In Africa, young people are the voice of environmental protection

Briquette du Kivu workers, seen here in 2018, produce briquettes made from recycled biodegradable waste. Used as fuel, they replace charcoal and therefore help to preserve Congolese forest resources. (Briquette du Kivu)

It’s a July morning and 29-year-old Murhula Zigabe is visiting what he calls “the base”, a production unit for making the fuel briquettes that he created in 2018. Located in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu, this enclosure is used for recycling both organic and non-organic waste. “At the 2018 Paris Peace Forum, our project was recognised as one of 160 projects that can contribute to the promotion of world peace,” says Zigabe.

“Our company has three main activities: turning biodegradable waste into environmentally-friendly fuel pellets, known as ‘briquettes’, to replace the charcoal which contributes to large-scale deforestation; the production, from plant waste, of proteins that can feed animals; and the creation of hanging gardens for urban households,” says Zigabe, general manager of Briquette du Kivu. In just three years, Zigabe’s company has created several thousand gardens in schools and homes in Bukavu, recycled more than 500 tonnes of waste, produced more than 300 tonnes of briquettes and supplied several thousand fruit trees to households in the city.

Zigabe attributes these results to his passion for restoring the link between humans and nature. “The reason we are experiencing climate change is because humans have decided to sacrifice nature for a life of over-consumption,” says the man who has become a role model in his community. His latest discovery: a system for the domestication of soldier flies, thanks to which he will be able to produce food for chickens and fish. He hopes to limit the felling of trees with this project. “To get soy, you have to cut down trees, to get palm kernel cake, you have to cut down trees. With this project, we will reduce the rate of tree felling,” he explains.

From recycling to reforestation, through the creation of media specialising in environmental issues or awareness-raising among local communities, across the continent Africa’s youth are actively finding ways to interact with their environment in a more sustainable way.

According to the Central Africa Forest Initiative (CAFI), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ranks third in the world among tropical countries experiencing forest loss, after Brazil and Indonesia. Between 2001 and 2019, the DRC lost more than 14.6 million hectares of forest. CAFI attributes this scourge to poverty, the local need for land and forest products, as well as strong population growth. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Central Africa has lost more than 3.1 million hectares in five years.

Getting local communities to take ownership of the fight for the protection of Congolese flora and fauna is also a challenge taken up by Gorilla FM, a radio station created by members of Club RFI Bukavu, an association of Radio France Internationale listeners. “Through our broadcasts, we raise awareness and fight against poaching and any other form of abuse against nature,” explains Nicole Bahati, coordinator of the RFI Bukavu club. “We needed a tool that could reach everyone. This radio station has allowed us to get closer to this population and to make the voice of the Indigenous populations heard. We are proud to be the very first to do this in the DRC,” adds the co-founder of the radio station, whose facilities are located inside the Kahuzi Biega National Park.

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While Gorilla FM’s programmes are produced in three local languages and French, this community radio’s activities go beyond broadcasting. “We organise people’s forums which allow the Indigenous population, some of whom lived in the park a few years ago, to have a conversation with the authorities and find alternative solutions to the problems which lead them to poach or fell trees. We make them understand that the park is a human asset that must be protected,” says Bahati. Thanks to Gorilla FM, local monitoring committees have been created.

“Thanks to these committees made up entirely of Indigenous people, we find out whether trees have been cut down or whether animals have been killed in the park. They regularly monitor the level of poaching. They themselves have become agents of awareness,” she explains.

A continental commitment

It may be the continent with the lowest greenhouse gas emission rate in the world, but Africa is not spared from the horrors of global warming. In a report released in 2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned of the risk of more than 80 million job losses worldwide by 2030 due to global warming. This report shows that West Africa is, along with Asia, one of the main victims of this phenomenon, as it risks losing nine million full-time jobs.

In Côte d’Ivoire, entrepreneur Evariste Aohoui is a pioneer in recycling electronic and electrical waste. “I felt it was important to make a commitment, to show the will to do the right thing. It is important for young people to get involved in the protection of the environment, because we have a responsibility to build a better world,” explains Aohoui. Thanks to his Waste Recycling Sanitation Programme (PARO-CI), which integrates informal sector actors in waste recycling, Aohoui has been able to create more than 15 direct jobs and 100 indirect jobs. Each year since the initiative’s inception in 2012, more than 10,000 tonnes of electronic waste are recycled.

In just a few years, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate has become a role model on the continent. From the Davos Economic Forum to international media platforms, 24-year-old Nakate appears on all fronts, speaking up for the African continent. Angered by the silence of decision-makers on the climate issue, she decided to organise a hunger strike in the Ugandan parliament in 2018. Thanks to Rise Up!, the movement she subsequently created, Vanessa is raising awareness among young people about environmental protection.

“We have to start with the school children, educate them, teach them, because they are the leaders of tomorrow, the activists of tomorrow, the scientists of tomorrow. They are the ones who will be in charge of the planet in the years to come. We also address older people, we organise cleaning operations or waste collection, so we can educate them and tell them what is happening at the moment, ” said Nakate in an interview with France Inter, a few months ago.

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Involve the youngest in the fight

Zigabe believes young people have no choice but to take care of the environment. “Young people don’t have to adapt to the status quo. Some fatalists tell us that there is nothing more we can do for the environment. We are a living testimony to what young people can do if they are determined: to turn a challenge into an opportunity. Young people look to the future. If we want to have a better future, we have to take care of the climate,” he says. Thanks to a partnership with UNICEF, students are regularly sent to the Briquette plant in Kivu to see what they do there and to be inspired. “This is a way for us to perpetuate this activity and remind the younger generation that the nation is counting on them.”

Bahati agrees. “To involve the young, you have to lead by example. If we don’t grasp the fact that we have to be responsible for the environment, we are all going to die. What are we going to leave for future generations?”

She hopes to be able to set up a radio station run only by Indigenous people, but with a global audience.

For Zigabe, it was not easy to begin with. To gain acceptance, he was forced to give away his first batch of briquettes for free. “No one took me seriously because they didn’t understand what I wanted to do. They thought I was crazy, because no one could understand that a college graduate would start collecting waste in a rubbish bin,” said the young entrepreneur. He overcame those obstacles thanks to what he achieved for the community, including the creation of more than 20 jobs. He also helped families save money, because Briquette du Kivu allows them to spend only €0.16 to cook a meal, which would have cost €0.50 using charcoal.

The biggest challenge Zigabe faces remains the lack of an industrial-size production unit, something that would allow him to produce in large quantities and thus expand his activities over a much wider area.

Be it in Congo or Côte d’Ivoire, the lack of institutional and financial support remains the biggest challenge facing young Africans. “We must maintain and continue our efforts with patience, despite everything,” concludes Aohoui. He now hopes to create 50 direct jobs, 1,500 indirect jobs and set up three waste treatment platforms within five years.

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