Wed. Jan 22nd, 2020

Stay Smart About Africa

Following in the Footsteps of Professor Wangari Maathai

Kiongo Rivers

“The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem.” – Professor Wangari Maathai

Conservation of the environment on the continent has been making positive strides in the past few years. One of the outstanding personalities and household names in conservation is Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai.  She is known as one of the pioneers on the continent who fought tooth-and-nail to ensure that ordinary Kenyans are empowered to conserve the environment as a way of political and cultural emancipation.

One of her major campaigns centered around planting trees, and through the ‘Green Belt Movement,’ an organization Professor Maathai started, the movement has been able to plant over 45 million trees across the continent.

The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate once said that we owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to conserve the environment so that we can bequeath our children a sustainable world that benefits all. Following in her footsteps, many have come up with ideas and strategies to conserve the environment to create a sustainable world. Here, we look at two exemplary Kenyans who are following in her footsteps.

Wangechi Kiongo – Creating a Cleaner Environment For The Sake of Future Generations


Wangechi Kiongo, just 23 years old, is one of the young Kenyans following in the footsteps of Professor Wangari Maathai when it comes to environmental conservation. Born in Nyeri, the hometown of Professor Maathai, Kiongo believes in creating a cleaner environment so that future generations can find a better world than the one we are currently creating.

“I am deeply in love with the environment and would give my life just so that my children do not find it in the condition we have made it to be, but rather to find a clean, safe, and sustainable environment,” says Kiongo. She adds that, at the moment, she is raising awareness and mentoring younger generations on the need to protect and safeguard the environment.

She just cleared her final exams at Karatina University, where she pursued a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Environmental Science. At the university, she was the Vice President of the Nature Club, which conducted tree planting and mentorship activities in various schools in the area.  She was also among students selected to be a part of their Vice Chancellors Team of launching environmental clubs and establishing tree nurseries in various primary schools in Nyeri County.


Her passion for the environment has led her to get involved in various conservation programs both locally and internationally. One movement she is involved in is called ‘Save Lake Turkana Movement,’ which she co-founded with her internship supervisor for the purpose of advocating for Lake Turkana. At that time, together with her supervisor, they were working on a project related to the Gilgel Gibe Dams being constructed in Ethiopia. Both locals and conservationists have warned that the dams will have a major impact on the water levels of Lake Turkana.

“We realized that once we both left International Rivers, advocacy for Lake Turkana would probably end there, so we decided to create this platform that will be continuous and engage more youth and stakeholders,” she says. Through their newly-found movement, they have been able to inform people and make them understand the ongoing Gilgel Gibe Dams Project and its impact to the environment.

Kiongo also conducted research in Lake Turkana on the livelihoods of people in relation to the lake and found out that a huge percentage of the local population cannot survive without the lake. “We are, therefore, trying to seek viable alternatives that they can adopt just in case the lake cannot sustain them anymore since this is a transboundary issue between Ethiopia and Kenya,” Kiongo says. Through the ‘Save Lake Turkana Movement,’ they are proposing for the compensation to communities that will be affected.

UNCCD Social Media Activist


On an international level, Kiongo is currently the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Youth Land for Life social media activist, where she is tasked with promoting sustainable land management practices particularly amongst the youth through social media, as well as matters relating to combatting land degradation and combatting desertification. She attained this coveted position last year through a competition by the UNCCD for youth who are engaged in environmental conservation work. She was shortlisted amongst seven other candidates from across the globe and through an online voting process. shortlisted among three other candidates, she notes, “I was able to emerge the winner among three other candidates and I was also the only shortlisted candidate from Africa so this to me was an honor.”

This position has presented the young conservationists with opportunities to interact with like-minded youth from across the globe. In May of this year, UNCCD sponsored her to attend the annual ‘Green Corps’ event in China. The event brought together youth from Korea, China, and Japan, where they went out to the desert, planted trees, held trainings on combatting desertification, as well as sharing and exchanging ideas.

“We went out to the Kubuqi Desert for a couple of days and the experience is unforgettable. Again, I was the only African in this year’s program,” she notes.

In September, she, again, went back to Ordos, China, this time representing Kenya in the COP 13 Youth Forum. She was elated by the opportunity presented to her to interact and learn from other youth from across the globe. She says that at COP 13, she was able to share ideas with other participants about the role of the youth in ensuring environmental conservation.

Kiongo says she is inspired to work harder in environmental conservation and advocacy with the hopes for a better environment and a better future where resources are not depleted and environment degraded for our own selfish needs.

“I respect what the environmentalists before us did, such as Wangari Maathai, and would not want to see their efforts go down the drain. My love for the environment, as well, inspires me. I feel like it is my responsibility, just like a mother’s responsibility to a child, to nurture and protect its well being,” Kiongo states.

Take Up Active Roles And Protect The Environment


Kiongo urges the general public and today’s youth to take up active roles in environmental conservation to save the planet. “Do not wait until the day you will say ‘I wish I knew.’ Look at what is happening to the climate, to our forests, wetlands, and our degraded lands. One day, the earth might no longer be able to sustain us because of our own doing. Do not wait until that day. Wake up and be the change you want to see in the environment around you,” she says.

She adds that environmental conservation should not be left only to those who are in the environmental field. Everybody has a role to play, starting from proper waste disposal, complying with environmental laws and regulations, teaching our children on environmental manners, and much more.
She encourages youth who are already in environmental conservation to keep on working towards a better and clean world. She notes that sometimes they might get discouraged by people or by the forces of nature; however, the small change they’re working toward can lead to great environmental turnover. “So, keep on and don’t let your passion for environmental conservation be swept by passing wind. One day, you will look back and you will be glad,” she adds.

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” – Professor Wangari Maathai

Also following in the footsteps of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai, is 25-year-old Claire Nasike, an environmental enthusiast who has a special interest in environmental education and conservation agriculture. At her tender age of 25, Claire has been involved in various environmental conservation projects, and she has also championed her own. She is the third recipient of the Wangari Maathai Scholarship, founder of the Hummingbird Foundation and a ‘Food For Life’ campaigner at Greenpeace Africa. She has also worked as a community conservation and liaison officer, as well as an environmental education officer at A Rocha Kenya.

“I have also worked as fundraising intern at Kenya Forest Working Group and a volunteer coordinator for Mazingira Challenge, an annual environmental quiz challenge for University students in Kenya, and I currently work as a ‘Food for Life’ Campaigner with Greenpeace Africa,” she Nasike.

According to Nasike, her passion for environmental conservation was nurtured by her grandmother, who was an herbalist, and had a vast amount of knowledge about trees. Claire would accompany her grandmother to her duties, which involved collecting medicine from selected trees for her patients. “Through this, I grew up fond of nature and eventually decided to study an environmentally-related course at the University,” she says.
After high school, Nasike then joined the Technical University of Kenya, where she made her dream come true by pursuing Bachelor of Technology in Environmental Resource Management.

Third Recipient Of The Wangari Maathai Scholarship Fund


Claire Nasike is  grateful for the Wangari Maathai Scholarship Fund,  which enabled her to complete her degree, the project she had started in Budalangi in western Kenya, as well as giving her a platform to interact with other young people on matters of the environment. The Wangari Maathai Scholarship Fund is an environmental innovations fund set up in memory of Professor Wangari Maathai. It is a tuition scholarship awarded each year to a young woman between the ages of 18-25 who has demonstrated passion and personal commitment to environmental conservation. The individual must also demonstrate their ability to successfully mobilize people and provide leadership in environmental advocacy. The scholarship recipient must also be a student at any Kenyan university in order to be eligible. The scholarship fund has been established by The Rockefeller Foundation, The Green Belt Movement, and Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF).

Incorporating Environmental Conservation With Feeding School Children

Nasike says that she was compelled to start the Hummingbird Foundation by the hunger among school children in low-income settlements and the need to introduce the aspect of environmental conservation among the children in the slums. The organization connects school children to the environment by establishing food and botanical gardens within the schools. “The food gardens help to provide food to these pupils, as well as supplementing the schools’ feeding programs,” she notes.

Since its inception early this year, the foundation has reached 50 pupils from Patmos Community School in Mathare, Nairobi. The initiative has been impactful, as they have also set up a program for awarding the pupils who put forth more effort towards taking care of the gardens by paying their school fees per term. “This has seen an increase in the number of pupils participating in the gardening activities,” Nasike adds.

Conservation At Heart

The young conservationist says her role model is Jesus Christ, and she believes that conservation begins from the heart before it moves to action. “You cannot tell an individual to conserve something they do not care about, so conservation begins from the heart. You have to care about it for you to conserve and protect it,” Nasike notes. She is inspired to do what she does by the quest for a clean and protected environment.

Nasike notes that the youth and the general public need to be aware of what is happening around environmental issues. She adds that the environment is the main source of livelihood from food to income and, therefore, there is the need to care for it. “To young Kenyans and Africans at large who are keen on environmental conservation, my message to you is be courageous…stand up against environmental injustices…that is the only way we can conserve the environment,” says Nasike.

The Little Hummingbird


A popular children’s story is told about a huge forest that was being consumed by a huge fire.  All the animals in the forest come out and they are transfixed as they watch the forest burning, and they feel overwhelmed and powerless, except one little hummingbird that says. ‘I am going to do something about the fire.”  The hummingbird flies to the nearest stream, picks up a drop of water and puts it on the fire while flying up and down, up and down, as fast as its little wings can.  In the meantime, all the other animals, much bigger animals such as an elephant with a big trunk that could bring much more water, are standing there helpless. They said to the hummingbird, “What do you think you can do? You are too little. This fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak too small. You can only bring a small drop of water at a time.”  As they continued to discourage the hummingbird, it turned to them without wasting anytime and told them, “I am doing the best I can.”

Just like the little hummingbird, Wangechi Kiongo and Claire Nasike have dedicated their lives to the protection, preservation, and conservation of the environment for the sake of ourselves and future generations. Their hope, just like that of Professor Wangari Maathai, is that this generation embrace conservation and leave the world better than they found it.