorois community prepare its biocultural protocol that will guide our engagement with researchers and other resource users,” said Eric Kimalit, chairman of the Endorois community.

Kavaka Mukonyi, a Director at the Kenya Wildlife Authority, who has been involved in the project since its inception, said, “The journey to the Nagoya protocol has not been easy. But the results are encouraging. The prior informed consent and mutually agreed terms developed under the project are being used as models by other African countries in their access and benefit-sharing national systems.”

Private sector partners

Private sector firms RIVATEX and Dudutech have been testing the commercial viability of the biological active lake components in textile processing and biopesticides.

Dudutech is undertaking field studies and will soon roll out farmer application trials of the biopesticides developed under the project. The tests are required before a biopesticide is approved for commercial use.

The University of Nairobi has identified enzymes that can be used in leather and textile processing using advanced laboratory techniques.

“It is now possible to turn hides into leather using environmentally friendly and fast-acting enzymes, which can avoid environmental pollution caused by chemicals used in leather production,” says Francis Mulaa from the University of Nairobi, one of the textile enzyme researchers. “We are working closely with the Kenya Industrial Research Institute and RIVATEX to scale up the enzymes for textile processing.”

Sample storage

Under the project, Kenya has set up a sample storage and classification center at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, with state-of-the-art laboratory equipment. Researchers – local and foreign – are required to deposit their samples at the center – which will help trace sources of genetic materials and keep track of the intellectual property and patents from their usage.

The success of the project has also attracted the attention of governors of two other Kenyan counties - Kakamega and Laikipia – who seek to replicate the policies to bring benefits to their local populations.

This piece was originally posted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).