Elizabeth Wathuti
Guglielmo Mangiapane—Reuters

Elizabeth Wathuti’s Green Generation Initiative has planted more than 30,000 trees in her home country of Kenya since she founded the organization in 2016. But the 28-year-old’s real goal is to sow the seeds of climate consciousness and advocacy in other young people.

Wathuti first developed her passion for the environment as a child growing up in Nyeri, a region of Kenya with one of the country’s largest tree canopies. As she grew older, her appreciation for nature morphed into activism.

She revived her high school’s environmental club to learn more about climate change by tracking trends like rain formation using the school’s weather station. And when she graduated from Kenyatta University, Wathuti founded Green Generation Initiative to teach children to “clean their own air, grow their own food, and create their own green spaces”—in part by planting trees. A project she says she’s especially proud of is bringing different species of fruit trees to schools in Kenya and encouraging each child to adopt and take care of one.

“Africa’s greatest resource is its young people,” she says. Seventy percent of the continent is under the age of 30. “These young people are the ones that are driving ideas, creating solutions, and driving innovations on the ground. And it's the same young people that, if you don't invest in them, will have to live longer with the consequences of climate inaction.”

Some of those consequences are already being felt. An ongoing prolonged drought in the horn of Africa has led to famine in Northern Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Wathuti adds that even subsistence farmers in more fertile regions of Kenya have faced increasing crop failure due to unpredictable weather patterns.

Over the last few years, Wathuti has embraced becoming a spokesperson of sorts. She addressed more than 100 heads of state at COP26 in 2021, detailing how the climate crisis is already exacting a devastating toll on low-income countries and imploring leaders of the developed world to act urgently. This year, she has worked as the lead coordinator of the first-ever African Youth Climate Assembly, which seeks to unite and amplify the perspective of young Africans into international climate discussions, and she helped craft a three-year strategy for the Wangari Maathai Youth Hub—a nonprofit organization, dedicated to the legacy of the late Kenyan environmental and social activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, that seeks to encourage leadership and self-development among children and young adults.

Wathuti says she hopes to one day be the U.N. Secretary General, because she thinks she could have the greatest impact from that position.

“I am a strong believer that for young people to be able to effectively and gently engage, we have to have opportunities to take up leadership,” she says. “We need to be systematically embedded into existing climate and environmental frameworks.”

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