On the Campaign Trail: the New Generation of Powerful African Women Stepping Up to Save the Planet

Everyone’s heard of Greta, but less familiar are the names of a new generation of powerful African women stepping up to the plate and making it their business to protect some of their continent’s most threatened environments. Here’s one pioneer you should know about.

Meet one of a new generation of forward-looking African eco-campaigners who are making it their mission to protect their threatened continent.

Uganda's Vanessa Nakate began her activism back in 2019, staging a solo climate protest at the gates of the Ugandan parliament. One of the young climate activists chosen to speak at the COP25 gathering in Spain, and one of 20 climate champions who penned a letter addressed to the participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling on them to stop subsidising fossil fuels, she is a powerful reminder that we all have an effect on the future of our planet - and that positive change is possible if we act now.

Vanessa Nakate

Climate activist, Uganda

"We can't solve a problem if we don't know that it exists," says 25-year-old Ugandan eco-activist Vanessa Nakate, a COP veteran who has made it her mission to bring Africa's environmental crisis to the world stage. "By leading climate action initiatives," she says, "I am helping bring them into the limelight."

Nakate grew up in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, which borders Lake Victoria. It is a city whose financial district - all glassy skyscrapers and buzzy international commerce - gives way to rolling hills dotted with red-roofed villas and ancient acacia trees. Prior to graduating from Makerere University Business School, Nakate started looking at the problems faced by Uganda, finding that in the north, communities were suffering with long dry spells; in the east, with landslides and floods. She concluded that climate change was the biggest threat facing humanity, and, also, that it was women who were bearing the brunt of its effects.

Interviewed in 2020 by Angelina Jolie for Time magazine, Nakate explained: "In my country, they never allowed girls to climb trees, mainly because it would take their dignity and values, as we were told. But then, during a flood, the fastest way to survive, if you cannot swim or if you cannot escape, is by climbing a tree until help comes."

If we don’t address the issue of racial justice, we won’t be able to get climate justice

Nakate was Uganda's first Fridays for Future activist, protesting for several months outside the gates of the Ugandan parliament, and went on to found the Rise up Climate movement, which aims to amplify the voices of African activists. She is also the driving force behind Save Congo Rainforest, a major campaign to protect the land from catastrophic deforestation.

Home to thousands of unique species, including elephants, chimpanzees and rhinos, and ecosystems including savannah, coastal, lowland and swamp forests, Congo holds around 8 per cent of the world's forest-based carbon. Nakate argues that the countries and corporations largely responsible for greenhouse emissions should compensate African countries for the loss and damage they are suffering.

Currently working on a project to install solar energy and stoves in Uganda's schools, she's also passionate about creating self-empowerment in a system blighted by a history of white saviourism.

"If we don't address the issue of racial justice, we won't be able to get climate justice," she says. "So, every climate activist should be advocating for racial justice because if your climate justice does not involve the most affected communities, then it is not justice at all."

Oladosu Adenike

Eco-Feminist, Nigeria

Having studied at Nigeria's University of Agriculture, where she earned a first-class degree in agricultural economics, Oladosu Adenike, who's now 27, was well placed to comprehend the negative impact of climate change on her country - a land renowned for its wildlife reserves, waterfalls, rainforest, savannah and rare primate habitats.

In 2014, while Adenike was still a student, 270 girls were kidnapped from their schools in the Nigerian town of Chibok, sparking the Bring Back Our Girls movement. "I started to do some research on what had happened and found out that the depletion of Lake Chad was a major factor," she explains. "There was so much insecurity as a result of all the displacements and crises going on... I started educating people who were seeing these issues as political or tribal, making sure they know that the underlying problem is climate change."

Spurred on, Adenike became the initiator of Nigeria's Fridays for Future movement, and was soon advocating action on climate change in schools and communities. But it was her address at Madrid's COP25, about how the climate crisis is affecting lives in Africa, that brought her into the spotlight.

Adenike calls herself "the eco-feminist", having realised - as did Vanessa Nakate - how climate change disproportionately affects women and girls. Globally, 80 per cent of those displaced due to climate-related factors are female. "Despite having the lowest carbon footprint, women experience land poverty, food poverty, time poverty and energy poverty," she says. "Women need to be change-makers and voices in their communities. The more we involve women in issues of local and national importance, the bigger [the] change we will see."

Adenike is also the founder of I Lead Climate, a youth-led movement raising awareness about climate change-induced problems. Its main goal is to campaign for the restoration of Lake Chad - which has shrunk by 90 pent as a result of climate change - and stress the importance of implementing green politics in democratic institutions Africa-wide.

"If Africa is not safe, nowhere in the world is safe," says Adenike. "We need everyone on deck, regardless of our differences, because climate change needs global action. Everybody is needed at this moment in the fight for climate justice, regardless of who you are, where you are from or what you do."

Elizabeth Wathuti

Environmentalist, Kenya

Conservation campaigner Elizabeth Wathuti grew up in Kenya's Nyeri County, an area known for having the highest forest cover in the country. She planted her first tree aged just seven, thanks to a scheme set up by her local MP, Wangari Maathai - the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize - and went on to establish an environmental association in her secondary school.

Wathuti founded the Green Generation Initiative in 2016 as a means of addressing the challenges that she has identified with since childhood, namely deforestation, climate change and pollution. Its focus is on nurturing young eco-enthusiasts, greening schools, reducing food insecurity through the planting of fruit trees and promoting forestation via an adopt-a-tree campaign.

Now 26, Wathuti has become a powerful voice in the international environmental movement. Last year, she addressed delegates at the COP26 conference in Glasgow on the challenges her country faces - including the fact that, in the midst of an ongoing drought, the UN expects 2.4 million Kenyans to struggle to find food this year - up from 1.4 million a year ago.

Alongside her work on the Green Generation Initiative, Wathuti is head of campaigns at the non-profit Wangari Maathai Foundation, where she runs the Daima coalition for the protection of urban green spaces. Her priority is in teaching her fellow Kenyans about the connections between climate change, poverty, education and employment. "It's about leaving no one behind," she says.

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