Podcast Transcripts

“We should all be Climate Activists” with Kelo Uchendu

Transcript

For most people, they think activism is about taking the placards or joining protests. Climate change is the defining problem of our generation. And if we are to successfully tackle climate change, we need the whole of society. 80% of the food we eat here in this country is being produced by small-holder farmers, and they depend on rain-fed agriculture, climate change is disrupting these patterns. 

“That’s Kelo Uchendu, our guest for today. He started a movement for climate change activism while he was an undergraduate at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In a few seconds, you’ll learn more about him.

Welcome to the first episode of Nature Stories: Made in Naija. I’m your host, Esther Nosazeogie, and this is ‘Roots’, the first season of this podcast. In this season, we’ll be hearing from different Nigerians about the origins of their nature conservation careers. In this episode, I talked to Kelo about climate change and the role we all have to play in tackling this problem. I learned so much from having this conversation, and I’m so excited to share it with you today. Here’s Kelo”

My name is Kelo Uchendu. And I’m the founder of the Gray2Green movement, and a policy colleague of YOUNGO which is the official children and youth constituency to the UNFCCC, (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). I’m happy to be joining you on this podcast today.

So can you tell us, what do you do? 

Okay, so my work is actually focused mainly on trying to strengthen youth engagement in policymaking, especially as regards the climate and ecological emergency. We’re trying to mainstream young people’s voices in the UNFCCC processes and also I am with the gray2green movement, we’ve been trying to build a movement of young people who are committed to providing solutions to the climate crisis and one thing, how we try to do that is we want everybody to become activists, we want everybody to contribute to these conversations. We also recognize that people have unique skills, and unique talents, we support them to find their unique voices and a unique way to contribute to the solutions, to being part of the solutions. 

For most people, they think activism is about taking the placards or joining protests. But there are people who are writers, there are people who are artists, there are people who studied economics, there are people who studied law. No matter where you find yourself, no matter your background, there is a unique way, you can do a deep personal reflection and find your personal voice and how you can contribute to the solution from your unique collaborative advantage.

So why do you think everybody should be an activist?

I think it’s very important. One is that climate change is the defining problem of our generation. And if we are to successfully tackle climate change, we need the whole of a society. We don’t need just people with a climate science background or people from the engineering background to give solutions, we need people to be very conscious to take their sustainability and {carbon} footprint into account in providing solutions. Because climate change will affect everybody. Even though there are people who are most prone to the impact of climate change, mostly low-income communities, but climate change in the long run will affect everybody, and every discipline will be have to be affected. So there is a dire need for everybody to contribute his or her own quota to the conversations to bringing solutions, to ramping up ambition, and it’s very important, very crucial if we are to successfully tackle climate change.

Right, so all hands need to be on deck.

All hands need to be on deck, exactly.

So how do you go about trying to get people involved? How do you go about trying to get people to be activists? 

Okay, so when we started Gray2Green movement, there was this climate illiteracy. So most people, even though they’ve heard about climate change or the ecological crisis, maybe in geography or in secondary school, they don’t actually realize what this is, or the urgency of the need at hand. We found out that one key thing to get people interested in climate literacy, climate education because climate education or climate literacy leads to climate action. When people know about the climate crisis, about the immediate threats that we are facing. Sometimes for some people, it spurs them to find ways to contribute to this solution. So what we did is: we start by promoting this climate literacy among young people in Nigeria.

And one of the ways we’ve been able to successfully do that is through teaching, but also through promoting self-learning.

When you come up with a challenge, maybe in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), we come up with a hackathon. We say okay, climate change is affecting your community. In the next two years, you’ll be hit by a flood. Can you come up with a solution for this? And you find people will go brainstorm, do research to come up with a solution to present and to pitch to win the grand prize. Or we’ll give them an essay prompt and provide them with resources to consult to be able to write an essay: a winning entry. And before they should be able to do that they must have read a lot to come up with a valid argument and through that process of researching and trying to find solutions, they must have learned a lot. You know, when they’ve gone through this process, they have adequate knowledge to be able to make a case on this topic. We now try to find ways to support them, to elevate their voices, which we think is very important.

That’s very innovative. When you have to give a presentation, you are forced to learn.

Exactly. 

So how did you get involved in this? Why did this become a thing for you? You were an engineering student, right? 

I studied engineering. Okay, so first I think it was in 2016, I was in the Niger Delta region. And then, we were witnessing an increase in acid rainfall. I have a very inquisitive nature, so I wanted to find out why. Even though I’m from the southeastern part of the country {Nigeria}, I’d not heard of that, but it was a recurring issue in the south-south. I started reading some research papers on that. I found out how this is linked to the oil exploration in the region, and the gas flaring. That’s how it started for me. I also discovered about ocean acidification due to the anthropogenic CO2 (that’s carbon di oxide) emissions into the atmosphere and how the ocean is absorbing most of the heat and how this is warming of the planet: global warming and its resultant climate change. So that was when I got the first realization of what climate change is actually. But I was surprised that it was not an issue that is being talked about. Even though communities are feeling this impact. And even these communities who are experiencing these impacts don’t even know what it is all about. 

So that was the first time I made my first social media post about what I learnt. I didnt consider that to be any form of activism at that point. But then in 2018, I founded the Gray2Green movement, just to get more young people involved in these conversations. Most importantly, to build them to become ‘solutionalists’. Before then I was already falling in love with low carbon technologies and renewable energy as an engineering student. So that was how it started for me. And then it has been a process of learning and planning and trying to scale your impact as a young person who is committed to driving solution.

This your experience in the Niger Delta, when did it happen?

It was in 2016, actually.

So it took you two years to think about it and…

Yeah I made my first post that 2016, but it was still a process where I just learnt something. I started reading more works on climate change: there are the optimist and pessimist models. At a point, I realized that there also a lot of works out there denying climate change. I read one written by a former US senator. I have a science background and know what climate change is from the very first principle. I understand what it means to trap infra-red rays. So, the work {of denial} wasn’t making any sense for me. So that was how it started.

In 2018, was when I actually decided to take action. 

So when you started Gray2green movement, you were a student right?

Yes, yes. I was a student.

So two questions: how did your friends react, respond to it? And how did you manage to juggle it with schoolwork?

I tried to talk to three of my friends: I told them, “okay look, I’d like to found this movement, and I’d like you to support me”. At that point, to be very honest, they knew nothing about climate change, but because they are my friends, they were willing to support me. One of us is good in writing. So I said, you, manage our social media pages. That was how we started. And then, we got our first micro-grant which was about $300, and we used it to organize our first campus-wide event. $300 at that time was a huge amount of money in school so we used it to organize a huge event, and after the event, our presence grew and we had many students who were interested in joining the conversation, in becoming involved, even though they also had little or no knowledge on that {subject}. But in the process of getting involved, they tend to learn about the topic and grow on the topic. And about managing that with school. I studied engineering. Engineering in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is a very daunting task. But also as a student, if you look closely, you see that there are too many noises that we have in our life. It could be the number of hours we spend on social media, or the time you spend having conversations that are not important, or you spend watching movies. If you try to accommodate what you’re doing with your studies, it means that you need to trim out some of those noises to be able to find time to balance your academics with extra-curricular activities.

Right, so true. So, can you share, so since you founded the Gray2Green movement, which is like four years ago now? right?

Yeah, September, this year would make it 4 years 

What are the greatest challenges you think you’ve faced so far in your career?

What I consider to be the greatest challenge, we are trying to overcome it, although we are making little progress, is trying to engage with decision-makers. At a point in the university, we started fighting to get UNN (University of Nigeria, Nsukka) to implement Education for Sustainability across its curriculum: to have lecturers talk about the climate crisis in their course, especially those whose courses are related to it. Maybe you are studying engineering, for lecturers to bring the perspective of sustainability into engineering studies. That was one of the things. And then we were able to have a series of meetings with the university administration. But you get this: “I love what you guys are doing. You guys are doing amazing work, keep it up”, and you go back to your hostel feeling accomplished, and 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years down the line, nothing is being said about that. So you find out that you put a lot of time, a lot of resources, to try to engage these people, to try to make a case. But they accept, they agree, they acknowledge, but nothing is being done. Not just in the University of Nigeria, we also have the issue with the state government, with the federal government, in fact, with all levels of the decision-making process, where you come up with solutions, you are able to get their audience. They listen to you, they make all sorts of beautiful promises and congratulate you on what you are doing, but still, you are not yet able to see them implement that. I think that has been the biggest challenge. Getting to the place where they sit down and listen to you is 10% of what it takes. At the end, it’s still all promises and no action.

So how have you tried to overcome that?

I don’t know if you know about the Nigeria Climate Change bill – What we tried to do when we came up with the mock-up declaration, was we tried to find ways to inject some of our demands into the legislation, which would have to pass through the House of Assembly, and then, once it has been vetoed by the President. Then we now have a legal basis to make a case for the topic. But it is still not easy. However, there are some various ways where we’ve seen progress like, the current minister of state for environment, Chief Mrs. Sharon Ikeazor {as at the time of recording}, we met with her last year on the need for youth engagement especially around shadowing youth in climate negotiation. She promised to send 5 young people to COP26 through the official delegation, of which she did to some extent

So there are some places that we’ve seen little success, even with the work we did with the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. There was also this gap between staff-led sustainability effort and student-led sustainability effort. There was a move, commitment by the university to establish a director of environment, who is {in charge of} looking through the curriculum, ensuring that the university {is making} sustainability efforts. That is little progress, that is just one of the suggestions we made. Some of the other suggestions we made was also coming up with a plan to get the university to NetZero by 2030. We made this suggestion as early as 2019. But up till now, we’ve not seen any strategies. We have two prominent research institutes in UNN – the National Centre for Energy Research, and Climate Change Research Institute. We directed them to work with these to come up with a road map. Some of these things, we’ve not seen them being implemented. But they established a director of environment and made some progress in that area which is good, but, yeah. We celebrate these little successes, hoping that, with time and lobbying, and we can to build up the political will to drive these actions.

For you, what has been the greatest reward? What has given you the most satisfaction since you started climate change activism?

I think my greatest reward has been my opportunity for growth. When I started Gray2Green Movement, I had zero idea what it takes to build a movement. I was a starter, a first timer. But we have been able to do that, succeed, and it takes a huge learning curve. And just at the recently concluded COP26 in Glasgow, I have had to share the stage with some influential world leaders who I would never have had the opportunity to have met. One of them was Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, also former UN High Level Human Rights Commissioner, and I always admired her work. I was able to share a stage with her, and have conversations on a panel, and then meeting with other world leaders, the opportunity to meet people that I’ve always looked up to, i get to sit on the same stage and discuss these issues as equals, is what I have always considered to be the highest reward. And then, the exposure I have gotten from this, it gives you a voice. If you leverage these voices, and connections, you would be able to scale your career. As young people, it is different because, we have the bulk of our lives ahead of us. Some of us are just starting out in our careers, some of us are {in the} early to mid-career {stage}, so there is still a whole lot of growth {opportunities}, and to even have a sense of what you want to do in life. I studied engineering, but at this point, i want to do my masters, not in core engineering, but in Technological Policy. This has given me clarity. I want to see how we can use engineering to shape the world, but from the public policy perspective. 

That’s great. So I think I read somethimg about these stoves that the Gray2Green movement came up with, which… Yeah, so please tell us about that

At Gray2Green Movement, we want people to come up with solutions that contribute to conversations from your own unique collaborative advantage. I have an engineering background, and some of my friends, who we started the Gray2Green movement together, also have engineering backgrounds. So we discovered a very crucial problem which most people have neglected, and it is the impact of open-fire cooking. For most people living in low-income and last-mile communities, they still depend on open fire to meet their daily cooking needs. Each family must cook everyday.  This open fire cooking, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is responsible for 4 million deaths annually, due to toxic emissions – the CO2 (carbon di-oxide), the CO (carbon monooxide) and particulate matter emissions. The people at the receiving end of this are either women, and children, because those are the people who are always around the kitchen. 

{Open fire cooking} also has an adverse impact on the health of the climate because it constitutes about 55% of the global unsustainable tree harvest. This is a problem that has both environmental health and public health challenges, so we tried to find a way to come up with a cook stove that solves the problem of incomplete combustion and less thermal efficiency, and then disseminate this cookstove to people living in low-income and last mile communities. That was how the Green Chef project came about. Initially, we had the intention to start the pilot phase with distributing 500 units of the cookstove, but at the end, we were able to distribute just 30 majorly due to lack of funding and certification. We tried to work with the stove eligibility laboratory to get the certification to enable us source for VCM (voluntary carbon markets) to distribute this, but sadly, some of the laboratory equipment in nigeria doesn’t work. And then, having to send these stoves down to South Africa to test, and send back the results is a huge amount of money.

So you used your engineering knowledge to create this stove?

Yes, Not just me, we have a team, so we have people who are skilled in product design. It’s actually collaborative, it’s actually a team effort. But mostly from the engineering background. It’s actually about understanding the principle {of} how it works. Then trying to find ways, how to improve thermal efficiency, and how to ensure the wood reached complete combustion. Because if it’s complete combustion, you get CO2, if it’s incomplete combustion, you get CO, carbon mono-oxide, which is a very poisonous gas. So how do we get this to be complete combustion? We need more oxygen. But the problem with conventional cooking is not that there is not that there is not enough oxygen in the atmosphere. But there are local regions in the combustion chamber that is oxygen deficient. So trying to get oxygen into those local regions. You think of using first drafts and at the end of the day, you improve the combustion efficiency. You have more complete combustion in the process, cutting down the toxic emissions by up to 80%.

So I mean, there are a lot of people who live in the Niger Delta and experience acid rain. What was it in your personal background that made this a thing for you, that contributed to your interest in the environment?

I think mostly because I have a very inquisitive nature. I ask a lot of questions, and I try to understand things. So when I heard about acid rain, even though i heard of it while growing up, it wasn’t a very common issue, so I wanted to understand. I kept reading about acid rain, topics like ocean acidification, etc. I reached a point to talk about it. Learning about these things, I was able to see firsthand how this is impacting my immediate community. If you understand what climate change is, you understand the threat it poses to countries like Nigeria who practice the rain-fed agricultural system – 80% of the food we eat here in this country is being produced by small-holder farmers. They depend on rain-fed agriculture. They don’t have irrigation, so they depend on the planting season, and they hope that it goes as it usually goes. There will be rain in April, dry season, at the end of June, you harvest your crops. They follow these processes, and climate change is disrupting these patterns, which is posing threats to the country. There is a need to raise voices to get more people having conversations about this, to find ways to provide solutions.

Can you talk to a young person who is probably listening to this and wondering: how can i participate? How can I be part of the solution to climate change? What can i do?

One thing I try to tell young people is that the Chinese word for threat is ‘wei-ji’, and this is a combination of two words, threat & opportunity. In China, a crisis is seen as a combination of threat and opportunity. For young people, I try to let them know that the climate crisis is a crisis, but it presents us with an opportunity, especially as young people that have the energy, the zeal, and the passion to drive real change. It presents us with the unique opportunity to build, to be part of the solutions that address this issue. Young people are more in the place to turn this to an opportunity and drive solutions because they have the time to learn, to lead, and act. Some of us are still in the higher institution or entering an early stage of their career. This is the time to align yourself to providing sustainability solutions. No matter where you find yourself, no matter your discipline, you must have to find a place to align your voice. From now till the next 50 years, we’re talking about getting to net-zero in 2050, most of the conversations we will be having will be around, “how did the world transition justly?” Businesses will be concerned with their sustainability strategy. We will see businesses and governments talking about this. If you are a writer, a lawyer, a researcher, anywhere you find yourself, there are unique opportunities to start aligning your goals towards sustainability. The future will be about how do we get towards net zero. 

So how about older people, if you had to talk to older people? What would you say to them?

One thing I tried to do over the years is ensure intergenerational collaboration and equity. One thing the older generation has pointed out is that young people, we talk too much, and we accuse the older generation for not doing enough. We recognize that different generations of people have unique skills and experiences that is crucial to these conversations. And the older generation have their own unique role to play. Some of them have experience and can provide young people with mentorship. Some of them might not know much about this but they have to see young people as allies in this conversation, in this fight, and find a way to align what they are doing and what young people are doing in trying to bring solution. There is the very need to improve inter-generational collaboration in providing solutions. And the older generation are in a position of advantage to do this because they are more experienced, and that experience is very crucial in this conversation.

You know how our people say that what a child does not see standing up, the elder sees when he’s sitting down. Yeah. So if people let’s say students, you know, they hear about this Gray2Green movement, are there opportunities that students can get involved with?

Yes. We will soon open applications for campus coordinators because we want to spread across all the universities across Nigeria. Students from different institutions can apply to become a campus coordinator, and we will support them to organize and mobilize their respective institutions. Also, we will be opening applications for different roles. There are opportunities to engage with us, especially when you are a student or young person who is very willing to contribute to this conversation. You don’t need to have any experience, just to be willing to grow and learn.

Thank you very much!

“I hope you enjoyed listening to this episode as much as I enjoyed producing it for you. Here’s what you can do now: get yourself a climate education, and begin to act. You can begin with the links in the show notes. Also, if you are keen on bringing climate education and action to your campus, or you just want to stay updated on what Kelo and his team are doing, follow them on social media. Links are also in the shownotes.

Our next guest has exciting stories about his fieldwork adventures, including his encounter with a lion, and I can’t wait to share that conversation with you. Be back for the next episode. Oh and subscribe so you don’t miss anything. Until then!”