When President William Ruto announced that his government is committed to planting 15 billion tree seedlings by 2032 to realise forest restoration and tackle the effects of climate change, a little girl in Nairobi was already ahead of the pack in this ambitious initiative.
Ellyanne Wanjiku Chlystun, a brave environment enthusiast, may not have met Dr Ruto, but she is undoubtedly one of the unsung heroines working to make Kenya’s dream come true.
Ellyanne remembers exactly when she decided she wanted to be an environmentalist. She was four years old and in Kindergarten. So far, aged 13 years, she says she has helped to plant 1.3 million trees.
Together with a team of 17 members of the Children Committee from around the world, Ellyanne is leading the young ones in putting together the first ever child-led Global Children Climate Summit, which will run from August 31 to September 2, 2023 ahead of the Africa Climate Summit.
“2032 is just nine years away. I know that I may not carry my country’s flag alone in the quest for forest restoration, but I’m glad to be carrying the global environment flag, to represent the whole world. My target is to plant at least one trillion trees before I reach adulthood,” she says.
The inspiring story of Ellyanne continues to draw attention worldwide. At her tender age, she has won some of the most coveted environmental awards.
“I was an environment enthusiast since I was four years old. It is something I’ve been working on my whole life and I will continue doing it until my hands cannot work anymore,” said the Grade Eight pupil at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi.
The brilliant and courageous girl dreams of transforming the globe into a clean and safe environment.
"Everyone has dreams. Everyone has goals. The only difference is that when you can’t pursue those goals to the fullest due to the lack of a conducive environment, then your safety on this planet is not guaranteed. You have to first look out for your safety through appreciating the value of a clean environment. You can do that by planting a tree at least once a month,” she said.
Her efforts do not stop at planting trees in her school. With the help of her mother Dorothy and friends, she plants trees in national parks and recreational facilities in Nairobi and beyond.
I feel so sad when it rains and nobody thinks of planting a tree. When I see water going down the drain in residential areas, thereby causing flooding simply because there is no tree cover, it hurts me to the core,” she explains.
Ellyanne was recently crowned as the youngest Paul Harris fellow.
The Paul Harris Fellow recognition acknowledges individuals who contribute, or who have contributions made in their name, of $1,000, to The Rotary Foundation
Her passion for the environment has also seen her address high-profile global leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France during the Paris Agreement for Young People organised by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
“That is a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life. Global leaders cannot run away from the truth that young people, are the strongest agents of change in different sections of our society. We have been left behind in matters of climate action. Our voices must be heard. We are demanding the right to participate fully,” she explains.
She continued: “In fact, our participation is a right that should be central to the formulation of public policy that affects an estimated two billion children in the world of the ages zero to 14 years.”
Ellyanne’s dream is to influence policy and lawmakers. She is ready to do anything to help the world have a clean environment, including pushing for electric vehicles and greater usage of green energy such as geothermal, wind, and solar power.
“I was motivated by the late Prof Wangari Maathai, who was feted a Nobel prize for her work in environmental conservation. I love her memorable quote ‘you cannot enslave a mind that knows itself. That values itself. That understands itself.’ She is my heroine. It dawned on me that your mind controls your whole body and mind set.”
Apart from planting trees, Ellyanne educates fellow pupils on the importance of restoring forest cover, and creates awareness on issues to do with climate finance, climate, and health technologies among others.
“I’m happy my message often receives good response but sometimes I doubt whether they internalise my words,” says Ellyanne, who has authored three books covering topical issues like COVID-19, environment, and female genital mutilation (FGM). Her fourth book is with the publisher.
Speaking to Sunday Nation, Ellyanne disclosed that she was very excited about the forthcoming inaugural African Climate Summit set to open in Nairobi from September 3- 8.
“I believe I will get the golden opportunity to fly Kenya’s flag high at the summit. I cannot wait to make my motherland proud and inspire other young girls and boys to remain committed and passionate about tree planting,” said a hopeful Ellyanne adding, “Matters environment are universal. It doesn’t matter where you come from. We can all come together and make this planet a better place to live in than what we found.”
Ellyanne’s mother, Dorothy, says of her only child: “She has unlocked many potentials for herself and me. I will support her academic and environmental goals.”
“My mother encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do,” Ellyanne says.
“I don’t think she had a deep understanding of environment and tree planting before I plunged into this exciting field, but she was very much a driving force in my life in this endeavour.”
Ellyanne believes she was fortunate to find mentors who supported her in a field that is not considered fun by young people.
“I was really never bothered by that,” she says. “But I also know there are probably a lot of subtle things that I didn’t allow to bother me. I have the kind of personality that once I’m focused on what I’m doing, nothing can stop me.”
In spite of the government's ambitious project to plant 15 billion trees by 2023, Ellyanne remains sad that the lifting of the ban on logging led to more cutting of trees.
“The lifting of the ban was the saddest moment for me because I started seeing fresh logs being transported. It is as if they were waiting for the ban to be lifted.
“I think it was wrong to lift the ban and as a country we must rethink that decision.”
One thing that helps Ellyanne stay upbeat is interacting with her fellow students.
“They are creative, and they have this youthful, positive attitude about where they’re going to plant the next tree. I like that.”