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“If you are going to make change you have to be selfless”

FORBES AFRICA recognizes Wangari Maathai for a special lifetime achievement award at its Person of the Year event

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Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai in Karura Forest which her mother helped save from bulldozer

Kenyan Environmental and  Political Activist

It was Professor Wangari Maathai’s personality, anyway, to linger on the dark side, checking under every rock, determined to know the worst that may happen, so as not to be taken by surprise. This was largely instinctual, developed from years of battling the powerful and the mighty who dared disrespect the environment.

About a year before Wangari Maathai’s death in September 25, 2011 she was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of ovarian cancer, immediately put on medication and chemotherapy with the hope this combination could at least prolong her life. Her daughter, Wanjira Mathai, remembers the professor as a strong woman; a selfless person who was incapable of abandoning her passion, even as the energies of the day were abandoning her.

Speaking to Mathai, it turns out that the woman who convinced thousands to plant trees; blocked forest destruction and inspired millions of African girls to think big, worked during her cancer-ravaged final year as if it were another day at the office.

Chemotherapy would knock Maathai into misery, slow her down, but not deter her. The ecological warrior had a grand dream for the Green Belt Movement (GBM), a body she formed three decades ago to plant trees and help village women make a somewhat decent living.

“She slowed down deliberately because she had to take care of herself. There was an element of taking things a lot easier; resting a lot more and that was important,” says Mathai of her mother, her boss and her colleague at the GBM, where she is the head of international affairs.

Mathai, a holder of two masters degrees in public health and business administration from Emory University, and a close confidant of her mother, knows why she looked fit. Except for doctors, family and a few close friends, few knew she had cancer. Many where suprised when her death was announced on a chilly Monday morning.

“She was gifted,” says Mathai, explaining why her mother looked younger than a 71-year-old. “She had good genes. She was very active—a lot of people may not know that she exercised a lot; she walked a lot and she was very healthy—six in the morning, she was in a gymnasium almost every day.”

As early as April, Wangari Maathai approved a five-year-action-plan for GBM. Despite the cancer, she was very active in its initial implementation, according to GBM employees, who have now vowed to elevate GBM to new heights.

“Our singular plan is to implement that plan. That is what she endorsed; that is what she wanted us to do; and it is really clear it is very strong and basically it can be done by those of us who are there,” says Mathai, the second of the Wangari’s three children.

Since her death, she says: “There is a sense of loss and there also is a sense of resolve. People feel like we have to make her proud. And that we must.”

President Mwai Kibaki announced the plans to launch the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi in 2010.

Since the approval of the action plan, several co-workers said Maathai spent much time organizing meetings with various donor groups—her last international travel, Mathai says, was a trip they made to the French Development Agency conference in Paris.

“She was sick, but still she was fit enough to attend the conference,” Mathai explains in Karura Forest, a 1,400 hectare forest that her mother fought to protect from developers, who, with the government’s blessing, were about to take it.

“Her focus and her passion was the Green Belt Movement and the Wangari Maathai Institute. She spent a lot of time making sure that we had a complete strategic plan; we had a clear direction for the development of the institute. And as you know, in her wishes, she said she wanted the Wangari Maathai Institute to be her final resting place, so her ashes will be interred there when the institute is finished,” says the 40-year-old Mathai.

Millions across the world have come to respect Wangari Maathai and her boundless courage; through her daughter, I discovered a well of kindness and compassion; both for the environment and all those who inhabit it.

“Selflessness is such a rare thing. In leadership you need that; if you are going to make change you have to be selfless; it’s not about you,” ends Mathai.

Entrepreneurs

Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania

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Tahira Nizari; images supplied

How this Tanzanian entrepreneur’s tea startup is weathering the Covid-19 storm.

When Tahira Nizari started her social enterprise Kazi Yetu in Tanzania’s bustling city, Dar es Salaam, with her business partner and husband, Hendrik Buermann, almost two years ago, she didn’t anticipate the sheer scope of her big idea.

But she also didn’t expect that, because of an employee’s exposure to the coronavirus in April, she and her entire team would be quarantining for two weeks, stalling work in a year that she had projected growth for her company. With the pandemic’s onset, she lost most of her customer base in Tanzania, albeit temporarily, and was forced to come up with a game-plan and quickly pivot.

“It’s been an economic recession overnight, more or less,” says Nizari.

With family roots in Tanzania, and armed with formal degrees from Dubai and Canada, and experience in economic inclusion in the non-profit development sector, Nizari aimed to set a benchmark in the agribusiness sector in Tanzania through value-addition and by employing local women in her factory based in Dar es Salaam to produce “a traceable product” for the local and international market.

“Right now, tea is just exported in bulk completely (from Tanzania) and then all the jobs thereafter in that value chain are done abroad. So what we said was ‘let’s redistribute that job creation, let’s bring it back to Tanzania and let’s create a facility in which we can hire workers all locally and have a product that is 100% made in Tanzania’,” says Nizari. After extensive research in multiple target markets, both locally and abroad, building relationships with 250 Tanzanian farmers, setting up a factory exclusively employing local and previously-unemployed women, and many iterations of the seven blends of its flagship Tanzania Tea Collection using local flavors and spices, Kazi Yetu was ready to expand its scope in 2020.

“We were following our business plan… but we were really cautious and risk-averse (in 2018 and 2019). And then, we said, ‘you know what, when 2020 hits, it’s going to be growth’.”

Nizari was planning on reaching up to 4,000 farmers, buy machinery from China, grow the local B2B customer base, permanently employ all the women at the factory and begin to export on a larger scale after the launch of Kazi Yetu’s online store.

But when the coronavirus hit the local and international markets, things started looking very bleak, especially since Kazi Yetu is currently fully self-funded.

 Not only did it lose almost all of its monthly income, but the farmers stopped meeting in groups for the training, so the supply chain was disrupted.

“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution.”

The factory also had to introduce safety protocols for employees at work and at home, as well as reduce the number of people working at any given time in order to adhere to social distancing.

An employee’s father also died of the coronavirus, which forced Nizari to ask everyone involved with Kazi Yetu to quarantine at home for 14 days.

“So what we said was, ‘look, we don’t want to risk their safety, but we also don’t want to risk their economic well-being’. So we just paid all of them their full-time salary,” says Nizari.

“Generally, our operational costs have been really hard to cover right now… but it’s okay, because it made us pivot.”

It inspired Nizari to expedite Kazi Yetu’s plans to export, kickstart the online store sooner than anticipated and build up stock to send to Germany, rather than just focus on the Tanzanian market, which is temporarily quite small. Exporting has been an issue, given limited shipping at the moment, but the European market proved to be a pleasant surprise for Nizari.

“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution,” she says.

Slowly, the factory is moving back to normal operations and Nizari is trying her best to ensure a steady income for the employees. Kazi Yetu is also now available on local delivery applications in Tanzania, so people can order tea to their doorsteps.

Looking ahead, Nizari hopes to scale up exporting through the online store and retailers, whether in Europe, or also in markets like South Africa where products from sub-Saharan Africa are popular, and North America where innovative African products are in demand.

“We want our product to be competing with products made in Europe, and for example, Sri Lankan tea, Indian tea and Chinese tea. We want Tanzanian products to be well-regarded,” she adds.

Since the teas are traceable, which is a unique selling point, Kazi Yetu is also working on an app that uses blockchain to allow customers to access data on the tea they purchase, from the farm level, all the way to their cups. This way, they will know first-hand the impact the product has.

In addition, Nizari is working on a farm-hub model to build Kazi Yetu’s supply chain by helping them produce better raw products through a no-interest investment that can be paid back with their final product over time.

“The whole ‘economy versus safety’ debate… it’s something we have to think about moving forward… You can’t just operate as a business that makes money, you have to think about… the well-being of your workplace, the well-being of everyone in your supply chain… And I think this is where social enterprises really come in,” Nizari adds.

And a hot cup of locally-produced tea can certainly help take forward any such deliberations.

By Inaara Gangji

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Entrepreneurs

Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.  

With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.

The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.

The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.

Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.

But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.

“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.

On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.  

Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.

“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.

“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.

Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.

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Entrepreneurs

All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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