The New African Climate Leaders

A new generation of climate activists is emerging on the continent. “We will be the decision-makers of tomorrow; it is now that we must take the lead.”

Ayakha Melithafa from South Africa, 20, wants to be the voice of people of little, people of colour and small farmers, those who are the first to be affected by climate change but who are never heard. This young woman became aware of the problem in 2017, when the threat of water scarcity in Cape Town, where she lives, made headlines around the world.

A year later, her mother, who owned a small farm in the Eastern Cape Province, struggled with drought while white farmers a stone’s throw away drilled boreholes on their large farms. She decided to act. She organized people and helped them to understand the situation and demand the government fulfil its commitment on climate change.

In December 2020, she became the youngest member of the presidential climate commission to build a “social compact” around a “just climate transition” in South Africa, the world’s 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, whose energy is more than 80% dependent on coal. Today, she is one of the most important figures demanding a clear policy for “clean energy”.

Activist Adenike Oladosu in Nigeria: there can be no ecology without feminism since women are, according to her, almost always the first victims of climate change. The 27-year-old recalls that desertification and the disappearance of natural resources inevitably generate instability and violence with immediate consequences for the lives of the most vulnerable, such as the women in the Sahel forced to walk for miles to fetch water.

Adenike Oladosu founded the ‘I Lead’ climate campaign to bring the voice of young Africans to international bodies. This climate justice activist advocates in particular for the restoration of the resources of Lake Chad’s the area of which has reportedly decreased by 90% since the 1960s. Some 30 million people live in the Lake Chad Basin, and an estimated 2.4 million people have already been forced to leave their lands and homes. It is also in this region plagued by violence by jihadist groups that 276 high-school girls were captured in 2014 in Chibok, in North-Eastern Nigeria, by the Boko Haram group. “I see this as a consequence of the climate crisis facing Nigeria. It is this disruption that creates the conditions for such horrors,” says Adenike Oladosu, proudly claiming to be the “first eco-feminist in Africa”.

Vanessa Nakate, a 25-year-old Ugandan climate activist has become one of the world’s most compelling voices on climate. Speaking during the COP 26 last November she said: “after 25 of these Cops, emissions are still rising”. She pointed out that the largest delegation was not from any country but from the fossil fuel industries. She warned that a rise of 2 degrees Celsius would lead to temperatures in the south that the human body cannot endure.

She dismissed the pledges and promises made at the gathering, saying: “We are drowning in pledges; commitment will not reduce CO2, promises will not stop the suffering of the people, pledges will not stop the climate warming only immediate and drastic action will pull us back from the abyss”. Finally, she said to the world leaders: “We do not believe you. We are desperate for you to prove us wrong”.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is a defender of her Peule Mbororo ethnic group, of the Sahel, which is under increasing threat from environmental damage in Chad. She started her activism in 1999 at the age of just 15, when she founded the Association of Indigenous Peule Women and Autochthonous Peoples of Chad (AFPAT).

Since then, Hindou has been relentless in fighting for the protection of her community, many of whom are cattle herders directly relying on the natural environment for their survival. The increasing impact of climate change, including desertification, droughts, changing grazing lands and battles over territory, are threatening their livelihood.

“Indigenous people manage much of the world’s nature, including many of the healthiest and most carbon-dense ecosystems. We are just 5% of the population, yet we protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. There cannot be a solution to combat climate change if it does not include us,” she said during COP26 She is Co-Chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change and represents the body at the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and she is the chair for recruitment at the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA).

Born in the Seychelles, Angelique Pouponneau is a young environmental lawyer specialising in natural resources and the Law of the Sea. She co-founded the Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) Youth AIMS Hub Seychelles, dedicated to preserving the environment and promoting sustainable development. She led the campaign ‘Seychelles Free From Plastic Bags’ to draw attention to the harmful effects of plastic bags on the environment and instil a sense of environmental responsibility in young people. Her dedication to the environment inspired thousands of young people not only across Africa, but the whole world, to demand better deals and action from global governments during COP26.

As an advocate for tackling climate change, agricultural development and women’s rights, Ndoni Mcunu from South Africa, was appointed Bilateral Engagement Lead for the Adaptation Research Alliance, a project officially launched at COP26, the alliance consists of an international coalition of adaptation actors, seeking to drive investment in climate change research and innovation. She recently co-authored the Greenpeace International report on ‘Extreme weather events and climate change in Africa’ and is passionate about making scientific research accessible and readable for non-scientific media platforms and audiences. She set up Black Women in Science (BWIS), where she remains the CEO, as a charity to deliver capacity development interventions that empower young black women scientists and researchers.

For Senegalese Djiby Niang, it all started when he had to move to Dakar for his studies. “I went from the nature of Casamance, where I grew up, to a big city where concrete dominates. I decided to participate in greening the capital,” explains the 34-year-old activist, who in 2013 became head of the Senegalese branch of the association Jeunes volontaires pour l’environnement.

Created in Togo, this movement supports young people to take ownership of the challenges of climate change. In Senegal, “in the face of deforestation, we have carried out reforestation and agro-ecology actions,” explains Djiby Niang. Another area of action is waste management. The association fought for a law against plastic to be passed in 2020 and is now mobilizing against rampant coastal urbanization.

The activist recognizes that the commitment of young people has been growing over the past ten years, with the multiplication of associations for the defence of the environment. “We will be the decision-makers of tomorrow who will have to solve these problems, it is now that we must take the lead,” he claims.

In Kenya, Elizabeth Wathuti grew up in central Nyeri County, the most forested area in the country. A place that has nourished her “connection with nature”, as she gladly points out, recalling that she planted her first tree at 7 years old. In this country, which has been badly damaged by deforestation, she founded the Green Generation Initiative in 2016. Objective: to green schools and provide environmental education for children to bring out the activists of tomorrow. With about forty volunteers, this organization is pleased to have already planted more than 30,000 trees. Winner of various awards, Elizabeth Wathuti is now a regular guest at international climate events.

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