Exclusive Interview: African Youth Involvement in Green Businesses, Local Technologies will help Achieve SDGs


Mr. Sena Alouka is the Executive Director of Young Volunteer for the Environment (JVE), a Non-Governmental Organisation based in Lome, Togo with offices in over 28 countries in Africa. In this interview with Bamidele Fashube and Kazeem Biriowo, he spoke in an Exclusive Interview on the need for African nations to develop local capacities, especially technologies to solve numerous problems confronting the continent. He shared his vision on how youth can identify gaps in Africa such as poverty, access to power, renewable energy, water scarcity etc and create sustainable solutions through business of environmental sustainability. Excerpts:

What can we do to achieve sustainable environment management in Africa?

There is a saying in my village that say that you don’t eat the grain that will serve as a seed for the next harvest meaning that in our culture and traditions, we know how best to take care of ourselves and everything that surround us and find that kind of harmony. Part of our problem in Africa like the developed World is that we have lost the linkage to nature, forest, rivers even to our past and ancestors, not in terms of worship but in terms of valuing, consolidating our traditional heritage and knowledge.

So today, the challenges we are facing in Africa including unemployment, poor governance, lack of education, people living in harsh conditions, poor management of natural resources etc can be solved if we retrace our steps, see how things were in Africa, and see how we can get power and resources from this amazing place call Africa. Let me say modern world with its model of development, Neo-liberal economic system, the capitalist system has shown its end. And today we are faced with lots of challenges, water crisis, energy crisis, financial and climate crisis. The four crises make the world the difficult place to live in. So, if you want to sustain your life, create jobs for people we should not look in the same direction. Like Einstein said, we cannot solve problem with the same mindset that created it.

The modern industrial mindset has shown its limit. So what is next? It is for Africa and Africans to find alternatives and those alternatives can be shared from our history as Africans, from our knowledge, traditional knowledge, from the way we do things in the past, our resilience and community networks. So, I think the best capital we have today is our natural resources. It is our genetic and all the natural ecosystems can serve as basics to create opportunities and these opportunities can be found easily just by looking at the challenges. Behind every problem lies amazing opportunities, behind every mountain, lies a beautiful city. So today, what we are conveying to the world and to the new generation is that don’t see the world as a dark place, see it as being full of opportunities and I think we have started in that direction.

There are challenges in the water sector, a lot of new thing are sprouting. The communities are organising themselves to protect the forest and maintain it. They are building eco-tourism for visitors. So, we are just starting when it comes to environmental sustainability, there are lots of opportunities. Be aware that out of 10 jobs tomorrow, estimation says 3 have not been created at all. So it is up to us to innovate. We will find the opportunities in the problems. The best way to solve a problem is to look at it business perspective.

If you look at Africa entirely, we are seriously battling with poverty and a lot of rural people especially women have taken to falling of trees for cooking. How can we address this because it is really beating down climate action towards reducing climate change?

It is unfortunate that we lost a very big man from Africa, Nelson Mandela. He said poverty is man-made creation. It is a man thing, we created poverty. We created it for crazy reasons, for geopolitical reasons, for political reasons, electoral reasons, peoples greediness and out of some backward consideration s like you don’t want this tribe to develop, so you device a means to keep them there. You create wars, you create conflicts, you take from them hope of their future, you cut them from their history and they become poor. That is what poverty is all about. We are not here to talk about financial poverty, that we know people are  living under $2.5 is false, it is nonsense because you give 1dollar to someone in Calabar he will be happier than a guy you give $100 in New York city.

We are talking about lack of dignity. When people don’t have hope in tomorrow, when they are not sure if they are sick, they will have access to hospital; the woman who don’t have money to buy sanitary pad for menstrual hygiene. So, it is not a fatality, poverty is created and we can get rid of it easily. It requires people with courage, vision and I don’t believe this can be done at the global level, No!!! The global powers are too strong for you to persuade but we need people to start thinking from global perspective but act at locally.

If you can send agricultural engineers in Lagos back to their villages or those in diaspora to go and contribute to the rural development you will be amazed on the level of development they will bring. I think it is possible. In my village, there is no poor person. There is no one who can stand from morning till night without having something to eat. It is not possible, not today, not tomorrow. It does not mean there is no one who can get sick, there is no one who is miserable but poverty as it were, there is no one in my village. Why? That sense of solidarity, community life style is still there. I think it is wrong to recognise poverty as barrier to sustainability so poverty is not an issue. Some people are poor because they don’t have space to talk. So, what is needed is to create needed space for them.

You see most of our communities and countries have plan for the future. If you ask community development association you see they don’t have plans, they just live on day to day basis. You know this short vision management of our countries and our villages is not sustainable. Just go to your village and help them draft their village development plan, finish it and go, don’t do anything. Before they reach that 15 years development plan they will need to also discuss. So once they have this document at hand, they can say okay in two years we need to have two schools, in three years we need to have one hospital, in five years we need to reduce by half number of divorce in our village. My friend, if we have that one, all the power of the World will come some complicity with you to make happen.

Executive Director, JVE International, Sena Alouka with his son during an Award Presentation at the 2018 Africa Clean Up Conference (ACC) held between 23rd – 26th August in Lome, Togo

African nations are signatories to different international conventions on environment and biodiversity but implementation has remained a challenge. What will you say is responsible for this?

You know Thomas Sankara once said If I don’t owe you any dollar I won’t need to pay you anything but, I know if I say that alone, next year I will not be able to come to this conference again but, if all of us as African leaders decided not to pay any debt, we can cancel the debt. That was in 1983. The man was right in fact they killed him the following year because he was the only one to say it. The problem of Africa is the fact that we go to the world leaders on individual basis and these international powers know that. So, they are doing their best to prevent Africans from acting as a team, as a continent. For you to be in their mindset, they create those things to make you dance while they are eating. They make you enjoy the fact that yes we have gone for conference and came back whereas, at the time of real business, you are not there. When they need to discuss about what will happen in the next 10 years. These G7, G20 et al you see on TV is not the conference. The conference has finished long time ago. They say let’s go to G20 to meet all the World leaders like Obama, Trump et al, that is not the business, the business has been done long time ago and it is difficult for us to understand. My point is that the conventions are good things. Why are they good? The help to create awareness of the international communities about those challenges and because the problem we face is so important, so complex that we need researches, we need to meet and talk, that is the good thing about Cops. Once you bring people together to talk, something interesting comes out. The problem is still those people who say let’s do the conference know why they go for it. For example, let’s do Kyoto Protocol, we do Clean Development Mechanism to go into carbon trade. But, they know you don’t have polluting machines in Nigeria. What level of pollution does Nigeria contribute to carbon emission? But they know the polluting nations are there in Asia, India, China etc where their interests lies, so they know if they put all their money we all will clap and say yes see clean development mechanism but they know the money is going to Asia, India, Brazil, Russia, where they have heavily polluting industries. Now, they talk about Red+. You are right about all those plan things and our governments will sign because we are in multilateral World and it is good that is been kept. But we are happy Mr. Trump came to show people that is all nonsense. We can do without it. So I’m sure that since Donald era, African countries have started to understand that they need to think and at some point, some says you need to go and love yourselves.

We should love ourselves to some extent. Of course, we should be part of WTO (World Trade Organisation), we need to find a way so that if there is a business, Nigerian company should take that bid not a company from Finland. of course you go to WTO, you find that if there is a bid, of course, with WTO, you will find fair market, fair bid, that call for proposal but you need to find a way that Nigeria don’t lose. When you need to build the road, give it to Nigerian companies, why do you have to give it to Chinese companies. You can find a way to support Nigerians to do it. At some point, we need to start loving ourselves make Africa great again.

As giant of Africa, we need to make Nigeria great again! It’s all about that. Yes, sign the convention but sit at home and see how you can make your economy flourish using the gains. We have a lot to do in Africa based on traditional knowledge, our ancestral ingenuity and engineering skills. That is where we should go. We have for so long abandoned our history. We have been disconnected from our roots, let’s go back to our root and make Africa great again. That is not difficult. Organise talks, invite elders, asked them how they were living in the village? What do you think we can do to get better then you get people talking.

Sena Alouka in company of other Awardees and Facilitators at the 2018 African Clean Up Conference, organised by the African Clean Up Initiative (ACI)

African Nations have different environment regulatory agencies but to a large extent, it appears they lack the legal capacity to enforce the regulations. So, organisations rather prefer to pollute the environment and pay stipends as damages than preventing pollution.

Yes!!! You are totally right and that is a big issue, that is why we say you should not point accusing fingers on others. Part of the problems in Africa such as corruption, poor governance, greediness etc we are the one creating that problem, I think on that note, it all depends again like Obama said, what Africa need is strong institutions, okay? But the reality is, such institutions are made by strong people. We are still looking for such strong people. I don’t know of if I have some references to tell you now but there are some good examples here and there. We don’t have country that have monopoly of all best practice but when it comes to beating plastics, you can name Rwanda, in terms of reconciliation, you can name South Africa, if you want to talk about infrastructure and economic development to some extent, you can talk about Nigeria, if you want to talk of ending war, you can talk about Sierra Léon and Liberia. So, there are a lot of good practices here and there but we are still looking those good leaders. I mean people at Country, sub-national, regional, provincial, county and local villages and neighbourhood leaders. All those leaders is what we are looking for and change will start from there. I know the case in Nigeria, where injustice is very high like in South America, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bolivia etc. Those countries, a lot has been done just by single individuals. Magarine Mitt said, never doubt the power of individual to change the World. She said most of the things that happened were just the power of single individuals. Even in that situation where you think that the agencies are powerful, they are not. We just need to empower people on the ground and it is possible.

A single guy just recently made MOSANTO to pay US $289 million for marketing glyphosate, a single man. I’m sure he got some support he is a single man suffering from cancer. That’s amazing and there are lots of stories like that all over the World. So, I think and I appreciate what you are doing, even myself, I am an environmental journalist. A lot has been done in Ghana by a popular singer who changed things there. Just being an environmental activist and make sure that you get things done in a proper manner. You can do it.

In Benin Republic, there was a Chinese company which came to pollute their river, a network of NGOs have been trying to stop this Chinese company for past 10 years, this single Doctor launched a single petition using AVAS platform and tagged EU, just last few weeks, the company was blocked. Then pollution stopped two weeks ago in Benin. So, we need the kind of leadership, the kind of people that can say where ever I am, I can be a change maker.

Sena Alouka

If you look at the World, the whole system is frightening, dark but when you look again closer, there are rays of hope. There are people who are making changes. So I doubt if the whole Ogoniland will be cleaned tomorrow but I am very sure that large part of Ogoni will be cleaned and reclaimed and this will happen through the power of single individual. We need to nurture those individuals now. They are the young people going to school today. They are the one to do it. This generation has already failed. But those who are in Class 1 and the likes, I mean younger generations will get it done tomorrow. We need to develop their capacity and self-esteem to have the confidence that Yes! I can do it and I must do it and I’m sure they will do it. They will never be a big programme like N200billion to clean Ogoni land probably, that will not happen, No!!! but individuals will make change.

Kenya has banned use of plastics and polythene. Other African countries are trying to follow suit. Nigeria is not too sure as it is still trying to get sustainable alternative for that. Are you in support of total ban of plastics?

Some of the challenges with our governments at times is to be drawn by events of the moment. As it is, everybody want plastic ban but the problem is that plastic is useful to people. People don’t just like it, in fact, people don’t even like plastic, people just want what they can put food in and eat. People just need a container. Buy secondly, we should not forget those producing these plastics, they are the companies paying tax, employing nationals and the shareholders are who? the same ministers, people in government, are the ones behind the companies producing these products polluting the environment. So, tomorrow, if you say you ban a plastic, you will have two problems of what to use as a containers, and secondly, those who are working with the companies are Nigerians who will go on the streets to protest the ban with the notion of government wanting to kill them. They will say government want to take our jobs and the likes because that is what we have been using to manage our families. For this not to be a clash, you have to find alternatives.

In my country, you will hardly see a plastic with a good dimension, you know those strong plastics, you don’t see them in the landfills. No!!! You will not even see one because before people throw them away, it will take time. The problem we have is the single-use plastics. So, instead of saying company should stop producing and go, government should support the company to produce stronger ones. At the same time, if they cannot produce 100 per cent biodegradable plastics, they can add the biodegradable solution as part of their components or it becomes half biodegradable. At the same time, you can create jobs through paper bags. There are lots of businesses for young people. Government can set standards on that. If you produce the reuse, just talk to people because the need is always there. In Europe, if you go to supermarkets, you will pay for plastic bags because they are expensive. It should be the same in Africa, also make sure it increase in size. No one wants to buy too much expensive bottles and polythene bag, No! Never!! So, just make the bag expensive and take that money to make it better, more biodegradable products to create jobs at least to reduce wastes and people will buy it anyway.

What businesses of environmental sustainability would you recommend to African youth?

Just like I said earlier, we have 700 million people in Africa that go daily without electricity and that is an amazing opportunities and that is in total. In most of our countries, rural electrification is lacking behind 5 to 10 per cents for people who do not have access to electricity. So there is a huge market out there and at the same time, if you look at cooking, smokes from the kitchen is killing thousands of our mothers every day. You may see me coughing or sneezing a bit, why? it is due to some types of pulmonary disease like asthma and so on because, my mum used to put me at the back while in the kitchen cooking with all the smokes, the child developed asthma and other pulmonary diseases. You can see that there is a lot of businesses to be done out there as well as in terms of providing right tools for people and at the same time, if you look at the building sector, people want cool room, they don’t need AC, they just want the room to be fine.

So, in the built sector, there is a lot to think about like how do you build new generation of buildings, how do you constructs a house that consume less energy and have all the air and all the lighting? It is up to us to develop. Companies are spending thousands of Naira or Cfa on electricity bills. It is our job to find economic or energy efficiency models so that they can switch from the old models to the new ones without efforts because the technology it is there and it is up to us in the nationality. It is all in one word, innovation and creativity.

It will be nonsense for me to name all activities someone can do. Young people should go out there, look at what people have as problem and just innovate. Just think everybody has that capacity and we are all in that capacity to create and innovate in the face of adversity. I think there is a lot to be done, particularly in the energy sector.

Bill Gate, was once asked, if he is to advice, what sector to invest in? He said first, is to go into agriculture, second is energy and third is information technology and few years back, he was saying information technology is first. Now he is saying energy is second, agriculture is first. So, I think it is very important that we convey this message to the young people.  People are in the villages, they are looking for improved cooking stoves and they have the money to pay for it. People are looking for lamps that can last for 3 years. If a part is broken they can find a spare part. People are looking for innovative ways to power their houses, hospitals and schools. It is up to us do that. People are looking for new means so that they can cook instead of using the woods or charcoals. It is up us to think out of the box.

So, I don’t want to give fish to any young people in Africa. I just want to teach them how to build their nests themselves. There is a man who once said “if you want your community to build you a boat, take them to the river and help them long for the sea. The next day, you will have your boat”. That’s what I’m doing for the young people, I don’t want to tell you to do this and that. What I will tell you is that there is a huge opportunity out there, if you sit at home, the next morning the problem will still be there with you even if you drink alcohol, the problem will still be looking at you. One of my friend use to say that “I have a lot of reasons to complain about life but the last time I did, I almost missed depression”.

It is too late to be pessimistic. There are lots of jobs out there for everybody. The point is can we be creative enough, innovative and believe in ourselves? Everybody can be a change maker and that is my dream that we can beat poverty, water scarcity, darkness, corruption, unemployment. Everybody can live a better life on this planet. I’m a Christian and I believe in tomorrow to be in paradise but before the paradise come, we need to survive today. I will end up by saying that God has made his creations up to the six day. He didn’t do much on the seventh day, why? because he wants human beings to keep creating. So, everybody has a goal in life to create, we need to finalise the creation of God, we need to beautify it and I think the opportunities are out there. If someone need something, just call me, I will not tell you what to do and I will just tell you where the opportunities are. It is totally up to them to create and I’m very happy about what young people are doing today.

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