#UrbanBetter Disruptor Ellyanne Chlystun-Githae Wanjiku is an 11-year-old environmentalist and Africa’s Youngest Climate Change Ambassador who is putting us all to shame. As Kenya’s Youngest Mashujaa (national hero), she started planting trees aged 4 and has planted over 1 million trees.
We spoke to Ellyanne on World Health Day 2021 to talk about her relentless yet focused passion to make the world a green healthy sustainable place. She shared what drives her, what else she’s up to, and her advice for other children and governments.
She surprises even her parents. Her mum, a marketing expert with a long history in women and youth empowerment, says, “she pestered me about tree-planting, I told her to focus on studying, that tree planting has never been a career. Eventually, I gave in. Now I pester her about preparing for interviews, and then I see her talk and think: Wow!”
She’s that impressive. Ellyanne reminded us that if you have a passion, you can just get going and be the change you want to see, inspiring others along the way.
If we could plant her like she plants trees, we would have a much greener, sustainable, healthy world!
It’s interesting that we’re speaking on World Health Day on Earth Month, because we can’t have one without the other. We can’t have health without a healthy planet. And it goes both ways. By 2050, almost 70% of people will be living in cities. So, if we are going to live sustainably, we have to make sure our cities are green and healthy. In Africa, we have many cities growing. And we have an opportunity to grow them in a way that’s different from others. Rather than make cities first, then try to make them healthier, we can actually make green cities to start.
When I was four years old in kindergarten, we were doing a project on heroes, and that’s when I first found out about Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I fell in love with the work she was doing, and when I realised she had died, I thought: I’m going to take the lead! What was it about Maathai’s work that made me fall in love with tree planting? Well, I did hear many stories that she planted mango trees, and I love mango trees. I just LOVE mangos. I also just feel like I was born with it. It was a weird sensation I got when I was studying her, that made me think, I could do this!
When I got home after that kindergarten project, I planted an orange seed. From that day on, I bugged my mum, saying: please, please, can you take me to Karura Forest (it’s an awesome urban forest in Nairobi)? Eventually, after annoying her for a long time, she said, ok, let’s go! And I fell in love with it. I ended up zooming around and exploring ‘cos I love adventures. I saw a shop where they were selling trees, and I asked my mum if we could buy some seedlings. We bought 2 or 3 seedlings and I planted them in the forest. From that day on, I had a big interest in planting trees and started planting trees in schools near me. Funny enough, I feel like I’m a nature whisperer because nature really connects to me.
A few years later, with the help of youth and Mama, I launched Children With Nature (CWN) to connect with other children with the same interests. CWN is led by youth and children to harness youth to sustainably protect our environment. Our work is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 13 on Climate, 14 on life below water, and 15 on life on land. It’s also aligned with Kenya’s vision 2030 and the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063. Our organisation basically includes children that like to plant trees to make a better future for themselves and their children. We go to schools to talk about why it’s important to plant trees and how to beat plastic pollution. We give seedlings to parks, schools (we have tree seedlings in over 79 schools) and hotels just to make a difference for people and nature. Funded by my personal savings, Mama’s savings and seedlings donations, we have planted over 1.3 million trees! We also operate all across African countries, not just in Kenya, as well as in other countries outside Africa like the USA. So, you can get involved wherever you are. All you have to do is go to the website, and talk about yourself, say what you want to do and how you want to help, follow us on social media, donate a few shillings if you can, and there, you’re in!
I’m really excited about the new challenge that Children with Nature are taking on in the Sahel Desert. Lots of people are currently focusing on this desert to grow an 8000 km Green Wall across the entire width of Africa. The target for the Green Wall reforestation project is to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, capture 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million green jobs by 2030. It is needed so that vegetation can be planted and rivers can be made to reverse desertification and climate change. I want to plant bamboo and acacia trees. Bamboo for money and for cleansing the rivers and acacia trees for shade. I think you can actually use different parts of the acacia tree as food. So yes, it’s food again that got me interested! This year, I have a personal target to plant 1 million trees in the Sahel.
Another project I’m excited about is the Michuki Park Urban Green Space project. I was recently appointed co-chair of the task force developing the park by Mr Keriako Tobiko, Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. On the day the Kenyan President H.E Uhuru Kenyatta opened the park, I went for a walk around the park with him to show him around. My mission in this role is to help regenerate the urban green space and provide a suitable play area with learning activities for children and youth.
My dream idea for the park’s play area is to build a bamboo treehouse with 2 or 3 levels. The top-level will be a level for learning activities. At this really high level, there will be a guide to ask children: ok, what can you see? What species of trees or birds are they? After you’re done with the learning on the top floor, you can go down to the play area on the second floor. Apart from free play time and quizzes about nature, the second floor will have a nature hunt with information cards about the different tree species in the park. From the top floor, we’ll also have a “slidey” thing from the top to the bottom.
In the end, planting trees will contribute to addressing the climate emergency. But the very things we need, trees, are being cut down and that really gets me down. For example, in school, we have this new modern building which doesn’t have enough green. But I think they are planning on planting trees which I’m happy about because when it was being constructed a couple of years ago, as I was passing by, I heard a chainsaw. I really hate the sound of a chain saw. And then, when I got into the building area, I saw that they were cutting down a large mugumo (fig) tree. This is the tree that, when waiting to be picked up, we would sit under, read books and play games. When I saw it was being cut down, I cried. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I get angry because we don’t deserve to live in a world without trees. I understand why they had to cut it down because they were building and had no space. But it’s still really hard to talk about. It’s something I detest, especially when it’s unnecessary and people are not doing enough to plant new trees. Luckily my school saved the other mugumo trees.
I feel like adults are not treating this as an emergency. Sometimes it feels like many adults think children should do it because they have a passion. But we can’t do all the work. Adults should help because it’s also their world; they live on this earth. They know what will happen to them if they don’t take care of the trees. So even passionate children need adults to support them. Mama is very helpful though she’s very shy and doesn’t like showing herself. Whenever I need to go plant trees, she supports me. Actually, she used all her savings supporting me, so I call her my Momager!
But I have also faced a lot of hate as well. Like when I joined my new school, I was bullied a lot. But Mama noticed that I wasn’t being myself because I was really excited on my first day of school, and so she suggested that we do a role play about bullying. That gave me the confidence to overcome the haters. It makes many people sad, but it gives me the strength to go on because I don’t know what they’re going through, so there’s no point in arguing back. We call it “jet fuel that keeps me fired up”. As for bullies, I just leave them alone until they realise there’s no point! I actually recently posted a Facebook picture in my new pumps saying “this is for all the haters for making me strong LOL!”
I think cities should make it their goal to keep people healthy and to preserve biodiversity. Let’s look at urban development like transport. It’s not just about getting cars and roads. We also have to think about how we can reduce air pollution. Air pollution kills more Africans than unsafe water or malnutrition in children. But not only are we cutting the trees down that help us clean the air, but we’re also actively contributing to making the air quality worse. Just because we can’t see the impact on the environment today or tomorrow doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be building cities that help people stay healthy.
We also have so many young people in African countries. But we’re not working with young people enough to think about the future. We’re not asking how we can keep the children and young people healthy rather than just waiting for them to get sick and then saying we don’t have enough money to treat them. We should be asking ourselves every day: how do we preserve our health and the environment as a way of keeping ourselves and our planet healthy?
If I had to reimagine my city, I’d want it to look like Lake Naivasha National Park, one of the parks in Kenya and my favourite place. I’d want it to look like the Garden of Eden with so many mango trees, butterflies, bees, birds, animals with rivers and lakes. I’d just want it to be green, green, GREEN! I would build a cave, make it bright, decorate it with nice and colourful plants, and I would just live there. I LOVE adventure and don’t care how long I stay in a savannah or nature reserve. I especially love Crater Lake. In Naivasha, when we’re leaving, I normally hide in the trunk of an acacia tree to delay going home. I feel a connection whenever I’m there that makes me want to stay. I just LOVE nature. Just thinking about this makes me excited and happy. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising because we know that being in green spaces improves our mental health and physical health.
If I had one message for people growing our cities, it would be: PLANT MORE TREES IN CITIES.
When I heard about the lack of ventilators to help people with really bad COVID-19 to breathe, it reminded me that we have a steady supply of oxygen around us to help us breathe, a free supply from God: Trees! I was studying in school that leaves are like the kitchen of the tree, where the trees cook the carbon dioxide that we produce and turn that into oxygen. So, my question is: why aren’t people working as hard to get more trees planted as they are working to buy ventilators? It makes no sense! I would especially love people to plant bamboo. But I also know we need to plant the right types of trees in the right types of places, so we don’t disrupt the ecosystem. My scientist mentor Dr Jane Njuguna told me it’s called “species site matching”.
My advice to other children like me? Firstly, make a start. Like if you’re eating something with a seed, then plant that. Start with baby steps, doing whatever you can to make a difference. Don’t be paralysed by not being able to go big from the start. Secondly, pester your parents until they support you! Actually, I also want to pressure the government because they own a lot of public land like nature reserves that can be used to plant trees. But often, they just don’t do enough and some counties prevent others from doing anything as well.
So, don’t give up and start pressuring people at home and keep up the pressure, even if they think you are pestering them, all the way to the top. The sky’s the limit!
Read more about work by Ellyanne and other #UrbanBetter Disruptors.