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Rainwater Harvesting Elena Kinyua stands in front of a water pan she built with support from the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund in northern Kenya. © Roshni Lodhia

Stories in Africa

The Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund

Improving Water for Millions in Kenya

The Tana River supplies 95 percent of the water for Nairobi’s 4 million residents, and for another 5 million people living in the watershed. It also feeds one of the country’s most important agricultural areas and provides half of the country’s hydropower output. With Nairobi contributing 60 percent of the country’s GDP, the Tana River truly fuels Kenya’s economic growth.

Since the 1970s, forests on steep hillsides and areas of wetlands have been converted to agriculture, removing natural areas for storing runoff water and soil from the land. Now, as rain falls over farms, soils are washed down into the river, which reduces the productivity of farmland and sends sediment into the rivers. This increased sedimentation can choke water treatment and distribution facilities causing complete service disruptions for days or weeks at a time. Today, 60 percent of Nairobi’s residents do not have access to a reliable water supply.

This growing challenge requires something innovative to protect the Tana River, increase downstream water quality and quantity and provide positive benefits for tens of thousands of farmers in the watershed. In 2015, TNC launched the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund (UTNWF) to help secure the source of water for Nairobi.

Water funds are founded on the principle that it is cheaper to prevent water problems at the source than it is to address them further downstream. Public and private donors and major water consumers downstream contribute to the Fund to support upstream water and soil conservation measures, resulting in improved water quality and supply.

September 1, 2021, marked a major milestone for UTNWF’s evolution: It officially became an independent Kenyan-registered entity. The UTNWF has outgrown its roots since its inception in 2015 and is now managed by local leadership, rather than as a program within TNC. The UTNWF is working with tens of thousands of farming households throughout the watershed to reduce erosion and ensure more clean water flows to industries and homes for 9 million people both upstream and downstream.

The Water Funds builds on TNC's experience addressing similar issues in Latin America, where more than 30 water funds are either underway or in development. The UTNWF was the first of its kind in Africa, and now serves as a model as leaders across the continent looking for innovative ways to solve ever-increasing water challenges. With its new independent status, the UTNWF will also showcase how to scale-up water funds across the globe to their maturity and thus provide solutions to build resilient watersheds.


There are 300,000 very small farms on the steep slopes in the Upper Tana watershed. Land scarcity and declines in soil productivity drives farmers to expand cultivation into steeper and steeper slopes and riparian catchments. Working with these farmers – starting with those in the steepest and most critical areas – is imperative to reducing the many impacts that are caused by deforestation and this massive sediment runoff.

Together with our Water Fund partners, we have provided more than 30,000 farmers with the training, resources and equipment they need to help keep the river healthy, conserve water and reap the benefits of higher crop yields and more stable farms.

“I had a lot of challenges [living and farming on this hillside],” Jane said. “They showed us the benefits of making trenches to save our soil and save our lives.”


The Water Fund is seen as a sound investment by utilities and companies who rely on the Tana River. In fact, the fund’s business case showed that a $10 million USD investment in water fund-led conservation interventions is likely to return $21.5 million USD in economic benefits over a 30-year timeframe.

“Ninety-eight percent of our raw material is water, so we have a huge responsibility to participate in water conservation,” said Bob Okello, public affairs director of Coca-Cola East Africa. “This business will only be sustainable if we can maintain a reliable and sustainable source of water not only for industrial use, but also for domestic use for consumers living along the chain.”

Our current partners and investors are: Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company, Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen), Pentair Inc, Coca Cola, East Africa Breweries Ltd, International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Global Environment Facility (GEF), The Government of Kenya, Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA), Tana & Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA), International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD) and Frigoken Kenya Ltd.

A lean initial investment from TNC supporters has already led to very high returns in just the first three years. With continued support of the now localy operated UTNWF toward reaching its goals for sustainable financing, we can help ensure the quality and quantity of water needed to sustain a healthy watershed and support Nairobi’s growing population.



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Conservancy Talk: Nature's Role in Providing Clean Water in Africa 

Africa's First Water Fund The Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund allows urban users to invest in upstream watershed conservation efforts for the benefit of farmers, businesses and more than 9 million Kenyans who depend on the Tana River for their fresh water.