“Football is a universal game and climate change is a universal issue,” Muthunkei said. “[It] has the ability to connect, engage, educate and inspire my generation to create a safer and greener future.”
That same year, Mutunkei launched Trees4Goals to mobilize young athletes in his region and fulfill his promise to plant trees every time they score. Now he wants FIFA to use its billion-dollar audience for global influence.
In a recent email to CNN regarding Mutunkei, a FIFA spokesperson commented: “This and other similar projects, led by young people and climate advocates from around the world, are not only commendable, but necessary.”
Mutunkei said he has sent emails and social media messages to FIFA and while he has yet to receive a direct response, some prominent people in the football world have already acknowledged his efforts. Having learned about him from a series of environmental documents, Arsenal Football Club sent him an autographed jersey.
These confessions bring Mutunkei one step closer to the world of his dreams, where football teams measure their success by the size of the forests they plant, not just by the number of trophies on the shelves.
Unlike a trophy, Mutunkei explained, a tree grows next to you.
Inspiration in tradition
Mutunkei began his career as an environmentalist when he was five years old. To commemorate special occasions, his family planted trees. “Probably I was the same height as the sprout,” he added.
Muthunkei recalls that Maathai often told the story of a hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire while all the other animals ran away in fear. For him, the lesson is that “no matter how minor you think it is, it really makes a difference.”
This is where the idea of combining football and environmental protection came from. He started by planting one seedling for each purpose. Now Trees4Goals has planted over 5,500 native trees in forests, schools and around football club training grounds.
Mutunkei starts his Trees4Goals workshops with a lesson about the dangers of deforestation. It leads to a football game and ends with tree planting. “Everyone is having a great time getting their hands dirty,” he added.
Together with his 22 football teammates, he planted 700 trees in the Karura forest in Nairobi. The team completed the task in less than an hour, despite the fact that most of them had no experience. “It was almost like a tree planting race,” Muthunkei said.
Although Trees4Goals is still awaiting support from FIFA, it has caught the attention of the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Forestry. In return for advice on how to get young people involved in conservation, Mutunkei said the ministry provided him with seedlings and is now working with him regularly to decide where to plant them.
They choose areas of the forest where there is less tree crown. While individual trees help the environment, planting them as a forest is more beneficial for the planet, Muthunkei explained.
Involving young people in conservation is basically about giving them the opportunity to do so. Passion, according to Mutunkei, arises naturally.
His classmates started using Trees4Goals in their respective sports including basketball and tennis. “Seeing them take on this responsibility because of the project I started is the biggest achievement for me,” he added.
Mutunkei is receiving messages from young athletes around the world saying they have read his story and accepted the Trees4Goals challenge. It taught him that the younger generation doesn’t have to wait for leaders to make a difference.
“Whether it’s reducing plastic use, planting this tree, or just using your passion to raise awareness, start now, take action now, speak up now,” he said.