Mangroves are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world and the coastal forests of East Africa are no exception to this trend. Although conservation, rehabilitation and sustainable management plans have been developed in various tropical regions, only a few locally based approaches have been launched along the Indian Ocean coast of Africa. In order to identify possible conditions for sustainable management of mangroves based on socio-economic and ecological considerations, we present a participatory approach designed to evaluate the relationships between mangroves and human activities and the use of multi-criterion analysis to identify management solutions. To achieve this goal, all the subjects involved in mangrove management (local communities, institutions and researchers) took an active part in the process. The research was carried out in three communities relying on mangrove swamps: Kisakasaka village on the island of Zanzibar, Mida Creek in Kenya, both relying on mangrove forests known to be endangered by over-exploitation, and Inhaca Island in Mozambique, where mangroves are more pristine. Families were the hub of the research and the importance of each of their economic activities was assessed. We then examined the methods by which mangroves are exploited by the local community and by other stakeholders working in the study areas. Our results show that the mangroves in Inhaca are exploited only for household needs and the pressure on the forests is still ecologically sustainable. In contrast, there is a well-established demand for mangrove products in Kisakasaka and Mida Creek and the mangroves represent an essential source of income for the families, resulting in an ecologically unsustainable rate of exploitation. Therefore, possible alternatives to the current management practices were identified in the two areas by means of a participatory approach. Multi-criterion analysis was then used to compare and discuss the alternatives in terms of social, economic and ecological criteria.