The Hummingbird and the Climate Summit

By Mia MacDonald


The humble symbol of climate activism, a hummingbird.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on September 23, 2014.

Co-authored by Wanjira Mathai, director of the wPOWER Project at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi and Chair, Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, was fond of recounting a children’s story she’d been told on a visit to Japan. A huge fire breaks out in the forest, runs the tale. The animals are transfixed and overwhelmed by the conflagration. All of them but a hummingbird, who resolves to do something. She flies to the nearest stream, dips her beak into it, and drops a bead of water onto the flames. The elephant, the lion, the giraffe, and the other animals laugh at her, as she flies back and forth over and over again. “You’re just a tiny hummingbird,” they jeer. “What difference do you think you can make?” The hummingbird replies: “I’m doing the best I can.”

For many who heard Wangari tell the story, the message of maximizing our abilities and passions for the greater good rather than descending into cynicism or despair was galvanizing. Wangari embraced this interpretation wholeheartedly. Yet it’s clear that a more challenging, even provocative message lies within it. That message has more relevance than ever as hundreds of thousands of people, us among them, marched Sunday in the streets of New York demanding their leaders take urgent action to address climate change, and as heads of government, industry, and civil society gather at the United Nations for an unprecedented global-warming summit.

Through her work with the Green Belt Movement (GBM), the organization she founded in 1977 that has planted more than 50 million trees throughout Kenya, Wangari understood in her bones the commitment of the hummingbird. In her case, the bird represented the grassroots women’s networks who nurtured the seedlings, tended the trees after they’d been transplanted, and reforested their own land and then critical watersheds—largely unsung and underfunded.

This work continues today, with GBM groups growing and planting four million new trees in Kenya each year. GBM is also a partner in the wPOWER initiative, launched in 2013 by the U.S. State Department. The initiative is empowering women in seven countries in Africa and Asia to play major roles in the renewable energy value chain by producing, using, and marketing more efficient cookstoves and solar lighting products. The aim is to enable communities (rural and urban) to preserve more trees, burn less kerosene, and reduce poisonous fumes inside their homes (from cooking and heating).

In so doing, fewer greenhouse gases are released, forests are protected, and indoor air quality is improved, along with health. Women earn their own income and as a result, they and their children have more opportunities to learn and thrive. The wPOWER “Hub” is housed at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi.

The women entrepreneurs of wPOWER, as with the women tree-planters of the GBM networks and millions of others like them, know all too well the consequences of very non-metaphorical forest fires: drought, desertification, hunger, and water and fuel-wood scarcity. They are feeling the “heat” of climate change right now. This heat wasn’t of their own making, yet they are suffering disproportionately from it.

We may interpret the hummingbird story as a message for us to reduce, reuse, recycle; to cut down on our car travel, switch to green energy for our homes, or eat less meat and more vegetables as our contribution to dousing the planetary fire. These are all valid responses to the realities of global warming. But they won’t be enough. Beyond extolling personal virtue and effort, the story of the hummingbird also suggests that the single bird’s actions are futile without the assistance of the larger animals—such as the elephant, who could of course carry much more water—or the concerted effort of all the animals to do something.

But even then, whatever the animals do will likely only hold back the fire’s range or reduce its ferocity, not douse it entirely. Similarly, climate change will not be mitigated, let alone stopped or reversed, unless all the countries of the world become serious about systemic, total, and orchestrated reorientations of their economies and societies’ ways of living on the Earth. The historic emitters must take the lead, but the new “climate powers”—the large current greenhouse-gas producers—need to join them.

In this, we recognize one of Wangari’s other messages about why we are despoiling our environment and entrenching poverty: a lack of good governance. For the thirty years that she was urging us to plant trees to stop soil erosion, retain water, and store carbon, Wangari was also insisting on the necessity of accountable political structures, which used resources (whether capital, natural, or human) equitably and responsibly.

That need for good governance isn’t confined to Africa or the global South. As Wangari insisted, corruption, greed, and faith in short-term pay-offs knew no boundaries, weren’t confined to certain industries or multinational corporations, and affected every stratum of society. Indeed, she reminded us often: political leadership and good policy matter, enormously. Of course this is the case with climate change as well.

The hummingbird challenges us to organize, to hold our political leaders and global industries accountable and demand that they, and we, accept the potential difficulties, even sacrifices, that we’ll have to make to transition from a fossil fuel-based and extractive global system to one that’s organized around genuine sustainability and responsibility.

The hummingbird challenges us to extinguish the fire that’s been created in our own patch of forest—the Earth itself—no matter the perceived futility of the action or the passivity of those standing by who could do more through collective will, but choose only to stand and watch.

Photo courtesy of coltfan909/Flickr



By Lauren Berger


Elizabeth with girls from the rescue center

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website

The summer months have proved to be busy and exciting for the Kenyan students in the East African Girls’ Leadership Initiative. Joyce Kakenya Barta has been interning at Lake Elementaita Seasons Hotels and Lodges as a part of the Corporate Social Responsibility section. On her experience she says that:

“I have been involved in community based projects like supporting children homes, environmental cleaning, planting trees, and collecting rubbish. I have recently visited an orphan rescue center that helps HIV positive kids. I am very happy to be working with this community and am learning and getting a lot of experience.”

Joyce also recently heard that she will in fact enroll at Mt. Kenya University studying Journalism and Communications. She will be there for two semesters and then will move onto the diploma/degree level. She is “very excited and happy about this!” and sincerely thanks “SIMOO (a partner organization in Kenya) and other partners for their continuous support and encouragement.”

Elizabeth Kironua Sakuda has been spending her summer working with a project called Ewangan Renewable Energy Center that supplies power to surrounding homes, schools, and businesses through solar and wind energy. She is also helping in the nearby primary school as well as visiting a shelter for girls rescued from forced early marriages twice a week. On her experience she says that:

“Working with the girls [at the rescue center] have made me realize my purpose in community and I am so encouraged to work with [the Maasai] people. Most of the girls in the center are rescued from early marriages that are forced and I have been able to inspire them and they are eager to be where I am now.”

Elizabeth is going to start university in the fall where she will be pursuing a Bachelors of Environmental Studies in Resource Conservation. She is thankful for the “continue help despite the absence of [her] parents” and is thankful for the opportunities the East African Girls’ Leadership Initiative has awarded her.

We are extremely excited for what lies ahead for these young women as they are truly becoming leaders in their communities (and beyond).

Photo courtesy of Daniel Salau

Kenya’s Move Towards Solar Energy (Part II)

By Julie Ojiambo

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 22, 2013.

Why Kenya is Prime for Solar Energy

Kenya lies conveniently on the equator, and as a result receives direct solar energy throughout the year. The use of solar energy is a relatively new concept in Kenya and many believe that the use of solar energy is a better alternative to traditional power sources and will help eliminate the problem of a lack of electricity in rural areas. A shift to solar energy would involve educating people on this new technology, as many do not know the benefits of solar energy, but some communities have already started embracing solar energy as an alternative energy source.

Though the initial cost of installation might be high, it has been proven to save money in the long run and is easy to maintain (a properly installed solar system can last about twenty years). Additionally, solar panel installation does not take too long, installing solar panels in an average sized household takes about a day while other larger establishments such as tented camps and resorts can take up to four days. A 450 watt system is enough to supply a family with lights and provide power to operate a microwave, television, and kettle. A system of up to 3,000 watts is enough to supply a household with electricity for all its basic needs, including laundry machines and kitchen appliances.*

There are quite a range of solar products available in the market to suit consumers’ needs. A full solar home system costs about Kshs 11,395/135.67 U.S. Dollars (USD), solar lanterns cost approximately Kshs 1,180/ 14.05 USD and solar phone chargers go for a price of Kshs 2,450/ 29.17 USD, they are indeed very handy commodities.

Like most other industries the solar energy industry in Kenya has its fair share of challenges. Firstly the initial cost of installation may be high for the average person, – some of the products have to be supplemented by batteries at an additional cost. But mostly, solar energy is very valuable to the Kenyan people.

The use of solar energy will also help reduce detrimental environmental activities that contribute to climate change. The use of solar energy may help stop the degradation of forests, particularly the Mau forest Kenyans admire and cherish, as people move away from using wood for electricity. This shift towards solar energy is needed to sustain a green environment and to generate power for almost every Kenyan household. If embraced by the people of Kenya, connectivity will increase from the current 15 percent and the country will be a step closer to achieving its 2030 plan: a vision to create a globally competitive and prosperous nation with a high quality of life by 2030.

*These figures were obtained by inquiring roadside street vendors in Kenya.

Kenya’s Move Towards Solar Energy (Part I)

By Julie Ojiambo

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 20, 2013.

The Benefits of Electricity in Rural Kenya

It is estimated that one in five people on the planet do not have access to electricity (World Bank data bank). In sub-Saharan Africa, about 70 percent of the population has no electricity and surprisingly in Kenya, only 15 percent of the population has proper access to power. This is a depiction of how electricity is available to few people despite Kenya’s population of 34 million.

Electricity is a rare commodity for many households and generally considered a luxurious commodity for many in regions across the country. But people in the developed world can barely imagine the thought of having to sustain themselves without electricity. Business would come to a standstill, schools would close, and peoples’ lifestyles would be greatly affected; it would indeed be a chaotic world. While engrossed in their daily activities, people in the developed world may fail to realize that limited access to power is a reality in many households in Kenya, the African region as a whole, and countries in the global south.

The energy sector in Kenya is greatly driven by the use of petroleum and electricity. Wood fuel is also widely used to provide rural communities, the urban poor, and the informal sector (locally referred to as the ‘Jua Kali’ sector: businessmen and entrepreneurs that sell crafts on roadsides, informal makeshift shelters etc.) with their energy needs. Biomass also accounts for about 68 percent of Kenya’s total energy needs (here, biomass constitutes substances such as wood fuel and crude oil that ultimately becomes petroleum). The Kenyan government has taken great strides to ensure that electricity is largely accessible to those in marginalized, remote areas. However, despite the government’s efforts, the number of people without electricity is still very high. The Kenyan government has put various mechanisms in place to ensure connectivity increases from the current rate of 15 percent to 65 percent by the year 2020.

Without electricity, many Kenyans are restrained from engaging in a number of essential activities that people in developed countries can freely enjoy. Access to electricity ensures that school going children can study at night and have an equal chance at succeeding in their education. It would save subsistence farmers many hard hours of labor by using electricity to run machinery and would revolutionize the Kenyan agricultural sector making it more efficient. Access to electricity allows even those in marginalized areas access to the internet and cell phones. Electricity will not only improve their lives but also decrease poverty levels as people will freely engage in income generating activities.