Wanjira Mathai: I am basking in my mother’s light

Wanjira Mathai heads the World Resources Institute (WRI)

Wanjira Mathai heads the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global research organisation. She is the Managing Director for Africa and is also in charge of global partnerships at the institute. 

Photo credit: Courtesy

It is a case of the apple that fell not so far from the tree. But Wanjira Mathai, the daughter of Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai, prefers not to look at it from this lens.

“I am basking in her light,” she says. “She instilled this in us. I was always inspired by whatever she did. She was always clear that nature needs to be protected.”

Needless to say, her mother immensely influenced Wanjira’s life’s trajectory. She admits, albeit shyly, that her view of the world was shaped by her mother. 

But she is also quick to add that she is driven purely by passion. It is, therefore, not by chance that she heads the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global research organisation. Wanjira is the Managing Director for Africa and is also in charge of global partnerships at the institute.

The global role places her at the heart of Restore Local, a project by WRI that recently won a grant worth $100 million (about Sh13.5 billion) to finance a new restoration scheme in Kenya and Africa.

“It is important to note that this is not my award. It is for WRI,” she clarified, adding that she is greatly honoured that Restore Local was selected for this particular venture.

“It is a clear sign of confidence in locally-led action,” Wanjira told the Saturday Nation. 

“Restoration is one of the most powerful investments we can make on the planet because restoring degraded land can simultaneously mitigate climate change, and cushion communities against the worst impacts. It can also replenish soil productivity, create jobs and improve family incomes.”

Announced on Monday during TED2023 in Vancouver, Canada, the WRI-led project, under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), is expected to steer a continent-wide partnership to restore 100 million hectares of land by 2030.

The award “is an African acknowledgement and looks at very important work. It is an audacious effort to accelerate the landscape restoration work in Africa,” Wanjira said.

Social impact catalyst

An initiative of TED, a non-profit organisation that identifies bold solutions to challenges facing the world, The Audacious Project is a collaborative funding initiative that is catalysing social impact on a grand scale.

She explained that WRI had put in an application it termed “Restore Local”, which is “essentially an African agenda to restore landscapes across the continent”.

Ms Wanjira says the four-year project will work to restore Africa’s vital landscapes by investing in locally-led restoration, providing local communities and businesses across the continent with the support they need to revitalise their landscapes.

The Restore Local project, she explained, will align its work with a four-part blueprint which includes creating training and mentorship opportunities, directly funding restoration champions, securing policies that reward farmers, and helping communities track their restoration progress with the right monitoring tools.

The Lake Kivu and Rusizi River Basin that cuts across Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be among the targets of the initiative. The Ghana Cocoa Belt will also benefit. In Kenya, the greater Rift Valley will be the beneficiary.

“Landscapes have landscape boundaries. Those landscape boundaries will be defined along the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, which is essentially a general description of that region. But there will be very specific landscapes there. The general landscapes implied along the Rift Valley will be in Baringo, parts of the Aberdare Range, and the Mau,” explained Wanjira.

These, she added, are only descriptors. The real groundwork will happen in various landscapes. It is a landscape approach to restoration, she stresses.

“The WRI leverages on the local leadership, local knowledge, and local passion to deliver on restoration,” she said, adding that the interventions will involve smallholder farmers, local community groups, and local entrepreneurs who are involved in the tree business, so they harness their experiences and innovation and in so doing, catalyse the restoration of landscapes.

“But the millions of smallholder farmers who will drive this movement need the support of governments, development banks, investors, NGOs and others to fully engage in restoration and reap its benefits,” Wanjira stressed, recalling that creating a continental restoration movement requires capacity building, more funding, supportive policies and monitoring progress.

“It ($100 million) is a lot of money. But it’s only a small fraction of what is needed across the world. I think, overall, $40 billion is needed across the African continent to deliver the full restoration of 100 million hectares. What we need to raise is $500 million for the Restore Local project.”

Already, WRI and its partners – One Tree Planted and Realize Impact – have begun the landscape restoration work. And the progress of each project is closely tracked through a combination of reports submitted by local organisations, independent field verification, and satellite monitoring. 

One Tree Planted will be managing the distribution of grants since WRI is not a grant-making organisation. Realise Impact will be helping in the vetting of smallholder organisations. For WRI, other than being the custodian of the funding allocated for the grant, the body brings significant strength in monitoring and evaluation. But also, there will be many technical experts, local universities and analysts on board.

Major challenge

A major challenge she foresees is “setting up a solid structure to deliver. And most importantly because it is a massive undertaking, it needs utmost dedication.”

Wanjira’s mother, Prof Wangari Maathai, was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which was responsible for the planting of more than 30 million trees in Africa. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. The Nobel Committee noted that Wangari thought globally and acted locally, with a great multiplier effect.

Wanjira said her mother always reminded her and her siblings that conserving the environment was the only way to bequeath the next generation a sustainable world that benefits all. The 51-year-old Wanjira, now a board member at Wangari Maathai Foundation, fondly spoke of her mother’s colourful legacy.

“She was a friend, comrade, heroine, sister and mentor to many. But to her children, she was a mother first. That she had a colourful career is wonderful. To us she was mummy. She was a very loving mum.

The climate consequences are already very much a present lived experience among African people. Across the continent, changing weather patterns are exacerbating existing challenges such as poverty and inequality, food insecurity, fragile ecosystems, and water scarcity.

Referred to as a defining issue of our time and one of the biggest threats to humanity, according to ReliefWeb (May 2022), over 38 million people were newly displaced by climate-related disasters in 2021 across 141 countries and territories. 
The discussion on climate change at the international level often revolves around predictions of future consequences and the perceived threat of increasing extreme weather events and their effects. In many ways, this vindicates her mother’s stance.

“I am always inspired by her foresight. She was always clear that nature needed to be protected for the good of all. She fought for a cause she believed in and she knew full well that its effects are real. She was a gift to everyone,” Wanjira said.