“A World On Climate Red Alert” with Dr. Richard Munang in Kenya, Africa

The youth is our greatest untapped weapon to help solve the ongoing climate crisis. Leverage the youth and innovate. adapt, and transform. Dr. Richard Munang is empowering Africa’s youth to engage in ‘Innovative Volunteerism‘ and climate entrepreneurship to help mitigate the negative impacts of climate change while putting food on the table. Exciting times are ahead of us with new thinking, youth engagement, and economically viable clean energy climate action. Tune in and learn how people like Dr. Munang are finally moving the needle in the right direction!

Listen to the podcast here.

“A World On Climate Red Alert” with Dr. Richard Munang in Kenya, Africa

Climate Action Youth Entrepreneurship Delivers Innovative Clean Energy & Profits

I’m formerly from South Africa. I relocated abroad to attend a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellowship in beautiful Boston in the United States of America. In this episode, our thoughtful, bold leader joins us from Nairobi, Kenya. He was raised in rural Cameroon. He is a multiple award-winning environment and development policy board leader, author, and keynote speaker.

He holds multiple, notable credentials from the universities of Nottingham and Harvard. In 2023, he ranked in the top 50 global thought leaders on Sustainability. He is the United Nations Environment Program head of Global Environment Monitoring Systems. Previously, he was their Deputy Regional Director for Africa and climate change coordinator for the continent. He has led climate resilience strategies and over 100 innovation projects promoting climate action.

He founded the Innovation Volunteerism Mentorship Program, which has inspired thousands of youth on the African continent to turn their passion into profits and environmental challenges into economic opportunities. Stay tuned as he shares his love of color, bright colors, and the meaning they convey; his rural childhood; Innovative volunteerism, the antidote to a disenfranchised youth; and how one can leverage traditional systems to drive innovation. We warmly welcome an African compatriot and friend, Dr. Richard Munang, who I admire, respect, and applaud. Welcome to the show.

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Dr. Richard Munang | Climate Action

Richard, thank you so much for joining us from across the oceans. I’m super excited to be having this conversation with you.

Thank you very much for having me. It’s a great pleasure.

I’d love to begin… You are passionate about the environment and the climate and the prospects for meeting this moment. Could you begin by sharing a bit about your view of the current state of the environment and the planet?

The Planet On Red Alert

The world is on red alert. We have the COVID crisis that came and pulled back a lot of gains that have been made by countries, especially developing countries in Africa, for that matter. Then, the Ukraine and Russia war saw inflation rise to levels never seen before, about 12.2% in the continent of Africa. A lot of people went back from the progress they’ve made. They went back to poverty. They slipped back to frustration. Others are developing mental health issues.

When you put this together with a changing climate and ecological degradation with pollution killing over 9 million citizens across the entire world and over 700,000 in the African continent, then we need to look at things differently. Environment is not about climate change. It’s health. When you pollute the environment, you are causing death and sickness in humans, and a sick human being means your workforce is going to be affected.

The environment is a social justice issue because without a healthy environment, you’ll not have clean drinking water, and without clean drinking water then, you are condemning people not only to poverty but at the same time punishing them for not having the basic necessities. The environment is food security and economics because without the environment to provide requisite services; our economic fundamentals will definitely not necessarily be okay. When you look at it from that perspective, then transformational development to address those triple crises that I mentioned, climate change, the COVID effects, and at the same time the Ukraine war that has caused this inflation and, at the same time, the oil gas debate that has come to the fore, we need to leverage environmental resources.

Is there a particular moment, a day or time, or an event that was a shocking moment of this truly red alert moment for you? When was that? What was that, and what was it? How did you feel at the time?

I was born in the Northwestern part of Cameroon to a family of five. My parents are subsistent farmers. We grew up in an informality. That informality meant that at least we had to do what we did depending on the little farm where my mother grew her crops. Unfortunately, these crops that were used to be sold to pay our school fees, to buy food, and to buy clothing failed most of the time because of lack of rain.  Even then, rain sometimes came in a way that wiped away the little that had been grown.

That started to make me think about what was happening. I think that was when it sunk in when I was in primary school, went to secondary school, and went to high school and university. I always thought, “What can I do to address this challenge that was inflicting pain on not just our family but even our neighbors and forcing us to beg for food sometimes and to drop out of school some years because we could not afford school fees?”

As a result, it became part of my puzzle not only to look for solutions but also to address a bigger problem. As I finished university, I noticed that there was a problem not only on my mother’s farm. It was a problem for many. Later, I noticed it was not just a problem in Cameroon but a problem worldwide, so I got a scholarship to study Environmental Science at Northam University in England.

I focused on understanding what was then not understood. I understood at the time, I was taught to be a global man, and I didn’t focus on understanding the solutions that could be applied only locally. In the local communities, farmers applied that to avert the catastrophic incidences I saw that affected our family. That became my moment of epiphany because I was now searching for solutions to address a very common problem that was not common only to the community I grew up in but a global problem.

Those impacts were felt at that level. Until now, it’s always been in me that, yes, global challenges need local solutions sometimes because to solve global problems, sometimes the agreements may be reached at a global level, which is very important because we need to bring everyone and every country on board. What has always been the missing link is the translation to affect that common person at a grassroots level who needs it most and who is the most vulnerable. From my mother’s farm crop failure all the way through to anything I have always done, or I do everywhere, whether it’s a project implementation or a policy discourse, I always put myself back to that stage when I saw crop failure in my mother’s farm.

To solve global problems, we need to bring everyone and every country on board, but the missing link has always been translating it to the common person at a grassroots level who needs it the most and who is the most vulnerable. Click To Tweet

How old were you, and how did you feel at the time?

I was seven years old, and this was not just a once-off when I started noticing this. I was seven years old, but this started happening when I finished primary school; even when I was at a university and came back home, most of the time, these challenges were still there. That inflicted pain in terms of lack of food and resources to pay our school fees and forced us to go backward. It became worse. I noticed that it was not just a problem of our own home, it was a problem of many across the village, province and the country. Later on, as I dug down on this when I was studying, I noticed that this was quite serious until now. It’s only gotten worse. That’s why you see I developed a passion for doing anything using any space I’m in to provide solutions that can address that issue.

That’s very powerful. If you look at the world nowadays, environment and climate are high up on the agenda. Are there any related big threats or opportunities that you see that are equally important or very important for you? What are the related knock-on effects that also keep you concerned?

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Dr. Richard Munang | Climate Action

What keeps me concerned most is the youthful population because if you look across the entire world, I mean the growing young population. We put it within the context of Africa here nowadays. It’s a young continent, and even across the world, the young people seem not to have been understood by the leadership of now. That worries me because most of them were born after the ‘90s, and they didn’t grow up with the challenges of the Cold War or colonization and countries fighting for independence.

They were born in an era that transitioned from cell phones to computers, and their understanding and thinking of solutions and even problems is completely different from what we sometimes see in public discourse spaces. As a result of that, because they’re not understood, sometimes it means that they give up and become disenfranchised. That disenfranchisement is a recipe for disaster because they’re losing hope and sometimes losing faith and then getting back to not doing what is needed. In contrast, they’re supposed to be leveraged as the workforce, as the social sovereign capital to do what is needed nowadays.

Let me take the example of Africa. A continent of 1.4 billion people with over 60% youth, that youth population is unemployed. If you do not leverage the youth, then there’s nothing you can achieve in the continent without leveraging them. What I see as a threat is youth unemployment.

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Dr. Richard Munang | Climate Action

What I see as a threat is the wrong narrative sometimes that doesn’t leverage the opportunities that youth can bring but somehow makes them not see or build on those opportunities. What worries me is that if you look at climate change, it wires through every problem; whether we’re talking about sustainable transformational development in terms of food security, the inputs will come from the youth, whether it is technology development to add value and drive sustainable value chains. Young people can develop that.

We’re talking about technological challenges. Young people provide the solutions, whether it’s artificial intelligence or robotics. They are into this. Providing solutions to make or break requires leveraging ingenuity and skills, whether we’re talking about water walls or technological solutions that young people will bring. Still, I don’t see them being the center. They force themselves most of the time to be at the center.

That is a problem because not all can be brought to the center. Because not all have that opportunity, the few that get there may not have the critical mass to be able to cause the transformational change that can happen. Therefore, we’re losing opportunities, knowledge, new ways of doing things, and creative thinking. We’re losing that breadth of rich air that can solve the monumental challenges that the world needs now.

Bringing The Youth Onboard

In your mind, what do you think would be a progressive, proactive step to take to bring the youth to the center? In your mind, do you have an example of where it has been done and worked?

There are pockets of success stories worldwide and more so in the African continent nowadays. There are a lot of young people who are doing excellent, amazing work, but they’re doing it in pockets, with few groups of young people individually. We need a critical mass within a collective system that can move beyond the mindset of thinking that ‘you must have money or you must have resources to start to a mindset of inspiring people to self-belief’ because one of the things that I think has been absent in the world, not only for young people, even for the elderly people, is that we have discussed challenges of the global community from the perspective of lack, rather than from the perspective of using what we have to get what we don’t have.

That has then dissuaded and discouraged many people to sit back when they don’t have the opportunities. What we have done is how can we be able to leverage their passion. Money cannot buy passion, and money cannot buy dedication. An inspired and passionate human being can do wonders because if you throw trillions at someone who is not passionate, nothing will happen. If you give ideas to a passionate person, he can move mountains. It is based on this simple premise that the idea of innovative volunteerism was born.

Money cannot buy a passion, but an inspired human can do wonders. If you throw trillions at someone who is not passionate, nothing will happen. But you give ideas to a passionate person; they will move mountains. Click To Tweet

It was born from the perspective of, “How do you address the challenges of over 900 million young people who don’t have opportunities?”(Editor’s note: knowing which question to ask). No amount of project money will be able to solve that. You can then have a common framework in which each and everyone brings his or her talent but turns that talent into a skill. That skill turned to value. (Talent-Skill-Value). By doing this, we inspired them through lectures and guidance in frameworks we created using social media to ensure that at least a young person in Uganda who wants knowledge of turning agricultural ways into full opportunities can be connected to a young person in Ghana, Zambia, or Chad.

We created an incubation hub that has resulted in not only developing these clean solutions of waste to briquette, developing clean air solutions like solar dryers for mortars to dry their vegetables as they make money and solve community problems. We’ve created a critical mass of climate action solution providers creating their businesses out of this today. It’s a process that is now to inspire more young people who are now learning from those experiences. What is needed as a result of that is that there is a proof of concept. We now need policy and physical incentives to help young people take this to a higher level. I think this is the best way to build solutions so that at least we can engage a broader scope of young people, but ensure that at least they take the catch of what they do, but do it in a way that solves economic, environmental, and social problems.

Innovative Volunteerism

What is your definition of innovative volunteerism?

It’s a very simple idea to engage. It’s a tool that leverages the passion of an individual. For example, if ‘Anne’ is passionate about the journalism of telling stories, Anne needs to adopt the process of innovative volunteerism because you are already a professional in journalism.  Or you have the expertise in journalism to start to tell stories of solutions that help a model in a village in a way that can put food on the table.

That story you are telling is now moving beyond the news to a solutions-oriented approach that can help inspire more people to move away from depending on charcoal and to clean solutions for briquettes that reduce indoor pollution, save some money because they’re cheaper, and ensure that there is no pollution choking her lungs and killing her kids.

Suppose it is a young person who has done carpentry. How can that young person be guided so that he or she can start developing his or her passion for making solar dryers rather than being a carpenter to sinking and roofing roofs, but moving that passion that he or she has with a skill to apply in developing a climate action solution? The simple definition of innovative volunteerism is inspiring people to turn their passions into profit as they solve problems through the environmental lens and create businesses while putting money in their pockets and food on the table.

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Dr. Richard Munang | Climate Action
Making Africa Work Through the Power of Innovative Volunteerism

That’s a wonderful concept. I’m curious about the word volunteerism. I wasn’t clear on what that meant; that they’re volunteering, but in effect, they’re also turning passion into profit. It’s not a volunteer in the traditional sense.

The logic of innovative volunteers and the logic of volunteerism is completely different. If you look across the entire world, and I’ve heard this many times, the multiplicity of the challenges we have will not be solved even if we were to have all the resources that are needed. It’s people who drive solutions. If you do not have people with the skills and the passion to do what is needed, you throw money at it, and nothing will work. At the end of the day, it is the individual who can voluntarily volunteer his or herself to do something. If you cannot voluntarily volunteer yourself to do something, no matter what is done, it’ll not be sustainable, and it’ll not even work. The idea was you cannot force people to do what they don’t want. You must be able to guide and inspire them.

That is why you see me using social media, providing perspective and solutions. Those who are excited and inspired volunteer to ask and volunteer to enquire; when they enquire, and it aligns with their passion, they voluntarily volunteer to learn when they learn, and they can then build something out of that. The traditional volunteerism of people coming to learn sometimes for the social endeavor and maybe have experience but do not because they want to do it and there was no passion. Innovative volunteerism is a new concept that ensures we all play our part in what we like. Still, in the solutions process, we build something that puts money on the table, in pockets, and food on the table, and we solve communal challenges.

It’s about volunteering to act, learn, lead, and profit. To what extent has this energized people on the African continent? Do you have any numbers around that? How well is this movement doing, and how many people have taken up this call to action?

Over 10,000 young people have picked up these ideas. I’m talking about those who are doing something. I think a big problem that is not discussed worldwide is that there have not been discussions about what we can do with what we have and not what we don’t have. There’ve not been discussions on how we can only get what we don’t have by using what we have. This simple premise, which sounds somewhat simplistic, is a very big way of doing things that it has not yet been championed to make people understand. They’ve always misconstrued reality from the perspective that if you are not supported first, you cannot do something.

Start With What You Have

That is a disabler and dissuades. It doesn’t inspire. You see well-to-do young people who are talented, energetic, and passionate but get shot down by the belief that they cannot start because they’re not supported, which is the opposite. You can start to help a mother even understand how she plants her maize on her farm and learn to do that. In the course of doing that, you might be able to understand that the peelings of the waste that comes out of that farm, whether it is maize or cassava, can be used to turn back fertilizer. As a result of these, I took almost two years trying to explain this through academic lectures, university lectures, and secondary school lectures; as we were doing this, we were practically showcasing on the ground in Uganda, leveraging the local structure of the Uganda kingdom, which are over twelve million people.

Leverage Traditional Structures: The Power of the Kingdom

The reason for doing that was that these local structures in the continent have not been leveraged to drive transformational environmental solutions. Whereas the local governance structures have immense powers in terms of the fact that the king of these kingdoms, once he says everybody should move away from charcoal to briquette, everybody takes off. It’s a policy, and if he says everybody should move away from using chemicalized fertilizers to using organic fertilizer, everybody picks that up. When we engaged them, we brought environmental solutions such as clean energy and solar dryers. The idea was to engage young people to showcase how they work.

When young people showcase how they work, it feeds into the kingdom, which, in Uganda, is where everybody uses natural-based solutions. The youth there have picked this up, and they’re now helping to train youth in Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria. They’re also helping to train youth in Zambia. I’m bringing this up because of what has been there before: ‘People cannot do something if they don’t have what it takes to do it in terms of money.’ This is false. 

It’s a process because we are trying to reshape mindsets to see that opportunities will come when you start with what you have. That is an opportunity because you are not de-risking yourself, so investors can invest in you because you can prove that you’ve done something with very little. This is the best formula to make everybody know that he or she has something to offer.

Initiatives In Uganda

I’m curious to know, in the kingdom of Uganda, what was the moment when you thought this was the way forward, and who were the stakeholders that helped energize this initiative In Uganda?

Growing up in a small village in the Northwestern part of Cameroon, I experienced an informal setting. Let me put it this way before I get to your question: The continent of Africa is an informal setting. Honestly, up to 80% of the entire continent is in the informal setting, even in cities.

Can you define that for our audience?

The informality of the continent is based on the perspective that most people live in rural areas. These rural areas depend on a soft system of agriculture. They do not have access to electricity, and over 620 million Africans do not have access to electricity. You can imagine 620 million plus in informal sectors. The informality is not leveraged; it is the fact that they don’t have access to electricity. Because they don’t have access to formal banking, they also have locally accessible structures and systems on which they depend. They have kingdoms and cooperatives where they save their own money. They use social trust and systems to be able to use that trust and contribute money to support one another to either buy school uniforms, buy food, or even buy inputs for the farm. This is something that is quite established.

When you look at these social and governance structures where I grew up, there was a chief who ruled the community and could give instructions that everybody needed to get out and clean on weekends. With that mindset and understanding of that background, I have been in this space of climate change for the past many years. I’ve asked myself if discussing this informal leverage of systems has never been at the forefront.

I wanted to do something different. Uganda is very rich in kingdoms. The kingdoms are very solid. Buganda is one of the biggest kingdoms in Uganda. As a result of what we were doing from the work we’ve done across the continent and working with stakeholders in Uganda, civil society, and NGOs, through the framework of innovative volunteerism, some actors voluntarily volunteered to start doing what we were driving.

We leveraged them, and they engaged the kingdom. From the kingdom, they engaged in the biggest local cooperative, where people saved money and had investment activities in their funds. What we started doing was that those cooperatives with over 5 million people in them could then be used as an accountability and traceability entry point to reach 5 million people with solutions that help them use organic fertilizer and help them adopt solar dryers developed by the youth. 

These systems are called Village Savings and Loan Associations. At the community level, the Village Savings and Loan Associations, if they’re growing cassava, most of them grow cassava. Before, they used to dry it on the ground, and it gets spoiled. Now, because of solar dryers that young people fabricate and decentralize, they dry them within two days rather than seven days, as compared to before. It’s not contaminated, and they’re turning it into cassava flour. They market it and save money in the cooperative. They’re making more money, more money. They’re having food on the table. The young people are also making money because the solar dryers are decentralizing. They charge a fee (rent), or the Village Savings and Loan Association buys it (buy). It’s creating jobs.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you don’t leverage these systems of traceability and accountability, it becomes very difficult to monitor and measure impact. At the same time, ownership diminishes when resources are not available. These are lessons that we’re picking up through these systems of innovative tourism. More importantly, these structures of kingdoms and local governance structures have always embraced this logic of innovative volunteerism because in the communities, no money is needed to be able to solve, construct, route, or ensure that things are ‘fixed.’  

With that spirit, it was very easy to tap into that so that at least people can embrace it; the innovative volunteerism that I mentioned now was more important for young people to provide the inputs that are mentioned: solar dryers, fabrication, turning agricultural waste into bio-fertilizer, which replaces chemical fertilizers that these associations and communities have used. At the same time, the young people are making money.

How many kingdoms are involved? Which kingdom is it?

In Uganda, the Buganda kingdom. (Editor’s note: Buganda, the largest of the medieval kingdoms in present-day Uganda, became an important and powerful state during the 19th century. Established in the late 14th century along the shore of Lake Victoria, it evolved around its founding kabaka (king) Kintu, who came to the region from northeast Africa. Kintu, who arrived as the leader of multiple clans, conquered the area, defeating the last indigenous ruler, Bemba Musota, to establish his new state.  Kintu, however, ordered the new clans to intermarry with the indigenous people, creating the Buganda ethnic group.)

That’s where we start, but we hope to spread these to others. As I said before, and I’ll go back to that again, change can be incremental, especially when you are moving and trying to bring a logical approach to things that have not been the norm. I am pushing the informality of the African continent very strongly in every space because every discussion is as if Africa is an organized continent.

Informality, even in urban cities, cannot be ignored in slums. You see, many cities have slums, and almost 80% of the citizens live in slums. You cannot call them urban dwellers. They are still informal. What is happening is that the data that has come out of this because data is very important. It has helped to inform the policy on how these producers that are using this system produce.

For example, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards has not developed a standard on how you produce working with the environment and how you drive that emission using the data that is coming out of this work that we’re doing through innovative voluntarism. It has developed what is called a market incentive standard, which means that the farmers and the young people who are producing what they’re producing will now have a benchmark, which is an incentive because if that benchmark is followed, then their goods and products can even go beyond Uganda to the entire East African region.

For the first time in Africa, the solar dryer standard is being developed because of this data. These are policy changes that are happening gradually. At the same time, Nasarawa State Emirate picked this up because there were many kingdoms. In West Africa and Nigeria, the Nasarawa State Emirate picked this up but did it differently. (Editor’s note: Nassarawa is a hausa language word for ‘victorious‘. The State was named after the founder of Nassarawa. kingdom, Makama Dogo. Agriculture is the mainstay of the state’s economy. The people are very industrious, and they are involved in traditional industries such as dyeing, weaving, blacksmithing, and carving. The people of Eggon inhabit Nasarawa State in the mid-belt of Nigeria. Predominantly located in Lafia, a few more are at Akwanga, Keffi, and Eggon, which are local government areas of Nasarawa.)

They gather young people to be trained to turn agriculture into fuel briquette and fertilizer and develop solar dryers, which are not decentralized to help women dry the cassava. More importantly, they have used those young people to train other communities and other families so they can produce their own briquettes from the West. This data has helped inform the development of a school curriculum at a university level at Nasaraw State University, which means that these pockets of success of climate entrepreneurship in terms of developing turning waste to bar fertilizer, to brick, to replace charcoal, and developing solar dryers will now be taught formally in school. This course is called Climate Action Entrepreneurship. (Editor’s note: The University Was established under the Nasarawa State Law No. 2 of 2001 (see 2.2) as passed by the State House of Assembly. The University came into existence under the visionary and dynamic administration of the Governor. (Dr) Abdullahi Adamu (Sarkin Yakin Keffi, Aare Obateru of the source, Ile-Ife), the first democratically elected Governor of Nasarawa State.)

Where Africa Stands

About 10,000 people are engaged in these initiatives. The work you’re doing is remarkable. I noted in your book that you also speak about Africa, which has been thought of historically as the dark continent.  Around 2010, it was ‘Africa Rising,’ and coupled with that, Africa seems to have greater challenges in terms of global warming vis-a-vis the rest of the world. If you look at the average rising temperature and global warming in Africa, in terms of projected trends, where do you think Africa is nowadays?

Africa nowadays is better than Africa in the ‘60s, ‘50s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. I have always argued that if we do not appreciate progress, we can never make progress because even though progress can be incremental, it also can act as an impetus to propel more progress. When you look at the changing climate, as you rightly put it, Africa is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. We can see this in the floods, droughts, and the Horn of Africa, where over 22 million people don’t have food. They’ve lost their cattle and animals, which cost them over $300 million in just cattle.

When you look at the impact, Nigeria has had the worst floods in all 33 states. The life lost cannot be quantified in terms of money. When you look at these, this is now becoming a heavy burden for the continent because resources located for health and education are now used to address droughts to ensure at least people can have emergency relief. For those who have been affected by floods, this is putting the continent in economic distress because they have little physical space. At the same time, the climate challenge plus the development challenges have become very difficult.

This is what I think needs to be done. Every challenge is a disguised opportunity. You don’t waste any moment that you can seize an opportunity. A crisis should never be wasted, whether it is a climate crisis, the COVID crisis that came, or the crisis that is coming due to the Ukraine and Russia war. Let me start with the Ukraine and Russia war. The increase in prices provided an opportunity for the continent to look to tap into its own indigenous crops. Cassava is a crop that is called ‘the gold of Africa.’

Can you explain what that crop is? I don’t think everyone is familiar with it.

Cassava is a crop that is grown in the continent and mostly in this health and some pockets of areas that are dry across the continent, but it’s mostly grown in dry areas or wet areas. It produces a tuber that can be crushed into cassava flour. It can be turned into cassava bread and cake. Animals can consume the leaves, and the stem can be used in the place of firewood. It can produce 300 products. This is a climate-resilient crop, and some studies have shown that wheat is going to reduce by about 34% as a result of the changing climate around the globe. Cassava will only be affected by 8%.

More importantly, leveraging cassava will be an opportunity because it has a global market of over $22 billion in the USA, but it’s not being tapped into. In the face of crisis, Africa can tap into this opportunity. It will not only be able to address food insecurity but also reduce the depreciation of its foreign reserve in imported wheat, especially as foreign reserves are quite small because of the kilometers of climate change.

They’re using their resources to address these aspects, and coming out of COVID, they are in economic distress. The biggest employment sector in the continent is agriculture. 65% of the workforce are employed in agriculture. If you are to expand the value chain of cassava to add value, you’ll be creating jobs. At the same time, you can export a finished product, which will fetch you more money. This is what we’ve been pushing because it can address food insecurity, create jobs, and, at the same time, tap into a market of over US $22 billion.

The second aspect, which I think is very important, was the Ukraine war during COVID-19; what happened was that when ships carrying grain from Ukraine were blocked, the African rural areas were feeding the continent. Food was imported from rural areas to the city. Most of the food that comes to the city gets spoiled because the local communities do not have access to a solar dryer to dry their vegetables and reduce spoilage or solar power fridges where they can store their tomatoes.

If you walk across African countries, you’ll see tomatoes by the side of the road. At the end of the day, when they don’t buy them, they get thrown away. That’s food and money thrown away. When they have access to these inputs, young people can be incentivized by the government to create their businesses around this; this can then be decentralized to solve this problem. It will then create jobs for young people, but at the same time, also help reduce post-harvest losses, a cost to the continent every year of $48 billion.

The continent is importing food, over USA $35 billion. That is importing unemployment and exporting employment. When you look at the changing climate, solutions to the changing climate outweigh the problems for the African continent. Why do I say so? Look at the energy challenge.

The continent has the best solar power resource on Earth, but only 1% of that is being tapped and decentralized. That means 99% of the solar energy use in Africa has not happened. The price of solar is coming down. The continent as I started out by saying, Africa’s informality cannot be ignored; 620 million energy in poverty can access energy through off-grid because if you focus on greed, focus on gas, you are not going to reach these 620 million people because they’re in areas that even electricity cannot go to.

Indoor Pollution

It is using solar that can be able to reach them. It’s not just about electricity. It’s also about cooking. Over 84% of Africans depend on clean cooking. We’re talking about 9 out of 20 million that are killing Africans. Every year, 700,000 Africans die because of indoor pollution. This is a huge number. That is not even reported. This number is higher than the number of those who died of COVID-19, but every life lost does not compare. Moving them to clean cookstoves and incentivizing young people to get to businesses that develop clean cookstoves will create jobs and solve health problems.

Incentivizing young people to create businesses where they do not pay taxes for over five years and giving them tax holidays for turning agricultural waste into fertilizer that can be utilized by communities which we have tested, is in Cameroon. It creates jobs for young people and helps communities by turning in organic waste. It also helped to replace charcoal and tap into a market of charcoal in the continent that was worth $20 billion. This thinking needs to sink in. I’m talking billions; the charcoal industry is $20 billion. The cassava industry is over $22 billion, and harvest losses are $48 billion. At the end of the day, the resources Africa needs to transform are with them. They need to become smart to seize that using climate action solutions.

The Role Of Governance

It’s incredibly innovative and inspiring. The question that comes to mind is, to what extent is the government stepping in, and to what extent have you been able to change governments’ thinking and policies and reallocate resources?

Firstly, the government of Africa isn’t excellent when it comes to climate policy. African countries ratified the Paris Climate Change Agreement that was adopted in December 2015; 52 out of 54 ratified it. They put in place simple plans to drive development in a low-emission development way called nationally determined contributions and disease. 52 out of 54 countries developed those and ratified them. That is massive progress, more than any other part of the world. Now they’re revising those plans, and 45 countries on the continent have revised a plan that is more ambitious than any other country in the world, yet the continent is already meeting between 3% and 4%.

When it comes to policy, Africa is a leader. This is where the difference comes in: implementation, turning those policies into reality, and making meaningful changes have been big problems. We’ve been doing this throughout our work. If you look at the way the continent is set up, if actions are only carried through the lens of formal drivenness, we will still be losing a lot because of the continent’s informality.

What we’re doing is we’re hoping to ensure that these plans and policies are in place. How we help countries develop investment plans because out of all these climate action plans, 72% of them have not been turned into investment plans. What are these investment plans? For example, every country has agriculture, sustainable policies, and clean energy and transport. What does this entail? What we’re doing is that if you’re talking about sustainable agriculture, what you need to do is not to talk about it alone; it is to talk about it within the context of energy that can add value.

This is what I call competitive energy. Energy is not just for lighting. It should also be used to add value to help ensure that at least cassava can be processed, dried in a solar dryer, and turned into flour using clean energy solutions. We’re helping governments showcase how these linkages can happen and also develop what we call a blended finance facility.

I have to ask you: which governments are responding, and which governments are taking action?

You see, this process is new, and I started within 2 or 3 years because this is a new paradigm shift of implementation. We’re using test cases to share the lessons across the continent. We working with Ghana, Uganda, and Morocco, but then we’re also working with the youth with this logic that at least they can also push the governments to pick this up regardless of where they are. Still, the point is more about logic because I think what can work and make impactful changes in one government can become a mosaic or a prototype that others can then leverage to do so.

Is there a government at the cutting edge of that, and if so, which one?

Ghana is quite ahead of Uganda. Some governments have moved ahead to do things in a way that fits these, like Kenya. Kenya is giving tax incentives to people who are developing clean energy solutions. This is the logic we’re saying: Young people are turning agricultural waste into fertilizer. Briquette Kenya, India finance bill of 2021, gave tax incentives taking off VAT or Value Added Tax of 16% on any action that was resorting to clean energy solutions developing burgers and briquettes.

Most countries are doing this, but what we are saying is that’s a piecemeal approach. You need to do it broadly within a holistic, transformational, connectable way that at least attracts more investors. For example, we’re talking about e-mobility or electric vehicles. Many investors will invest in a country that has put an enabling policy in place to provide charging points across the country. That means that the private sector does not have to use money in putting charging points on e-vehicles, but they can then leverage what the government has already done and bring in more e-vehicles; the government can also set up training institutions to train young people so that at least they can learn how to fix those e-vehicles. You’ll see the enabling environment with little action catalyzing investment, which is the dimension we are bringing, the same as agriculture.

I understand it philosophically. I’m curious why you mentioned earlier that you need pockets of excellence and proof of concept to help motivate and persuade governments to play their part. It sounds like Ghana and Uganda are making strides, and Kenya has good tax incentive structures. I was curious at a very practical level to understand which of these governments are making more strides and how that is shaping their economies and perhaps influencing other governments.

Ghana is moving with e-mobility, that is, e-vehicles, by developing an e-vehicles policy, and at the moment, they are moving into how to put in place charging points. It’s a policy process, but they’re moving in that direction. Uganda is working on developing blended finance, which is how you leverage local structures like cooperatives to address the informal and microfinance and, at the same time, public finance that at least can then de-risk the whole system to bring in private sector investment so that cooperatives that can afford a solar dryer. They don’t have much money but can get money from microfinance. The government instrument helps to guarantee that in case of default, they can cover the risk. All that is is a simplistic, logical way to bring stakeholders together.

Local financial institutions engage with micro-financial institutions under the central and national banks, with the government de-risking and ensuring that those who access those resources also access those resources at a very low-interest rate. That’s what we are developing, and these are four components.

The first is working with local cooperatives, which are forgotten in the process of financing, but also linking them up to microfinancing to work together because there are some financing that cannot be handled. Still, they can get it (not individually) but as a structured group that can channel to address challenges on the ground. More importantly, linking to the big banks enables them to engage in aspects like e-mobility. Still, the government plays the role of de-risking and attracting investors to come in and fit into the process.

You’ve certainly taken on a remarkable challenge. Who have been your greatest allies in this process?

The greatest allies in this process have been the young people. I’ve noticed a void. They’ve heard of the opportunities, but most of them do not have that disruptive way of seeing things done differently. It’s taken some of them some time to come on board. Most of them are embracing these solution spaces because they see that the traditional ways have not made any difference, regardless of how long they’ve been in place. 

They’re noticing. This is true not only for young people in Africa but also across the globe. I have reached out to young people in India. The youth reach out to young people in Europe, the United States, and Canada. They love what is happening. Now, that question, then, is very important that you’ve asked because what I’ve noticed is if you cannot show something, which means that you have to be invested in the process to have a product, a lot of people might not trust what you’ve been saying. What I want to say is that the young people are embracing the opportunity, are part of this process, giving their testimonials, and are inspirational and motivating, which keeps me going.

On that note, I saw all the wonderful birthday videos put together for you by many of the young voices you connect with. I felt their love and admiration for you. I could only imagine when I was listening to it that that in and of itself is a great fuel for your purpose and passion. In your book, you also alluded to some of the challenges of Africa and some of the great voices and leaders of Africa. We have the late Kofi Annan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. What has been a Mandela Moment for you, a moment-specific event watching a film, reading a book, or meeting him? What particular moment stands out in your mind when Mandela’s example inspired you, shaped you, or helped you reflect in some way?

It’s been the moment communities begin to believe they can use their local structures to drive their own funding. I think one of the biggest challenges has been a lack of self-belief. Sometimes, the fact that you have the ideas and the knowledge and you keep pushing these ideas, and there’s always this language of, “There’s no money.” It’s true, there is no money. When people finally believe that we have what it takes, no matter how small it is. This was when I was in Uganda, and I met these great, amazing mothers saying they didn’t have money. I explained how they can use their cooperative, which is called Peyosa, and how it is one of the biggest cooperatives in the Uganda kingdom to leverage little resources to invest in clean solutions to add value.

I could see them saying they had never thought of that. When I returned after two months, they sang and showed me how they had dried cassava by accessing a solar dryer and saving more. I felt proud and excited. That was my ‘Mandela Moment‘ because I could see the connection between young people bringing a solution,  a solar dryer, and a communal structure being delivered to access finance.

I could see the solution of models in the community’s self-belief that they can self-sustain. That was something that was quite very impactful, and it gave me hope that we can be able to do this so that at least as we connect into the global architecture, the continent, and bring solutions that are relatable to people in the informal sector. The informality of the continent seems sometimes forgotten. Still, when I see the informality, the informal sector is rediscovering itself to bring solutions that can be copied elsewhere, and that was my ‘Mandela Moment.’

For you personally with Mandela, I mean your own connection with Nelson Mandela?

To me, he is the epitome of excellence, a reflection of selflessness, and an embodiment of what humanity should stand for, which is that we are all the same regardless of how we look. We can do everything for the common good of one another, and we all benefit rather than lose. I think that attitude seems somehow to be missing. We need that more now, especially with the triple planetary climate change crisis, pollution, and biodiversity.

On top of that, these elements of conflict of the war that we are seeing in Ukraine and, more importantly, the unemployment that we’re seeing around the world. Mandela epitomizes humanity and selflessness, kindness, and the ability to not work for himself but to touch the lives of millions. This is what we need nowadays. That is always a reflection of anything that I do, and we must be selfless in the process. We must move from individualism to collectivism. We must move from thinking from selfishness to selflessness; I must be responsible for anything I do because a life touched means we have lived a better life.

Lessons From Mandela

You’ve had many moments of connecting with Mandela through various different media. Does one moment stand out for you? Was it when he walked out of what was then called Victor Verster Prison? Was it his inauguration day? Do you have a particular reference point? (Editor’s note: Victor Verster is now known as Drakenstein Correctional Centre and is a low-security prison between Paarl and Franschhoek in the Western Cape. It is the prison where Nelson Mandela spent the last part of his imprisonment before his release on February 11, 1990.)  

I won the United Nations Environment Program award. I was the first African to win that. When I stood on that stage, what came to my mind was, “Is it about me that I’ve won this, or was it of me to win this, or was it the people out there who made it possible for me to win this?” I dedicated that to them, and I felt great. I thought that was something I could relate to: My Mandela Moment.

Your connection to Mandela at that moment was because of his relationship with the United Nations and the fact that the UN named his birthday International Mandela Day. What was the bridge between that UN moment and the connection back to Mandela?

It was thinking beyond self that our success is not necessarily for us. It’s about what we do for others, and even when you’re rewarded or even when you grow in your career, it’s not about you (it never was). It should always be about what more you can do to solve problems for others to be better. It’s a sense of responsibility that every good or bad moment should be about us reflecting on what we can do if we were to live the next day.

Our success is not necessarily for us. It's about what we do for others. Click To Tweet

Whether it is awards or promotions, we always reflect on and think about others, especially others, in terms of providing solutions, not causing problems, and inspiring them to self-believe. Inspiration is very important, and motivation is to make others who never have an opportunity to be where one is, to see that they can rise up to be there, too. And when they’re there, it is not about them; it’s about others because together, we are stronger.

Where did you learn many of your insights about Mandela, and how?

I read about Mandela when we were growing up, especially when we were taught about apartheid in primary and secondary school. The understanding of who Mandela was because he was a hero, an Icon that everybody knew when he was released from prison. The fact that he was in prison for 27 years is quite mind-blowing that everybody starts to ask how a human being be in prison for 27 years, even when we were taught about this in school. We got excited to understand. I read about him to understand who he was and what he stood for in his life and to understand what was driving him through all those tribulations. It became an inspiration. In my books, I have a book on Mandela, which I always go back to read.

Which one?

The Autobiography of Mandela.

The Long Walk To Freedom. Out of interest, I’m curious: When did you pick up that book? When do you draw on the book and the insights?

It was when I finished my PhD. I couldn’t afford to buy it. When I finished my PhD and started working, I ordered the book. We were taught a bit about it, but I needed that one so I could always go through and reread it.

When do you feel you need to go back and remind yourself? When are those moments for you? Are they moments of indecision or anxiety? What triggers you to go back into the book?

The world is full of challenges, and I always say, “Crises are bound to come at any time.” Sometimes, you give your best in situations, and you don’t achieve the intended outcome you wanted. You feel like you should know better. Mandela went through all these and could still come at a strong, excited, and inspired people. That becomes more inspirational. More importantly, I always think of the aspect that I mentioned, selflessness because what makes people give up is when they don’t have a purpose. The purpose of life is to be useful. Our usefulness is not for our own self; it’s for others. Whatever we do, we do it to make others’ lives better, and then we are useful. If what we do doesn’t go as we want, we change. We are doing it, but the ultimate end goal has to be the same. That is something that I always do – adapt and change to achieve the end goal.

Whatever we do, we do it to make others’ lives better Click To Tweet

In moments when you need to refill your own cup of inspiration, are those moments when you go back and draw on those insights?

Yes.

Do you think Mandela’s leadership example is relevant nowadays? If so, what do you think he would say to Africa nowadays?

Turning Injustice Into Justice

His examples are needed and more relevant nowadays than even then because I think the challenges then were not as many as they are nowadays. I started off by saying, ‘The world is on a red alert.‘ We have climate change, war, the Ukraine war, and countries that are recovering from COVID. On top of that, there are a multiplicity of other challenges, such as environmental challenges apart from climate change, pollution that is polluting our ocean with waste, and ecological degradation. What Mandela has always done is put people first. I think it’s about self-belief, and we can do it. He fought to ensure that there was no injustice.

The injustice in climate change nowadays. Mothers and children are dying every day in Africa because of droughts and floods, and this is a result of the changing climate that is actively charging and supercharging these floods and typhoons. They do not need to suffer even when they survive this; they should be supported, and the rich countries that have a pledge to do that should do that.

I believe Mandela would say that, too, because injustice can never inspire a young person who is growing up in a world that is unjust and can never unleash his or her potential. A mother dying as a result of a lack of an alternative clean well to cook is not her fault. It’s because she doesn’t have an alternative, and we need to provide the resources to ensure that you can have that. His message would be about injustice and how to turn that into justice.

In your work, and based on your experience on the African continent and your work within a global community within the United Nations, what do you think would be one first step to turn injustice into justice?

The first step is inspiration. What I have learned is that a lot of people are uninspired, and they have given up. There is an immense power in people to self-believe that they can do something. There is a lot of giving up in the world. The most dangerous world is one in which people have given up. A human being uninspired is more dangerous than any other thing you can ever think of. He or she can do anything if inspired. On top of that, it is a loss to the world because the biggest capital is sovereign and human capital. To inspire people to believe in themselves doesn’t need that much. It’s about transparency. When we say we do things, we do them. When we fail our citizens, we return to them, apologize, and show that it was not intended.

When pledges are met to address challenges that are of a global common good, they should be honored. When everybody is treated the same, regardless of how you look, and given the same opportunity, we will have a world that is united and peaceful. What I have seen through our work is that people need to be inspired, especially young people. They have given up, and then the false narrative sometimes that they cannot do it because they cannot, which makes them disenfranchised.

What I’ve learned in the process is that a positive narrative inspires. Negative narratives don’t inspire anybody. They dissuade people. A passionate person can do that. Even twenty unpassionate people cannot. Imagine a world with eight billion passionate and inspired people. All these challenges we’ve mentioned will be solved in less than five years.

Positive narratives inspire. Negative narratives don't inspire anybody. Click To Tweet

There are a couple of fun facts. Richard, what inspired you the most? What moment can you return to that lit the fire for your inspiration?

When I finished my degree, I volunteered at an NGO in the Northwestern part of Cameroon. During this time, I applied for scholarships. My motivational statement focused on the issue of crop failure on my mother’s farm. After three attempts, I finally got that scholarship.

I’ll never forget that moment because immediately after I got the scholarship, I knew that my dream had been realized. I could study and come up with a solution that could address a challenge that was/is impacting millions. Anytime I think of that, it inspires me. After the struggles. My parents could not afford to send me to better schools abroad to study something that could be top-notch to address the problem. When I think of that moment, I think that was when the key was handed to me. Either use it to open or lock a door, but I used it to open the door.

You’ve opened a very wide door. Another fun fact. Returning to your village, please share a fun childhood moment. What was one of your most joyful childhood moments?

I miss that. When we were growing up, that tradition gradually diminished, not as it was during our time. At the age of five, we gathered around the fireside every evening to be told stories of our great-grandfathers and given stories of how things used to happen, how people survived adversaries, and how people used to survive in things they were not capable of doing.

We were taught proverbs. If you notice, I use a lot of African proverbs. I learned most of them during that time. A dramatic expression conveys a message that is quite heavy in meaning but, at the same time, very soft. I miss those moments. I believe they are what formed me to be who I am today. That setting of always relating back to that village style of doing things relating to the common (ordinary) person was formed during those moments of my teenage years.

The third fun fact is: please tell us where you bought that beautiful, bright, and joyful shirt.

I love fashion. What made me love fashion is that we grew up poor. That’s not a problem, but I went to school without shoes and had only one uniform. The idea was always, “If I were ever to afford it, regardless of what I am wearing, I would always like to put something that conveys a meaning.” Because I love fashion, I scan the internet and try to look at different combinations of African print. I said, “I come from Cameroon with a flag, green, red, yellow. I would love to do something that represents the country’s flag but also represents a traditional dress from where I come from.” They call it Toghu, a traditional clothing item that comes from that particular region. It is made of different colors. It has the gong. 

The gong was used in those days to pass a message in a village. For example, when you use that gong and hit it, people know there was an emergency that the village chief wanted people to gather. The stripes, as you see them, are like this (he shows us). Some of them represent a stick that the elder held. Some of these stripes represent stars that are supposed to be a vision for many people.

If I was to stand up, you’ll see there is a gong down here. Wearing this traditional dress and the color yellow is Hope. Colors are important. Anytime I wear yellow, I want to project hope. If I wear green, I’m talking about something about agriculture and the environment that is important that I want people to understand. If I wear orange, it’s to inspire and simultaneously pass on a very authoritative message. If I wear red, it’s almost the same as orange, though I hardly wear red. You see me more in yellow, which is hope and inspiration; green, an environmental message that needs to be worn with gravitas and the gravity that it deserves. Those are the colors that I am wearing.

What does red mean?

Red is to pass on an authority message to an unruly crowd that may not want to hear it. To do it so that at least when you leave the stage, people will still say, “You had a point.” Still, I hardly wear it because today’s world needs hope, inspiration, and environmental solutions. You’ll see me more in green, yellow, and orange. Orange is hopeful inspiration, but at the same time, a forceful drive of a message because of the urgency that if you lose that moment, you might not be able to regain it.

On that inspiring note and that intentional color in your life, thank you for bringing your beautiful bright yellow shirt to this conversation. Congratulations. Thank you for the incredible inspiration you are sharing with the youth of Africa and worldwide. God bless you. Thank you for being here.

Thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure. I appreciate you taking the time to engage with me, and it’s been enjoyable. I had fun doing this.

We’ll be doing this again.

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The world is on red alert and in crisis. Global warming is one of the biggest existential threats of our time. Talking to Dr. Richard Munang, Africa’s environment hero, multiple award winner, and sustainability champion, provokes radical new thinking and innovative, bold action. What are we dealing with? Sometimes, it feels as though we are living in a perpetual crisis. Yet, despite the enticement, we cannot simply erect a firewall, excuse the pun, to contain this intensifying global warming that transcends our national and international borders.

How do we deal with this crisis? How do we innovate, adapt, and transform? There are two distinct phases. The first is the emergency phase where we stabilize the crisis and buy more time. We often seek and ask our authority figures to give us the quick technical fix and, after a raging fire or a rising flood, to come in with the teams and clean up, fix up, and hopefully restore most of what is there before. 

The second phase, the adaptive phase, is much more tricky. We need to tackle the underlying causes of the crisis. We need to build new skills and capacity beyond the existing technical skills for us to not only survive but thrive in a new reality. Yet, it is so much harder to change the way we think, act, and lead. People will put you under enormous pressure to maintain the status quo and address their anxieties with authoritative confidence, often asking you or requiring of you that you know more than you do know and discount what you don’t.

Despite the risk, we must resist the temptation to fake or allegedly fix it and be bold enough to lead. There are some critical questions. What is the nature of the challenge? Is it technical? Is it adaptive? Or is it both? Regarding global warming, some technical challenges ought to develop cost-effective alternatives to burning fossil fuels. The adaptive challenge requires that we rewire and reset the system, challenge and change the rules of the game, what we do, what we say, how we think, and how we lead.

There are six practical steps that you can follow. In fact, Richard has applied all of these six steps in several innovative projects across the African continent.                                                                             1) Experiment. He created an Incubation hub.                                                                                             2) You need to foster adaptation and balance competing demands. In other words, excel at all practices like subsistence farming while practicing the new best practices like new clean energy solutions.                                                                                                                                                       3) You need to embrace disequilibrium. It is good to feel uncomfortable. Stability is a liability, not an asset. If there is no crisis, there is no urgency and no change.                                                                    4) Despite this disequilibrium, we must manage and moderate the heat. We need to create discomfort, yes, but we need to produce a productive zone of disequilibrium. If the temperature’s too low, there will not be difficult conversations and discussions. However, if the temperature is too high, people often panic and freeze.                                                                                                                                    5) We need to generate a level of leadership beneath the top. No top team alone can come up with the best innovative solutions. It is the youth of Africa who are experimenting and practicing new skills to come up with profitable clean energy solutions for their communities.                                               6) Finally, perhaps most significantly, you must take great care of yourself, your outlook, sanctity, and professional and personal identities. When the going gets tough, it is often that strong inner sense of personal identity that pulls us through.

So, until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action—one small step at a time—one step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.

 

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