Marine scientist Cindy Saru Chorongo, Drop Access founder Norah Magero and Nisi Dawda, founder of Wacha Story. They work in the climate change space.


Climate crisis: Women finding practical solutions to climate change

What does climate change mean to you? To some, it embodies the image of once-lively rivers now reduced to mere trickles, harsh realities of relentless droughts, or the entry of zoonotic diseases that were once confined to textbooks.

To others, it is the distant shores with rising tides, many species of fish on the decline, or the rising cost of living alongside rising temperatures. Amidst these diverse perspectives, is a common thread of fear and concerns about the adverse impacts of climate change and the clarion call to find solutions and make changes to better withstand and respond to the challenges presented by a changing climate.

Starting Monday, Kenya will play host to other heads-of-state to find common, global solutions. The inaugural Africa Climate Summit organised in parallel with the Kenya Climate Week will be held at the Kenya International Convention Centre (KICC) with side events being held in different locations in the city. According to Ali Mohammed, Special Climate Envoy for Kenya, more than 30,000 delegates have registered to attend the event.

The big question is, what do you do in the face of a crisis that is just as complex as it is big? Three women share their journeys and contributions to practical solutions to climate change.

Norah Magero, mechanical engineer and clean energy expert

“When I became a mother in 2018, I moved from Nairobi city to Makino town in Makueni County, a semi-arid region, to be with my family.

One of the challenges that I faced was getting my daughter vaccinated because due to electricity interruptions, many health facilities did not stock vaccines. The fact that I had lived in major towns in Kenya, I was oblivious of the problems faced by many rural communities.

I gathered from some health specialists that while there are solar fridges, they are beyond reach since they must be imported and are expensive to maintain. It was then that I started thinking of a simple and affordable solution to the problem.

Together with my team at Drop Access, an organisation that I founded in the same year, we embarked on a pursuit to design a healthcare refrigerator and came up with VacciBox, a portable solar-powered refrigerator that stores and transports temperature-sensitive medicines such as vaccines, for use in field vaccinations and off-grid hospitals.

The refrigerator can be wheeled or mounted on a bicycle, motorbike, or boat, and has a telescopic handle for easy mobility. It also has a built-in thermostat and digital thermometer to maintain temperatures required for cold-chain medicines, a battery supply, mains, and solar panel connectivity, as well as a charge controller to ensure power stability. By providing access to clean cooling, anybody irrespective of where they are, can access medical items. We had cases of the vaccine box being used to provide coronavirus vaccinations for pastoralist communities, immunisation campaigns, and field medical camps.

Climate change is at play here. Many communities are experiencing rising temperatures to the point that they are unable to access quality healthcare because heat-sensitive medical items need to be kept in cold storage. The portable refrigerator is a climate adaptation solution because right now, we have a crisis with cooling, since the global temperatures are rising, and this issue is affecting how we provide medical services and keep food.

Notably, the solar-powered refrigerator, now in its third version and seeking to have it pre-qualified by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is designed in Kenya. I felt that it was important to come up with a product that is designed for our African context instead of importing one and fitting it into our lifestyles.

Another reason why I went into this is because I wanted to employ myself. Despite the promises that it would be easy for me to find a job as a mechanical engineer, especially a woman, the reality was far from the truth. But I couldn’t do it alone, so I ended up creating employment opportunities for other young people. It also provided a platform to think outside the box and understand why we should run ventures that are impactful and meaningful –those that try to combat issues like climate crisis. We have covered vaccination campaigns in places like Kajiado, Makueni, Kitui County and we are trying to scale into other counties.

We need to start thinking of the nexus between climate change and health because many solvable challenges are being hindered by the climate crisis. I remember when the Covid-19 vaccination was being rolled out, it became very apparent to us that no matter what we are ever going to supply as a solar solution provider in Kenya, if we can't tackle health first, then at the end of the day, we are doomed. That is why I became very passionate about the project, working at the intersection of energy, climate, and healthcare.”

Cindy Saru Chorongo, Marine scientist, and a scuba diver doing coral restoration.

“After completing my university studies and joining Reefolution Foundation, an organisation that works to protect and restore coral reefs in collaboration with local communities in Kwale County, I thought that I would have an office job because I didn’t have much knowledge on coral restoration. Coral reefs are some of the precious habitats in the ocean and about 25 per cent of marine life depend on them for survival. Communities that neighbour oceans earn a living, directly or indirectly from coral reefs.

As a result of climate change, I learned that they are dwindling at an alarming rate and that more than 80 per cent of the living corals are affected. This fostered my interest to train as a scuba diver and I have since been certified as a coral restoration diver.

A day after I did my first restoration, which involved growing corals in a small area, I noticed that by the next day, there were already some fish in the area. This was a difference of just one day and it really inspired me to continue doing what I do. The fish love corals and follow them where they are; it’s their home.

I am also involved in research, experimenting on the resilience of corals. We are trying to see whether corals that grow in shallow waters where there are low tides are exposed to sunlight and hotter temperatures can grow in the deep waters and vice versa. With the changes in ocean temperature, brought about by climate change, it’s critical that we know what kind of corals to garden and restore into the oceans.

One of the highlights of the initiative has been growing corals and seeing them succeed. A couple of years ago, we did a fish survey before restoration and there were only 26 species of fish living around the area. After restoration, the number shot up to 46. Further, the percentage cover of coral increased massively from what we had left.

Besides this, there's also the education aspect of it. Every Wednesday, I coordinate education programs whereby we go to schools in Kwale to talk to learners about marine conservation topics and everything related to marine life and climate change. I also take part in community outreach activities and exchange ideas on how best to protect our oceans. Even as a marine scientist, I learn a lot from the members of the communities. It is also interesting just how much children know about the oceans and what is currently happening.

There was a particular day when we asked a group of children to draw an art piece depicting the ocean. Most of them drew some plastic bottles on the beaches.

I remember asking, “Why a plastic bottle on the beach?” and the response I got was that there are plastic bottles on the beaches. It dawned on me that they are also noticing ocean pollution and the result of it which includes a reduction in fish.

So far, we have targeted more than 150 school-going children around Shimoni in Kwale County, where I currently work, and engaged them not only in education awareness but also in beach clean-up activities.

One big challenge that I have observed is that the quarters who act in initiatives like this are actively working in these fields. Many individuals not in science fields don’t take an interest in marine conservation yet it affects all of us in one way or another.

To create awareness, I share informational materials on my social media platforms, including videos of ourselves underwater, to show everyone what we do and why everyone needs to play a part in environmental conservation. Simple acts like proper disposal of plastic bottles and segregation of waste can go a long way to protecting our environment. This has seen me nominated for a Conservation of the Year-Marine award, organised by WeNaturalists, an ecosystem for professionals and organisations working in nature.

However, it is not smooth diving. Our work is hugely affected by the lack of finances because the work that we do—building artificial reefs whereby we grow corals, for instance, requires a lot of money going into it.

Another thing is the skill. To do coral restoration, you have to be a trained and certified diver. Unfortunately, there are not many of us working as coral rangers. For a greater impact on marine conservation, there need to be dozens of us working as certified divers.

Nisi Dawda, Wacha Story, makes eco-friendly stationery from recycled materials

“Wacha Story is the name of our company. It means, don’t give excuses, and act. In my perspective, it is about conserving the environment. Did you know that more than 80,000 trees are cut down annually to make pencils?

Our journey to help reduce the number of trees cut down for pencils started five years ago, a venture that was inspired by two sons.

The children felt quite distressed when they witnessed the construction of the Nairobi Expressway and the many trees that had to be cut. To put a smile back on their faces, we initiated a modest science project aimed at educating them about the significance of tree planting and nature conservation.

We started seed planting with our children, doing the little things to teach them about trees and nature. One time we got an old newspaper, pulped it, dried it, rolled it with graphite (not lead), and put a capsule at the bottom with seed that’s how we made the first pencil and have since added other items like pens, books, journals, organisers, and colouring sets.

We pick used papers, recycle, or upcycle and make recycled papers, and pencils from them.

To make the pencils, we use graphite and food colourings to make our products chemical-free. The stationery is made in such a way that they decompose much quicker and the pencil shavings can be safely added to compost or as a mulch at the base of plants as the graphite is rich a source of carbon for plants.

Getting into a business that focuses on “Becoming sustainable” is an arduous journey with the main one being how to balance the needs of the environment with factors such as a business’s profit or saving money knowing that we are competing with products that are factory-made against our hand-made products. When I take on a new client, I tell them of the contributions that they are making to the environment. However, some clients feel that what we are doing doesn’t have much of an impact and that we should be looking at tangible ways of “helping our planet” like proper disposal of plastics but our focus is on carbon footprints.

The other challenge is inadequate resources and limited access to technology. Further, the supply chain is complex, and the cost of production is quite high.

Embedding seeds in our stationery products adds an innovative and eco-friendly touch. We have a “Don't Throw Me, Grow Me” concept which encourages customers to give the products a new life by planting them and watching them grow into plants. This not only minimises waste but also promotes a deeper connection with nature.

We have recently linked up with the Lang’ata Women’s Prison to manufacture some of our products and later this year, we are looking at introducing a programme whereby we look to encourage the communities to help us collect the waste material from their neighbourhoods.”