The teenager is fighting deforestation in Kenya one goal at a time through his initiative Trees4Goals.
At age five, a family tradition of planting trees to celebrate significant occasions sparked Lesein Mutunkei's interest in environmentalism. Thirteen years later, an 18-year-old Mutunkei marries his passion for agriculture and football unorthodoxly to make a difference. The young Kenyan soccer player has created an admirable tradition of his own – planting eleven trees every time he scores a goal.
Mutunkei founded Trees4Goals in 2018, an initiative that has caught the attention of English football club Arsenal and Kenya's Ministry of Environment and Forestry, who he now works with regularly and gets advice. He began the initiative to inspire his peers to follow in his footsteps, take nature conservation seriously, and pledge to plant trees every time they score. As a result, some of his schoolmates have adapted this practice for their sports. "Seeing that they're taking that responsibility because of the project I started, for me, that is the biggest achievement," he told CNN.
"It does not matter how small you are, everything you do for the environment counts," a 15-year-old Mutunkei told WWF-Kenya. "I love football and outdoor adventure. I understood the impact of deforestation, climate change and plastic pollution when I was about 11 years old," he added. According to a report by Global Forest Watch, Kenya has a severe deforestation crisis. "In 2021, it [Kenya] lost 7.23 kha of natural forest, equivalent to 2.84Mt of CO₂ emissions," the report stated.
Furthermore, between 18 August 2022 and 25 August 2022, there have been 2803 deforestation alerts in Kenya, spanning 34 ha. From 2001 to 2021, Kenya lost 368 kha of tree cover. Therefore Mutunkei says they plant large volumes of trees in areas with few canopy trees, which is more beneficial.
The eleven trees that Mutunkei plants for his goals symbolise the number of his teammates. "I increased my target seven times; for every goal, I score I plant ten trees, then to 11 times my initial target: for every goal, I plant 11 trees. It represents team effort in football and the contribution by my football team," he explained. By 2020, he had planted over 1000 trees, and today he has planted over 5,500 indigenous trees.
Mutunkei follows the footsteps of the late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai who founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. This initiative has planted over 51 million trees to date. "It does not matter how small you are. Everything you do for the environment counts," he shares, displaying Maathai's influence on him.
"Everybody has a great time getting their hands dirty," referring to the tree planting sessions after games, including a workshop on the dangers of deforestation. Mutunkei and his teammates pride themselves on the effort and dedication they put into their work. They've planted 700 trees in the Karura forest, reinforcing the idea that young people are capable of recognising the power to enact change in their environments.
While Mutunkei has received some recognition for his initiative, he sights on making it a global phenomenon. "Football is a universal game, and climate change is a universal problem," he explains. "[It] has the power to connect, engage, educate and inspire my generation to create a safer and greener future," which is why he wants to work with the world's biggest football federation FIFA.
Lesein Mutunkei has an incredibly bright future ahead of him. His work and dedication speak for themselves, and his passion for football and the environment are a pairing that will transform the world. This is merely the beginning of an initiative with the earth's best interests at heart. It would be naive to deny that this young man's impact could go global.