David Obura: Coral Reef Conservation and Addressing Climate Challenges Through Equity and Trust

Jun 2024

Based in Kenya, David Obura is a prominent coral reef ecologist and Founding Director of CORDIO East Africa, whose extensive research focuses on coral reef ecosystems, impacts of climate change and engagement with local communities in sustainable practices. (Photo: NYT Magazine)

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"We are losing coral reefs rapidly, a major part of the global biodiversity. Once you lose those species and those genes, you never get them back.”
David Obura: Coral Reef Conservation and Addressing Climate Challenges Through Equity and Trust
“We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do."
by Sylvia Earle, an American marine biologist, oceanographer and explorer

About The Episode

In this episode of The Founder Spirit, David Obura, a coral reef ecologist and Founding Director of CORDIO East Africa, shares the importance of preserving biodiversity, protecting coastlines and supporting local communities. 

He discusses the challenges of restoring coral reefs and the need to address climate change through equity and trust. David identifies over-consumption as the main driver of carbon emissions, and advocates for improving the welfare and well-being of the most disadvantaged in our society. This paradigm shift requires us to work at the speed of trust through engagement and discourse. David also highlights our interconnectedness with nature and the need for local-level action in ecosystem restoration.

Why should humanity care about preserving coral reef ecosystems? TUNE IN to this conversation & find out.


David Obura is a prominent coral reef ecologist and Founding Director of CORDIO East Africa, and chairs the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). CORDIO is a knowledge organization supporting sustainability of coral reef and marine systems in the Western Indian Ocean.

David’s primary research has been on coral reef resilience, biogeography and climate change impacts. His interests are turning now towards sustainability science pivoting around coastal, African and societal needs and priorities, in the broader sustainable development paradigm. David works from the local scale, through fostering innovative action to promote sustainability, through regional scale alignment and integration, to global scales.

David is on the Earth Commission (2019-2026), was a Co-Chair of IPBES’s Nexus Assessment and was active in compiling science inputs into the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. David was awarded Kenya’s national honor, Moran of the Burning Spear in December 2021, and the Coral Reef Conservation Award of the International Coral Reef Society in 2022.

Episode Transcript

[00:02] Jennifer Wu:  Hi everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with the Founder Spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.

The following episode was recorded during the 2024 Villars Summit held by the Villars Institute, where I recorded several short interviews over a period of 3 days. The Founder Spirit Podcast is proud to be a partner of the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net-zero economy and restoring planetary health.

“In my studying abroad and coming back to Kenya, I wanted to find a way to have the most impact, to be able to work the way I wanted to work and make a contribution.”

“We are losing coral reefs rapidly, we are losing a major part of the global biodiversity. Once you lose those species and those genes, you never get them back. And coral reefs are one of the most sensitive ecosystems to climate change and warming. Like the ice caps, they're the ones that are going first.”

“And it's over-consumption, overuse of fossil fuels that are really driving climate change and the kind of waste we have from industries and manufacturing and so on. We're polluting our planet to the point of breakdown, so we have to really pull down on the top ends of consumption.” 

“At the same time, there's lots of people around the planet who don't have enough, and it's partly because somebody else is taking it.” 

Joining us today is David Obura, a coral reef ecologist, Founding Director of CORDIO East Africa, and chairman of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). 

Based in Kenya, David’s primary research has been on coral reef resilience, biogeography and climate change impacts. David was awarded Kenya’s national honor, Moran of the Burning Spear, and the Coral Reef Conservation Award of the International Coral Reef Society.

We're podcasting live from Villars Summit 2024. Welcome to the Founder Spirit podcast, David, very pleased to have you with us today. 

[02:17] David Obura: Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be here in the mountains. 

[02:21] Jennifer: Thank you, from the oceans to the mountains. Growing up in Kenya, what were some of the formative experiences that has impacted your life trajectory? 

[02:31] David: Well, growing up in Kenya for me, was the perfect thing. My mother's from England originally, she met my father in the UK and moved back with him. And for her, with three small kids, national parks and nature and hills and mountains were a huge playground, so we would go a lot into nature. 

So I always loved that and always knew that I would be a wildlife biologist, ecologist, or a wildlife photographer - that's the farthest away I went from being scientist. 

[02:58] Jennifer: So lots of safaris and time spent in the bush. 

[03:01] David: That's right. Lots of time in the bush and in the Rift Valley. I think that's very formative for me because I'm really a big picture, landscape type of person.

Standing on the top of the escarpment, you can see the valley floor and how it changes over time. And then also we'd go to the beach, snorkeling, coral reefs, so I really came to love the sea as well. 

[03:17] Jennifer: I'm sure you're a great scuba diver. 

[03:19] David: And I love scuba diving. I wanted to be paid to dive rather than to have to pay every time I want to scuba dive. 

[03:25] Jennifer: And growing up, who inspires you? Was it Jacques Cousteau or Sylvia Earle or a little bit of both? 

[03:32] David: Before Sylvia Earl's time, if you can believe it. But now she is our star, we love what she does for the ocean. 

So Jacques Cousteau certainly was. David Attenborough, we would see his first videos through the sports club that my dad was part of. I had his book Life on Earth when I was 13 or 14, of course, poured through that. And then there are adventure stories for boys around nature and animals. Yeah, it all got me into it. 

[03:56] Jennifer: Interesting. Before graduating from Harvard University, you attended United World College in Canada. I know of friends who have gone to UWC in different parts of the world. Can you just tell us, what is the educational approach at UWC? I've always been curious about that. 

[04:14] David: Well, so, in brief, international understanding, and that was really the ethos of the schools. And they were set up by Lord Mountbatten back then really to bring kids together. 

So if you study and live and experience life together, when you get older, and they did want to find leaders and people who would do various things in all walks of life, that you wouldn't then fight each other afterwards. So it was really around experiencing the world together. 

And then, of course, it had quite a strong expectations for academics, but we also had to spend a lot of time in some service or other - helping people, social services, or sort of environmental and nature type services. 

So I took up scuba diving, which was not just to learn to dive and have fun, which, of course, it was. But we were looking after an ecological reserve. A few years beforehand, the students were instrumental in getting the marine reserve set up, so we were monitoring it. 

[05:06] Jennifer: So that was Vancouver Island?

[05:08] David: So it was the very southern tip of Vancouver Island. In fact, from my bedroom window the first year that I was there, I could look over the tops of trees and over the sea, where I spent my afternoons going diving. So that was very intensive, very absorbing, and the perfect experience for me. 

[05:21] Jennifer: Sounds fascinating. You've been dedicating most of your life researching coral reef bleaching. What fascinated you about the coral reefs? 

[05:31] David: Oh, the coral reefs - they're beautiful. I was always into landscapes and the savannah, mountains when I was a kid. But then once I learned to dive, diving is almost like flying because you're up above the bottom, you're up and down, so you have that same sense of movement. 

And then corals are just so complicated, so interesting, all the different interactions. And I think in the end, I'm an ecologist, but I'm really sort of a big picture ecologist. What's interacting with what? How does it work and what's happening? 

When I did my PhD, I was actually studying sediment stress. So rivers that were up country, there's a lot of land clearing and soil erosion, all this sediment coming down onto the reefs, and we were afraid they were killing off the reefs.

Some corals were dying, but the corals were stressed because of sedimentation, and they bleach when they're stressed. So I was already studying coral bleaching because of one reason, sedimentation. 

And it was fascinating how they dealt with this and the complexity of the interactions and the surprises. Because when you look into something in depth, you always find out something you didn't anticipate. And that's the beauty of science. 

[06:30] Jennifer: So you brought up a concept that the coral reefs bleach when they're stressed. Can you tell us a little bit more because there's this notion that the coral reefs are alive. But we, as humans, we see them as, I don't know, just maybe a piece of rock in the ocean. I don't know. 

[06:46] David: Well, that's right. Corals are complicated animals. In fact, they're not just animal, they're animal with a symbiotic plant living inside the tissue. And they do create a skeleton, which, when they die, is a rock. In fact, in Swahili, the main language in East Africa, the word for coral is rock. 

So, but what happens with the corals is that because of the algae living inside their tissues that photosynthesize, they have to shed all of this energy and the coral can make a skeleton, and it gets bigger and bigger. 

Now, it's a very sensitive relationship, or symbiosis. And when it gets stressed, so by sedimentation or by hot water or by pollution and many other things, the algae and the coral need to sort of put on the brakes and tap down the high energy relationship that they have. 

And so in many cases, the algae will leave the coral or get digested. There are many ways that it can happen. The algae gives the coral a color. So then when they bleach, the coral is more able to withstand stressful conditions, it doesn't have the algae, it doesn't grow as fast, but you can see through the tissue to the white skeleton beneath, we call it bleached. 

But it's still alive and very clean because there's still tissue on the surface. Now, what happens next is that if the stress is too much, the coral dies, and the tissue sloughs away from the skeleton. And then the skeleton starts to get all dirty because the sediment falls in it and the algae starts growing, and then they stop looking so white. 

But if the stress is not too much, coral can survive and then the algae repopulate within the tissue, and then they go on as before. So bleached corals are stressed, but they're not necessarily dead yet. And that's a very important thing. 

[08:14] Jennifer: The dead corals, I think they look more gray, right? 

[08:16] David: They look more gray. I mean, you know, for the first two days, they'll be very white, but they very quickly collect a lot of sediment and things start growing on them. So and then they become a rock and part of the reef substrate, and then other things could grow on them, it's part of the cycles as well. 

But if the water conditions are too polluted or there's almost no fish because they're all fished out, then conditions are not good for something else to start growing on that coral and then start the whole cycle again. 

[08:42] Jennifer: So once they die, just put it into a different context, can they be reborn? 

[08:47] David: They can't be reborn, not in any mystical sense. But there is a really funky phenomenon called the phoenix effect that we've noticed. 

And what happens there is that they look dead on the surface, and the tissue on the surface could have died back completely. But the skeleton has a lot of pores in it, a lot of holes, and there's a lot of tissue, coral tissue, deep in the skeleton. 

And sometimes a surface might die, but there could be a pocket of live tissue hidden inside the skeleton. And then a year later, something happens. Maybe a parrotfish bites on the algae on top, and the tissue is suddenly close to the surface and can start to regrow. So you get this phoenix effect, rebirth of coral, but it's very explainable. 

[09:24] Jennifer: Okay, so ocean acidification is one of the nine Planetary Boundaries. And I know that you work a lot with Planetary Boundaries, and that's what leads to the bleaching phenomenon of coral reefs. 

[09:36] David: So acidification can lead to bleaching, anything that stresses it. Bleaching is like a fever for us, so it can be induced by all sorts of different things. 

The most common bleaching that we see is because of temperature, so oceans warming and that's why we're noticing it around the world. In fact, right now, as we speak, we're almost wondering if we're in the middle of or just starting a new global bleaching event. 

Acidification is when carbon dioxide dissolves in the seawater, and it makes the seawater more acidic. And that's also stressful for corals, so it can affect them in many different ways. 

But it's a very complicated Planetary Boundary. I'm not an expert on that one, because the chemistry of the seawater is very difficult. 

[10:15] Jennifer: But someone might say, okay, there's this coral reef bleaching phenomenon going on, but why should we care as humanity? 

[10:21] David: Well, the bleaching of corals is happening so much now, and the intensity of the stress of the high temperatures is so much that a lot of the bleached corals do die because of the high temperature bleaching, and you can have a mass mortality.

And maybe you lose 30% of the corals on the reef, maybe up to 80% of the corals might die back then. What you need is a whole process of new corals coming in, baby corals settling and then growing up and reproducing and creating new structure. And that can take 15 years minimum and it may take 30 years for all the sizes to come back, and the complexity. 

So coral reefs are very important for biodiversity, they have a lot of other species on them, and they're there because the corals create the structure. So if you lose the corals, you lose most of those species over time. And then they're very useful to people, they protect our coastlines, they provide fish for local fishing communities and economies, tourism as well. 

We are losing coral reefs rapidly, we are losing a major part of the global biodiversity. Once you lose those species and those genes, you never get them back. And the systems are becoming simpler, less productive, less able to support the growing human populations on the coastlines. 

And coral reefs are one of the most sensitive ecosystems to climate change and warming. Like the ice caps, they're the ones that are going first. So if we let them go all the way to the end of that process, we know that there's going to be a cascade of other ecosystems that are already starting, that we see that with fires, also all sorts of other signs of climate change. It's a difficult train to stop once it's moving. And we have to do everything we can to stop it from going too far, because we lose a lot. 

[11:53] Jennifer: You mentioned something about baby reefs, and it takes 15 years to grow. So I think of it as the forest in the sea. 

So first question is, how does a coral reef reproduce? And second of all, can we cultivate the baby reefs in a certain environment, or can science grow baby reefs? 

[12:12] David: Science always grows, and we're trying that, scientists are trying that a lot. So it's not so much the baby reefs, but the baby corals on the reef, because the reef is the ecosystem and the forest. 

And the corals and the fish are the ones that come in and need to reproduce. 

And because the temperatures are changing so much outside of the comfort zone of existing corals, we're wondering about, well, how much more can the toughest one survive? 

We're already losing the more vulnerable species in the last 25 years with bleaching events. So 1998 was the first global coral reef bleaching event, and it's progressed a lot since then. 

So if you lose corals, because you can't do a lot about the high temperatures once they're there, how can you facilitate the recovery of the reef? And one of those is buying baby corals and growing up small corals and putting them out or encouraging the settlement. 

Breeding super corals or more temperature resistant corals is what a lot are trying to do, finding resistant corals that are left behind after really hot event. So can we maximize their reproduction and then reseed reefs with those? 

So there's a lot of experimentation happening now, and it's very exciting. And in the media, there's, you know, this is going to save the reefs, a new finding, but it takes a long time to find the right answers, what works, in what context. 

And all these efforts are still very small scale compared to the area of reefs that we're losing now. So reef restoration is still in its early days, it needs a lot of investment in research and development, so there's a lot of R&D happening and we need that. But it's not at a stage where it can either withstand the climate change we're still facing or restore what is being lost at the moment, so we're still on that downward slope. 

And to do that, we need to stop carbon emissions. So the problem with a lot of these sort of silver bullet news messages and stuff is that people think, oh, there's no problem, we'll just be able to replace them with super corals later on. But there is a problem, we need to stop the drivers that are pushing coral reefs into such decline. 

[14:15] Jennifer: So it's very similar to deforestation because it's just much easier to preserve the trees, to protect them versus planting new trees. 

[14:14] David: Oh, yes. Not only is it much easier, but if you preserve a mature system that's in place, you know, the size of this room in a coral reef, you might have 400 species there and not even thinking about microbial community and all of those things. 

If you let it go and then you start to plant five species of coral, all you have is five species of coral, and you don't have everything else that has been lost in the process. So conserving what's there is critically important, We must stop the decline of intact nature and we need restoration to get back to it. 

But the important thing there as well is balance, it's not only about conservation, it's also people and their livelihoods and who's in charge and all those things that need to be discussed. And it's such complicated topics, but we have to face it. 

[14:56] Jennifer: Yeah, it's a complex problem. We're going to talk about livelihood later because I know that's what you're focused on now. And I want to go a little bit further back and ask you what brought you back to Kenya? 

[15:07] David: Well, I never wanted to leave, I never wanted to stay away from Kenya. So I love traveling, as I still do. And part of the reason I chose the Canadian school of the UWC, it was eleven hour time zones away, so it was as far as I could go from home as possible. Not that I didn't like home, because I loved home, but it meant I could go anywhere. 

I'm an outdoor biologist, ecologist. I was very conscious when I was at university in the US, and everybody was going to medical school and high tech research, and I was very conscious that if I went into that, I wouldn't be able to go home with it. 

So I intentionally designed my PhD program that I'd do the fieldwork in Kenya to make sure that I could then build on in my later career. So I always wanted to move back and work on the basic challenges we face in developing countries and tropical regions. And that's real human survival and interactions with nature and these amazing natural places. 

[15:55] Jennifer: That's right. So you had mentioned the global coral bleaching event in 1998, and that's what ignited your, I would say, entrepreneur journey. You founded CORDIO in 1999. CORDIO stands for Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean. 

Can you talk a little bit more about the global coral bleaching event in 98 and how that inspired you? 

[16:16] David: Well, so what happened then was I was already back in Kenya for about two years after my PhD, and I was sort of wondering, okay, what do I do now? And I had a couple of projects, and it was quite telling, actually. 

One to look at coral bleaching, continue to work on corals. And the second one was, I wanted a real people side to my work, which I hadn't had before. And so this one was to look at local knowledge, the local fishing communities.

So going out with fishermen in their boats and learning the names of the sites that they fished at and why they fished there and what they were catching. So it was very much anthropological work. 

I was completely untrained for, but I really enjoyed it. And they found it a bit hilarious, the scientists coming out with them and using their terms and names for the reef sites and fish and so on. 

And that's when the bleaching event happened in 1998. And I was at a bit of a junction as well, in terms of where to base myself. And a Swedish scientist who was already working in the region, he got the first money from the Swedish government to improve the information we had on the impact of the bleaching event. 

I joined him to start that project, and I ran the East Africa side of it. So that was my beginning of my founder journey. So then, of course, with that bleaching event, I was perfectly prepared to look at coral bleaching. 

And then, interestingly, and I think this has always been very important for where I've got to now, as I was also working with fishing communities at the time, and not so much studying them as a scientist, but trying to see what they saw in the reef, to understand their value system and how they see the pressures around them, so that we could communicate between their knowledge system and our knowledge system as scientists, and again, to work with them. 

There's already been a long history of exclusion of communities in East Africa, going back decades. So they're very suspicious of anybody coming in as scientists and being interested in reefs.

So I really had to commit and show commitment. I'm here to understand your system - I'll help you document what you want people to know about your knowledge system and your rights to this place, rather than me telling you what our scientists think you should be doing. 

So it was really interesting doing both the local and the global at the same time. That's water under the bridge now, I've been working in that ever since, continuing to work on coral bleaching as a coral scientist - I focused on that. And then my organization, we do continue to work with small scale fishers, but others are doing that work now. 

[18:31] Jennifer: Yeah. So I wanted to understand, what is the attitude of the local coastal community towards coral reef bleaching? 

[18:40] David: So they feel threatened by it, a lot of question marks. 

The local name for corals in some of these tribes was rock in Swahili, so they did see reefs as rocky systems, and there was so much coral and very healthy reefs initially, that if there was some damage it didn't really matter, it would bounce back. 

But then with growing coastal development and tourism and then this bleaching event, suddenly the reefs were becoming much more vulnerable to a lot of impacts. And the fish catches were going down, fish are getting smaller, so they're very conscious of the challenges that they face.

Many countries like Kenya and East Africa and other parts of the world have been through colonialism, which meant that many communities they've been through a process of losing all rights. Many post-independence governments, they didn't necessarily deal with that very well and redress the imbalances. So there's a great sense of disempowerment and disenfranchisement at the ground level with many communities. And then this conservation coming in and wanting protected areas and loving animals more than people.

So this dynamic is very strong in Kenya, so it makes it very hard. I think fishermen could see reefs bleaching, corals dying and be concerned about it, but there were so many other challenges and there was no real option for agency at the time. 

Now things have really shifted around. The conservation is really happening and being planned together with people, and the government's really promoting a lot of co- development and co-management of marine systems. And so there's a lot more open discussion about the health of reefs, the health of the system. 

So fishing communities are trying to work in that space but there's still a lot of fluidity, there's still a lot of fishermen that come from far away, so it's a tough debate. 

It's really hard to see what things are most strongly affecting the communities at a particular time. And coral bleaching and loss of corals because of global warming is just one of the things, and it's still not the most immediate one, there's still a lot of other pressures that they face. 

[20:32] Jennifer: Interesting. You've now worked over two decades with the local communities. What have you learned from these people? 

[20:37] David: I've learned suddenly that the sense of pride and ownership that people have and independence. Fishermen are very independent people. So there's a pride in the knowledge, and there's real local knowledge about things there.  

And there's the importance of discourse and communication. Swahili is a real language for discussion and argumentation as well, so you really need to engage. 

That's in a way, the process is often more important than the specific goals, because once you have a good process, then you can sort of co-develop goals and targets and where things may go and try and influence things. 

[21:08] Jennifer: You know, it's interesting because two years ago I was on vacation, and we were out at sea and we saw two fishermen on a raft. I was shocked how primitive it was - that was just not what I had in mind - two guys on a raft, literally. I was fascinated by it. 

[21:25] David: The experience and knowledge you have to be out there on those things, it’s not even something that we can communicate easily about. So I will see fishermen out like that as well. And it doesn't really come up quite how much they know that enables them to be there and then to do it again a few days later and to have done this for ten years. 

Seeing how much knowledge there is in these systems, if you just take the time to open your eyes and respect that other people have all sorts of different knowledge. Inclusion is important, even if you can't bring knowledge systems together, we need to understand that there are different knowledge systems in some case.

[21:57] Jennifer: CORDIO is now the leading center for coastal marine ocean science and conservation research organization. But as mentioned, you've also pivoted towards working at the human level. 

So along with science, but also working maybe as anthropologist now, in a way. But can you tell us a little bit more about your work on the human side? 

[22:20] David: It's not so much that I'm functioning as a human biologist now, so I've always been very interested in decision-making. And in CORDIO, we always engage a lot in protected areas and with fishing communities about choices and things like that, and also regional and then global levels. 

Now, I’m now chairing this intergovernmental panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services under the United Nations to bring science about nature and people's interactions together and make it more available to the global community for decision-making process in the UN system. 

And so that's about bringing science, natural and social sciences, because social sciences are perhaps even more important in understanding how we can change behaviors, so how to bring sciences into policy context and help that science be used in decision making. 

We write large assessment reports, and it takes three or four years to prepare some of them. So it's a very laborious process, but there's a lot of back and forth between the scientists developing the reports and then the countries and the policymakers. 

So it's a science policy process - very interesting, very human, of course, very political in many ways, because it's about choices that we have to make. 

And I'm really interested in working on coral reefs and since 1998 with the first global coral bleaching event, we're still not making the right decisions in a policy context to turn away from the precipice we're speeding towards.

So as a scientist, I wanted to come out of doing the primary science and come more into this space of trying to accelerate decision-making. 

[23:46] Jennifer: Yeah, because as you mentioned, it's a very complex system. 

[23:48] David: It's a very complex system. And what's really useful about coral reefs is that they're very familiar, right on the coastline. And we can see them if we go snorkeling or diving, the visual communication is fantastic. 

And because they're so vulnerable, they're a very dramatic thing to bring into decision-making, to do something about this. We haven't succeeded yet, so it's very frustrating. We need a lot more momentum to pick up quickly to slow climate change. 

[24:12] Jennifer: Okay, I'm glad you used the word frustrating because I was just going to ask you've been working on this for over two decades now, how does it feel. 

But what works remain to be done? We haven't found the solution because it would be a solution to a very complex problem that impacts multiple stakeholders in the whole ecosystem. 

[24:30] David: So what needs to be done, it's being discussed here. So I'll use two words, one is equity and the other is trust. 

So one is that we know well enough what needs to be done, we don't need more science to make better decisions on the big-picture actions. I think we need to understand what's driving what's happening now. It's not that the whole global community has to do certain things, different groups have responsibility for different actions. 

And it's over-consumption, overuse of fossil fuels that are really driving climate change and the kind of waste we have from industries and manufacturing and so on. Now with so many people, we just can't keep over-consuming like this, we're polluting our planet to the point of breakdown. So we have to really pull down on the top ends of consumption. 

At the same time, there's lots of people around the planet who don't have enough, and it's partly because somebody else is taking it. It's going from one place to another. 

So by pulling down on the top, we not only have space to stop crossing Planetary Boundaries, we can also bring up those consumption levels and wellbeing in those who have too little. That's the equity part of it that's really important. We have actions at the top end and at the bottom end. 

The trust part is that, of course, everybody has their own interests in mind. And now we're at a point in time globally, where trust is really being eroded amongst countries, and somehow we have to find a way to really trust each other to make tough decisions. 

So there's a few people that have to give up something and a few people have to do things differently. How do you trust that if you commit to do that somebody else isn't cheating and just benefiting from your effort? And that's really hard to do.  

And we have to work at the speed of trust, and that takes a long time. But trust can work if you have real discourse and if you have real dialogue and show willingness. So it needs some of the actors to really come forward and say we are willing to change, will you do your part? And I think that's what we have to do. 

[26:17] Jennifer: So it's really interesting, but I think trust and equity calls for work at the level of human consciousness. The macro problem that we see is just a reflection of who we are on the inside. And that's why the work, I feel, that needs to be done is at the human level. 

[26:34] David: So I agree fully with that. And we need leadership to be brave enough to take that first step and have the backing behind them to deliver rather than making promises. So it's a huge challenge. I don't know how we do it, other than (chuckles) talk about it. 

I think the Planetary Boundaries framework is really useful for that because it's very complex science, but in the end, it's very understandable - we have a limited planet. 

If you heat it up too much, it's not going to work. So we have to make sure you find where the pressure points are, where you really have to change to slow that down and act on that. And people have different responsibilities and contributions to the solutions - we're on this spaceship together. 

[27:11] Jennifer: Yes. But coming to that realization, I think it's going to be a hard journey. You said that earlier is the survival of humanity at risk and the interconnectedness with nature, but many of us don't realize that. 

[27:23] David: Yes, that's not immediately apparent. I think one of the things that's growing now is this understanding of how much we do benefit from nature around us, even in cities with clean air and trees and grassy paths and things like that. 

The COVID pandemic helped people realize that a big part of being able to have some quality in your life was to be able to go out into nature. If you had to stay inside all the time or if there was no nature in your space, it was harder to cope with that challenge. 

And we will have different challenges, but of a similar nature, that will really test those who have least connection to nature a lot more. 

[28:00] Jennifer: I mean, we're very lucky here to be living in this beautiful country and surrounded by nature, because it's quite precious, but also the people. And I think the reason why (Swiss) people are very equitable and trusting is also because of the connection to nature. 

[28:14] David: And I think here in Switzerland, I mean, especially with the mountains, nature is very visible to you. And also because they're so high and so severe up there, so you always have a sense of a space that is not overcrowded. 

And I think in the context of Europe and also where we're going into the future is there won't be many, especially where people are living, there won't necessarily be many places where nature is the way it was generations ago. With climate change, almost nowhere is going to be like that. 

But even with change, we can facilitate a good natural system by restoration, by allowing species to move as they will need to with climate change. So we can foster natural processes to cope with the changes that we're imposing on the system. 

But we have to give it enough space, so that there are natural spaces and we'll benefit from those and we'll get a lot back from them. It won't necessarily be money, it'll be a lot of quality. 

[29:03] Jennifer: So tomorrow you'll be part of a panel at the Villars Summit on accelerating the restoration of ecosystems. So there are quite a few scientists on the panel. So UN has declared this to be the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, but the impact on investment, trade and consumption patterns has yet to be seen. 

You had mentioned overconsumption. So how can we change, how can we come together as a collective to change this reality that we're living in right now? 

[29:33] David: Yeah, so Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, because I'm an ocean scientist with coral reefs and a lot of the commitment’s around forests. 

When you get to large scale forestation, it's tempting and there's money to be made in it. Okay, we'll plant a trillion trees, and then the easiest way is to grow a trillion saplings of all the same species. And that doesn't restore nature, that just plants a monoculture of trees, often in the wrong place and the wrong species and so on. 

So I think what we need to do with these ambitions and in this decade of restoration, is at local spaces, where if there's an empty plot on the side of the road where you live, then let that restore, let that grow into quality bush, as we call it in Kenya. 

Kenyans hate the idea of an empty plot, that it's been wasted. And yet if that plot has trees and bushes and birds and insects and so on, it's providing service to that community around it. So I think with a lot of these challenges and commitments and global targets, we need to bring the planning and the thinking down to local levels.

So those with an interest locally are present in discussing how they're going to meet it, because then they have a say in the process. They will have a sense of ownership and then they will also steward it. 

It's not completely free space, not everybody can get what they want, but you can have a local level and a participatory process to contribute your part to the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and then let scientists work out how to add it all up. 

And it's not easy, but we can do it. And I think now we just need to invest in making it happen, but making it happen from the bottom up in local spaces. So people are really invested in that nature and know that they're benefiting from it. 

[31:01] Jennifer: So my last question, what does the founder spirit mean to you? 

[31:03] David: So I founded my own nonprofit organization in Kenya because it really worked for what we do. In my studying abroad and coming back to Kenya, I wanted to find a way to have the most impact, to be able to work the way I wanted to work and make a contribution. 

So in listening to a lot of founders, people who do well are those who love it, it seems, and who really get this idea of how do you create something? And I think there's many different ways that we can create or found processes, and I think the more we can enable that again across all these local spaces and especially where people don't have very much. 

If you don't have a lot of income, there's not many prospects for jobs. But (if) nature is in good health, you could do all sorts of things with that because you have the natural assets around you to help you live a good life, feed your children, send them to school and things like that. 

So I suppose it's that sense of being independent, being able to direct your life and to create something. 

[32:06] Jennifer: I always think that we're all entrepreneurs in our own lives… 

[32:08] David: One way or another. 

[32:09] Jennifer: Yes, absolutely. Because we're creating every day and we make choices of what we want to create. 

[32:14] David: So I did actually for a job interview recently one of these personality tests. It was really interesting because I came out at the top on things like science and creativity and independence, which is what I've done all my life. 

And I scored absolutely zero on job security and income, money. So I'd be useless as an entrepreneur, that's for sure. (chuckles). I found the thing that enabled me to be a founder, I suppose, and to find my own way, which has been a real luxury. 

[32:39] Jennifer: Well, thank you so much, David, for joining us today. It was a pleasure talking to you. 

[32:43] David: Thank you. 

[32:43] Jennifer: Thank you. 

If this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on Patreon.com, that is P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/TheFounderSpirit. As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com

The Founder Spirit podcast is a partner of the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net-zero economy and restoring planetary health. 

[33:22] END OF AUDIO 

Show Notes


(02:21) Formative Experiences Growing Up in Kenya

(05:21) David’s Fascination with Coral Reefs

(06:30) Coral Bleaching and Why Should We Care

(15:07) Motivation to Return to Kenya

(16:16) Founding CORDIO East Africa

(18:31) Working with Coastal Communities

(24:30) Equity and Trust

(28:14) Nature and Wellbeing 

(29:33) Decade of Ecosystem Restoration and Need for Local Action


  • Coral reefs are complex ecosystems that provide important benefits such as biodiversity, coastal protection, and livelihood to local communities.
  • Coral bleaching is a major threat to coral reefs and is primarily caused by high water temperatures due to climate change.
  • Restoring coral reefs is a challenging process that requires a combination of conservation efforts, reducing carbon emissions and promoting local community involvement.
  • Equity and trust are essential in addressing climate change challenges, as well as leadership in driving ecosystem restoration.


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