When the Green Youth Voice Spread Across Africa

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All eyes were on the two young people as they filed to the front of Olive Convention Centre’s main auditorium. Their eyes were bright despite the dull Durban weather. Something great was about to happen and they were at its very centre. 

Delegates from the length and breadth of Africa shuffled in their seats, curious about this book that was about to be launched. Seated in the front rows were the environment Ministers who had made it for this seventeenth regular session of the Africa Ministerial Conference in the Environment (AMCEN).

Aminetou, one of the two youth, was resplendent in the melahfa, Mauritania’s national dress. Her colleague Victor from Kenya was attired in a dark suit and a bright bow tie. They took their seats at a high table that was waiting for them on the stage. Within a minute, they were joined by Tribute, Yusuf and Marc from South Africa, Egypt and Cameroon respectively.

The Global Environment Outlook for Youth, Africa Publication was about to be launched. This historic Book had been co-authored by the five youth on stage together with nine other Lead Authors and nearly one hundred contributing authors from across Africa. To ensure that its quality was world-class, it had been reviewed by 12 young environmental experts, also drawn from each of Africa’s six sub-regions.

Seated with the five Lead Authors on stage was Cecilia, the Head of UNEP’s Office in South Africa and Damaris, the Focal Point for Youth and Gender in UNEP’s Africa Office. She is the one who had ably steered the process. Next to her was her colleague David Ombisi, then His Excellency Lee White, Gabon’s Environment Minister and outgoing AMCEN president.

After everyone had settled into their seats, Dr Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, the Director of UNEP’s Africa Office began giving her speech. She was bedecked in a dark suit, with a colorful scarf wrapped around her neck.

Dr Juliet 2Dr Juliet addressing delegates during the Launch“One of the biggest challenges that Africa is facing today is unemployment.” She paused as she glanced up at the numerous Environment Ministers from across Africa who were listening to her.

“One third of our 420 million youth aged 15 to 35 are unemployed. The UN Environment has responded to this challenge by producing the Sixth Global Environment Outlook for Youth. This Publication unveils a wealth of opportunities that young Africans can tap into to create green jobs for themselves.”

I smiled, as my mind traveled back to nearly two years earlier when I had been enlisted as a consultant Coordinating Lead Author of the process that birthed this Publication being launched. Apart from coordinating the content production, I was also given matching orders to find the authors who would pen the content. Two Lead Authors for each of the seven chapters and dozens of contributing authors.

 The first Authors meeting had taken place in Cairo from 13 - 14 March 2018. In attendance was Brian from Kenya and Tribute from South Africa, together with Nuran, Yusuf, Mayar and Islam from Egypt.It was a small team with a big vision. For two days, this team huddled in a Cairo hotel for hours as we meticulously laid down the framework for the Publication that we were envisioning. We resolved that we would come up with a visually appealing, scientifically accurate Publication that would be authored by young people from across Africa. The twin objectives of this Book would be: to equip African youth with practical knowledge for unleashing green jobs and to showcase innovative sustainable youth initiatives.

For weeks after this Cairo meeting, the clarion call for authors went out by word of mouth, on whatsapp groups, on Facebook, via Twitter and other social media platforms. Well-established youth initiatives like the Young Africans Leadership Initiative (YALI) also played a key role in widely disseminating the call-for-authors.

In subsequent months, there was a groundswell of articles from all over the continent. Somewhere in Nigeria, as the Okada (public motorbikes) sped by, 28-year old Ayobami from Oyo State sat down typed a ‘youth action’ article whose first draft was 1,050 words. The second draft was 1,206 words. This article was part of Chapter 1: Youth-led Green Solutions. Joining Ayobami in adding their voice to this chapter were writers from Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Mauritius and Zimbabwe. The co-Lead Authors for the Chapter were Olumide Idowu, a hyper-active environmental activist and social media supremo from Nigeria and Sidique Gawusu an engineer from Ghana who was pursuing his PhD in PhD in Power Engineering and Engineering Thermophysics. Rounding up the trio of Chapter 1 Lead Authors was Victor Mugo who identifies himself as a ‘young farmer in a suit.’ He is an actuarial scientist and the Country Coordinator of the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network (CSAYN).

112Aminetou Bilal, Co-Lead Author of Chapter 2 addressing delegatesSomewhere in South Africa, as pap the staple maize meal consumed widely in the country was cooked and served, Buntu a 22-year old graduate of Walter Sisulu University penned an article entitled, ‘How youth can tap into the economic rewards of off-grid electricity.’ The article’s first draft was 921 words. Based on my editorial input, the second draft was 1,317 words. This article was one of those submitted for Chapter 2: A Breath of Fresh Air. Other articles were submitted from Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso and Egypt. Steering this chapter were two Lead Authors: Miyoba Buumba, a young environmental educator who had graduated from the University of Zambia and Aminetou Bilal, one of Mauritania’s most active environmental activists. She founded Selfie Mbalite, an organisation that actively tackles the menace of solid waste. She was also an African Union Youth Envoy serving on the Youth Advisory Council.

The youth voice had also erupted from Niger where Houira, a young woman with a Masters in Environmental Management. She had invested hours into an epic 1,900 word article on climate smart agriculture for youth in Niger. This article was submitted to Chapter 3: Restoring Our Land. When I first read Houira’s article on 21st July 2018, I was in awe at her powerful insights that were grounded in deep research. I told myself that if the future of Africa was in the hands of people like Houira, then better days were indeed ahead. She had been introduced into the process by Awovi Komassi, the co-Lead Author for the land Chapter. She was a young environmental lawyer from Togo. Her Masters was in Environmental Management and Policy. Her co-Lead Author was Dr. Marc Anselme Kamga, a land specialist from Cameroon. This chapter also had article submissions from Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Mauritania, Malawi, Benin, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. African youth had a clear message - Africa’s land must be a strong foundation for sustainable livelihoods. 

Hot on the heels of Houira’s climate smart agriculture article was the longest article of them all - an 11,286 word masterpiece by Sarah Nyawira from Kenya. It was about blue economy opportunities for youth and was submitted to Chapter 4: Our Water, Our Life Force. Sarah poured her soul and mind into that article and wrote it for weeks. Alongside the article were several others from Ethiopia, Sudan, Tunisia, Mauritius, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt. This water chapter was flowing with diversity. It was ably led by Dr. Islam Al Zayed from Egypt and Muhammad Khalifa from Sudan.

My mind switched back from this walk down memory lane to the stage where the five Lead Authors were seated. Tribute Mboweni from South Africa was listening intently to the speech. Her white blouse was buttoned all the way to the collar. Together with Brian Waswala from Kenya, she had been the co-Lead Author of Chapter 5: Our Invaluable Biodiversity.

On July 3rd 2018 at 10.55AM, I had been right in the middle of researching for a book on ‘Adventure, Love and Travel’ when an email from the Republic of Congo landed in my inbox. It was from William Iwandza, a thirty-year old Congolese and was entitled, ‘how Congolese youth can conserve forests and benefit from them economically.’ Also streaming in for this chapter were other articles from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa. Scattered in these articles were powerful insights on biodiversity and the green economy.

The auditorium was dead silent as delegates hanged on to every word that Dr. Koudenoukpo was saying. I felt little rivers of inspiration crawling up my spine. Through the book being launched, Africa was going to listen to the powerful voice of its young people. One of these voices had come from Elizabeth Lukas from Namibia. On 28th June 2018, she had emailed me an article on ‘bridging the divide between young scholars and the environment.’ This article was submitted to Chapter 6: Youth Potential and Green Policies. The very first sentence of her article took my breath away, ‘To cherish what remains of the earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope for survival.’ What a powerful way to begin an article on a rather abstract topic of environmental policy! This quote was from the 2003 Book of Wendell Berry, ‘The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.’ Other contributing authors for the Chapter were drawn from Nigeria, Kenya, Namibia, Malawi and Sierra Leone. They all added their voice to the vital issue of youth potential and green policies. The Chapter’s Lead Author was Uvicka Bristol from Seychelles. She was working with the James Michel Blue Economy Research Institute (BERI). 

My mind raced back from Seychelles to Durban. I dipped my right hand into my beloved black rucksack and fished out the hard copy of the GEO for Youth Book that was being feted at that very moment. I smiled at the Cover which bore the map of a greenish Africa surrounded by silhouettes of young people. This stunning cover together with the rest of the book’s layout and design had been done by Mohab from Egypt. This guy is literally dripping with artistic talent!

For Chapter 7: A Positive Outlook, African youth had unveiled the future that they envisioned. They did this through a series of letters from the future (2063) to their 21-year old selves. In her letter, Edith Uwineza, a 27-year old artist from Rwanda had memorably written that, ‘I have a lot more to tell you, but am just about to leave my house in Kigali for the 7PM train to Bamako, Mali. Find below a painting that will give you an idea about the Africa of 2063.’ The painting was of four women walking across Africa as the sun rose. She had envisioned a future where sustainable transport across Africa was the norm. Other contributing authors for this chapter were from Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. They were superbly led by Yusuf Younis from Egypt. Apart from being Chapter 7’s Lead Author, he was also part of an excellent editorial team that was led by Mayar Sabet, one of Africa’s finest editors. She has an uncanny habit of digging deep into a mountain of words and creating textual gems. Incidentally, she was also the editor of the Africa Environmental Outlook for Youth Publication back in 2005! Consistency and professionalism are ingrained in her DNA.

My mind returned to Olive Convention Center’s auditorium, to Dr. Koudenoukpo’s speech. “I would like to extend my gratitude to these young Africans who have spent almost two years working on this Publication. They have clearly articulated the strong correlation between a thriving green economy and decent jobs.”

Alas, the youth of Africa had indeed provided this articulation. It was now up to them, together with their communities and leaders, to create the green jobs whose footprints could be found in every page of the book.

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125DJ Bwakali (Kenya), Aminetou (Mauritania), Victor (Kenya) and Marc (Cameroon) Celebrating after the launch

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