Wangari Maathai Foundation awards million-shilling prize to climate activists

Wanjira Maathai

Wanjira Maathai, daughter to Wangari Maathai, gives a speech on Wangari Maathai day. This year's celebration was marked at Karura Forest, Nairobi.

Photo credit: pool

The Wangari Maathai Foundation named two young climate activists as the recipient of its first Wangari Maathai legacy prize. The two climate activists from Tanzania and Nigeria were awarded $8,000 (Sh1.24 million) and $2,000 (Sh256,000) for demonstrating a commitment to the values that uphold the life and work of Wangari Maathai. 

Hellena Sailas, the winner of the inaugural Legacy Prize, is the founder of Arena Recycling industry, a social enterprise that recycles plastic waste into eco-friendly building materials for the construction of affordable houses, toilets, and other buildings in rural areas.  

The first runner-up, a 23-year-old climate activist who lives in Osun State, Nigeria, founded the Zero Plastic Straw Community to save the Ocean and the planet through behavioural change and environmental education. 

The winners were announced during this year’s Wangari Maathai Day, which commemorates the life and legacy of Prof Wangari Maathai, a Nobel laureate, environmentalist, and human rights activist who championed environmental conservation and social justice. In Kenya, the event was marked at Karura forest, one of Wangari Maathai’s favourite places.

In her speech, 51-year-old Wanjira Maathai, daughter to Wangari Maathai and board member Wangari Maathai Foundation, spoke of her mother's legacy and how she inspired people around the world to fight for a healthy environment.

“My mother was always ahead of the world. She understood how crucial it was, the fact that the environment was the source of everything good. She used to say that the environment is our life support system and this has been manifested in her enduring legacy that continues to impact people across the globe,” she offers.

Njeri Kabeberi, the President and CEO Wangari Maathai Foundation, emphasised the need to amplify Wangari’s ideals globally, so that each person can contribute towards a better world.

“Wangari wrote her story from an early age and continues to write it in our hearts. Her spirit of knowledge, understanding, courage, wisdom and compassion she had for the world propelled her to constant and perpetual action. Majority of people know Wangari as an environmentalist. They don't know her as a human rights defender, peace maker and an advocate of women empowerment. Going forward, we will be awarding young people in the different categories that embodies her work,” she offers.

Elizabeth Wathuti, a Youth Climate Activist, spoke about the importance of reconnecting with nature and cultivating empathy and respect for the environment. She also highlighted the planetary crisis we are facing, including drought, biodiversity loss, and climate-related displacement, and called on individuals to take action to protect the environment.

In his speech, Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, Somalia, and Seychelles, and Permanent Representative to UNEP and UN-HABITAT, H.E Gunnar Andreas Holm, spoke about Wangari Maathai's contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace, and emphasised the need for actors like the Green Belt Movement to strengthen actions for nature.

“Norway is a proud supporter of reducing emissions from deforestation globally and protecting tropical forests while improving livelihoods of those who live off, in, and near forests,” he says.

H.E. Arnaud Suquet, the Ambassador of France to Kenya, spoke about France's dedication to addressing global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss and commitment to supporting countries in their efforts to protect forests and biodiversity. He also recognised Karura forest as one of the most obvious examples of Wangari Maathai’s green legacy.

The event also featured planting a tree in her memory. Karura forest is a crucial biodiversity hotspot in Nairobi and is home to various wildlife, including monkeys, birds, and butterflies.