"It's my duty to improve my own existence, but also the existence of the people around me."
By Joanna and Wolfgang Hafenmeyer
This fourth profile in our CSRwire series based on the book, Future Makers, is about Njogu Kahare of Nairobi, Kenya – agricultural scientist, tree planter, inventor and co-worker of Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai.
Many people have heard of Wangari Maathai. She was the first African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for developing the Kenyan environmental organization, the Green Belt Movement (GBM). Her comrades-in-arms were, however, as interesting as she and, although they have not won any Nobel prizes, they worked to shape the organization’s success.
In Nairobi we spoke with Njogu Kahare. His story begins in Nyandarua, a village in West Central Kenya. We had an idyllic image of rural Kenya in mind: green savannah, wild animals waiting for safari tourists and picturesque little towns with colorfully dressed, smiling people.
But this is only a part of the reality. Another part is the quickly growing desert. The portion of the land that is useful for agriculture is growing smaller and smaller, but must feed more and more people. Intense cultivation and deforestation are endangering the living environment and leading to conflicts.
These are some reasons for the bitter poverty that still reigns in many areas of Kenya, as in Njogu’s hometown.
“It was my childhood dream to move to the capital,” Njogu recalls. The dream came true when he moved to Nairobi to study agricultural science. He hoped to improve the agricultural situation in his country by working as a government officer. However, the government implemented a hiring freeze. He had to return to the difficult living conditions his hometown. With his wife and son, he lived in one small room and earned a wage by raising trout.
His friends from the city told Professor Wangari Maathai about his experiments with farming fish. The scientist invited Njogu to speak with her in the city. Her reforestation project, the GBM, was still small and Njogu had never heard of it.
Growing Trees, Despite Suspicion, Repression
Njogu was persuaded by Professor Maathai to take a risk and begin building up new alliances and tree nurseries for the GBM in his home region. He realized he was able to achieve a positive contribution for others and fully live out his potential and creativity. This outweighed the initially deplorable pay and the strong hostility he was confronted with.
Most people were skeptical when Njogu tried to explain why they should plant trees. They suspected he would charge money for the support that GBM offered.
It was hard to believe there might be people who simply do good things for others, without profiting from them.
Njogu’s difficulties increased as the Kenyan intelligence agency attempted to intimidate him. Since Wangari Maathai had begun to advocate against environmentally damaging projects, the GBM was seen as an anti-government group.
The Many Meanings of the Trees
Despite these difficulties, in two years Njogu successfully established 94 tree nurseries and groups to care for them. The groups are wholly ecological and economic assistance projects.
First and foremost, it is women who join forces and receive GBM seedlings, which they plant and care for. Through this, they gain wood for their cooking ovens, are able to plant vegetables in the shade of the trees and earn their own income through the sale of the vegetable harvest and new seedlings.
An income immensely improves their position.
Long term, the GBM would like to sensitize people to the environment and offer them solutions that make sustainable development possible.
From Fieldwork to Office Work
In 1993, Njogu received an offer to oversee improvement of methods and workflow from the headquarters in Nairobi. This meant creating an environment in which university graduates could be hired and motivated to stay. In 1991, Njogu was the only university graduate at the GBM, but by 2006, 15 academics worked there. Many of them were working on the optimization of quality control for the 6,000 tree nurseries.
Njogu is happy that a government job didn’t work out for him:
“Very early on I understood that, in order to survive, I either had to use dirty tactics, which most people use in the established system and would kill my creativity, or I had to play a completely different game. I didn’t want to work in a culture in which people didn’t want to share their ideas because someone might steal them. I didn’t want to work in a culture in which people exclusively follow their own best interest rather than the greater good. The GBM gave me the option of playing a completely different game and preserving my creativity and values.”
The Prize of Prizes and the Meaning of Values
Public awareness of the GBM has increased thanks to the change of government in Kenya in 2002 and Wangari Maathai's 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. However, Njogu also saw the dark side of overwhelming public interest. Many greedy, egotistical people became interested in the GBM after 2004, and it became difficult to distinguish the well-meaning from the self-interested. In spite of this, the team has not had difficulty in making the right decisions.
“There is nothing more important than values; that’s what I have learned. Values such as self-respect, self-reliance, volunteer activity, belief in oneself and the necessity of paying attention to the small, crucial matters that bring the big ideas into motion. Those are the cornerstones of the Green Belt Movement.”
Over the decades Njogu and the entire GBM team have modeled these values for people in Kenya and have spoken repeatedly about responsibility, transparency and community empowerment.
After Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Prize, all this turned around to benefit the organization. Njogu says that he sometimes can't believe his luck at being a part of the GBM:
“It is my duty to not only improve my own existence, but also the existence of the people around me. It’s a pretty ambitious goal, because so many people don’t even know what direction they want to go in or what improvement means in the first place. When you work for the Green Belt Movement, you have to think about those things.”
About the Authors:
Joanna Stefanska Hafenmayer is the Managing Director of “MyImpact”, an organisation focusing on helping leaders to realize meaningful careers through coaching and seminars, as well as assessment tools and publications. An expert in the development of corporate responsible leadership programmes, Joanna is also a member of the Board of “Öbu” – the Swiss think-tank for business and sustainability – and leads the Responsible Corporate Leadership (RECOL) Forum, a group of innovative global enterprises in this area. Prior to 2012, she was a member of Microsoft Switzerland’s Executive Board as their Innovation & Sustainability Officer. Joanna was selected as a First Movers Fellow of the Aspen Institute.
Wolfgang Hafenmayer is the Managing Partner of LGT Venture Philanthropy, with a mission to improve the quality of life of less advantaged people. To realize this mission, Wolfgang built a team of 25 investment managers and philanthropy advisors on five continents to identify and support organizations with outstanding social and environmental impact currently improving the quality of life of 7.9 million less advantaged people. Wolfgang has been an Investment Manager with BonVenture, the first social venture fund in German-speaking Europe, and helped set up Forma Futura, a sustainable asset management company.