How to drive Climate Action through Youth Innovative Volunteerism in Africa

In recent years we have seen the disenfranchisement of young people from all works of life across the continent venting out their frustration. The indignity and the pain of being unable to put food on the table cut across everyone regardless of chronological age — and this is where the pain of our youth lies. These youth represent the continent’s most sovereign capital to drive accelerated socioeconomic, climate-resilient transformation.

The way to change anything is NOT to use the same approaches that caused the problem, but rather apply alternative approaches, where inclusivity and selflessness are at the centre stage. We must all converge for a conversation on how we can each apply our talents, skills, motivations, aptitudes, passions to forge solutions to these challenges. A conversation on how we can practically tap youth’s talents to turn pressing socio-economic challenges into competitive enterprise opportunities that put more money in more pockets.

We are living in unprecedented times. The Covid-19 Pandemic has undoubtedly challenged every one of us, ranging to economies and societies globally. Africa, like the rest of the globe, has suffered the consequences of the COVID-19. Lives and livelihoods have been lost. Opportunities and hopes of millions have been dashed. And in the midst of all this, many lessons have accrued. The most fundamental of which speaks to the core of value. Speaks to the core of our usefulness as a people. And the verdict has been consistent t is time for all of us to stop passing the buck of responsibility and take development as a personal responsibility. Because when it matters most, it must become personal.

Let face it, in the solutions world where progress resides; youthfulness is usefulness. This is the only realistic view of the term “youth” that matters. What matters is the value we can bring to the solutions table. This understanding of youthfulness is critical to our discussion of Innovative Volunteerism, which starts with two insightful African proverbs.

The first proverb is — that “the one with eyes is not told to see” in the context of our discussion, from the mountains of East Africa to the rainforests of central Africa. From the coastlines of West Africa to the savannas of Southern Africa and on to the golden sands of North Africa, Africa’s challenges are self-evident. 257 million people go to bed hungry every day. 620million people are energy impoverished. Over 12 million new jobs are needed every year as more youth join the “tarmac” in a desperate search for hard to find, near non-existent jobs. The elephant in the room — Climate Change, where the content remains the most disproportionately vulnerable region of the globe to its disastrous impacts, which we are already seeing across the entire continent.

The blame game and passing the buck is not an option. Selflessly applying what we have, our skills, talents, creativity, energy to touch many lives is the only option. It is out of this reality and needs that Innovative Volunteerism came about as a mindset change tool. It is a tool to enable everyone to apply their skills & talents, regardless of disciplinary backgrounds, to touch many lives. To enable each of us to take personal responsibility for #ClimateAction and, in the process, tap into the many income & enterprise opportunities that it presents.

This then brings in the second proverb that contextualises Innovative Volunteerism from an operational dimension. Which is — that “not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it”. This proverb reminds us that we must take all chances and act if Innovative Volunteerism is to work. We must step out into the solutions space and get to work with what we have. One fundamental construct of life that is misconstrued and has limited us from taking chances is that people expect the world to be a place of celebration and absolute ease. Yet, the reality is that it is supposed to be a place of challenges. Those who came before us faced serious challenges. But they did not relent. They surmounted, and out of this, arose solutions that we continue to enjoy to this day. In this information age, the challenges we face are just a small fraction of the momentous challenges that those who went before us overcame. The point, therefore, is this — that the world is not a celebration or a place of ease, but it is a place of surmounting challenges, devising solutions that make life better for ourselves and everyone else.

We, therefore, must banish this fundamental misconception that has made Africa continue to take last and embrace reality as it is. We must not let challenges relegate us to a place of dependency and shortcuts, but rather embrace them as the reality and work to devise solutions to them. To give you another example, consider a baby learning to walk and put yourself in the baby’s world. When learning to walk, that is a difficult, painful & risky task that all babies undertake. They fall often. At times, they injure themselves. They even bled and cried. But they do not stop. They push through, and that is how all of us adults learn to walk and run. You can imagine a baby who stopped trying at the shock and pain of the first fall because they thought people automatically walked with no pain. They will stagnate and never achieve any of their potentials. The same applies to life. We must stop expecting things to be easy. Remember that challenges are inevitable and will come. But they represent an opportunity for you to devise alternatives & solutions that will surmount them and catapult you to a high level where you touch many lives. This is what each of us must engrain in our minds on a sombre note from now on. Anything less and the sorry state we will persist.

This is the letter and spirit of Innovative Volunteerism. That we take personal responsibility to address climate change challenges using what we already have — our skills, talents, energy, creativity, ongoing work, and leveraging the already existing enabling policy & regulatory environment, and delivering climate action solutions from an enterprise dimension, but to execute this responsibility, first, we must be willing. Then we must be selfless. Then we must act in a structured way, building on our strengths to ensure the solutions are effective and globally competitive. And this structure means improving, refining, and adapting our skills, talents, ongoing work, regardless of disciplinary backgrounds, to selflessly offer competitive climate action solutions in Africa’s area of global comparative advantage, which is its clean energy powered sustainable agro-value chains. And as you set forth, I will leave you with the following key takeaways:

First, Fundamentals do not change.

We live in the era of global competitiveness and market economies. The implication is that the sustainability of any initiative we undertake depends on how successfully it can be executed as an enterprise. To you, this means that any cause you are passionate about must touch many lives and one that can be implemented in an enterprising way. And this means prioritising solutions through sectors for which we hold unique comparative advantages that can enable us to solve challenges while creating competitive enterprise opportunities. In Africa, our clear global abundance in clean energy and arable land, coupled with very high postharvest losses & food imports, place us primally to tap no less than $83 billion each year from straightforward actions.

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For example, decentralizing solar driers made from locally available material to farmers & traders in local markets who produce and sell us food means enabling them to preserve and increase the shelf life of their harvest. This, in turn, means that what remains unsold at the end of the day can be sold when demand peaks. This means cutting postharvest losses to increase food availability and increasing earnings at this farmer & informal trader level by up to 30times. And the multiplier effects of such a move means unlocking income opportunities which means more opportunities — be it for the transports, small-scale manufacturing opportunities for those who fabricate these dryers, marketing opportunities, among many. And all these realised without piling on unnecessary emissions that exacerbate climate change. And the beauty is there are favourable sectorial policies in all countries. What it will take is for each of us to come down from our mental high horse, that tells us that having a certificate entitles us to a job, that tells us life is supposed to be a celebration and to realise that the certificates actually bequeath us a responsibility to solve problems and offer real value to society and the creator.

Converting agriculture waste to fuel briquettes is a $20 billion a year industry that replaces charcoal use while preserving forests. Converting waste to biofertilizer can recoup billions spent in imported mineral fertilisers. And by this, ignite local fertiliser production enterprises that do not harm the environment. Agriculture waste recovery to fuel briquettes and biofertilizer represent the most non-capital enterprise areas that any youth can engage in, which also aligns with Africa’s area of comparative advantage. But this is not the only one. Plastic pollution, for instance, already costs Africa millions of dollars.

Third, is the finance question.

As an African proverb reminds us, “money is sharper than the sword”. This speaks of the importance of financial capital. But one key question that is hardly answered is — do we need finance at scale or impact at scale? Africa needs impact at scale, and for this, finance cannot be approached in the traditional sense but built on structures that are well known in Africa. I am talking of the already well-established structure of low-risk financing that we call communal cooperatives. These exist in nearly every village in Africa. What needs to happen is for each of you to join these cooperatives, pool your resources, and raise the capital you need to kick start climate action enterprises. In addition, through these cooperatives, you will build relationships with other actors, who may end up being your clients. This is how we will achieve impact at scale.

Fourth, we must leverage Soft Power to reboot Africa’s narrative.

One profound African proverb reminds us that “a cutting word is worse than a bowstring, a cut may heal, but the cut of the tongue does not”. In the context of this discussion, this proverb underscores the importance of what I call “soft power”, which is mostly expressed in the content in our words. And I will give just one example to illustrate this. With the advent of social media, many youths are influencing their peers through what they share. From their taste in fashion to music and lifestyles that they share on social media platforms, youth influence each other’s choices on a global scale through social media. This is a manifestation of soft power. In the not so distant past, an international media house slandered an African country. And the youth and other social media users launched a famous hashtag that trended for days causing the media house to withdraw and apologise for their out of character representation of the said country. This is soft power. My message to you today is this — instead of wasting your soft power in influencing your peers to do things that do not add value, the time has now come that you influence each other to become solutions providers. To catalyse the growth of alliances of solutions providers — where we all influence each other to take decisive integrated action on catalytic areas of clean energy value addition and waste recovery to wealth as discussed today. This is what being an Innovative Volunteerism actor entails. We have the tools in our hands. Let us not waste any more time.

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Richard Munang

Environment and Development Policy Expert| 2016 Africa Environment Hero|2020 Africa Green Champion Winner| Author of #InnovativeVolunteerism| VIEWS are mine|