In January 2019, I decided to add my voice to a growing movement of young people around the world who were striking from school and university to protest political inaction on climate change.
The climate strike movement, sparked by Greta Thunberg, was growing quickly in Europe and North America. Young activists were getting a lot of attention from the media, but I noticed that Africa — a continent already being pummeled by the worst impacts of climate change — was largely absent from the conversation.
So one day, I went out on the streets of Kampala to protest, supported by my siblings and cousins. I was petrified — in Uganda, protesting is rare, and protesters often risk arrest. But the worst that happened that day was a few people staring at us before going back to their business.
I continued weekly protests and started connecting via social media with activists and campaigners from around the world. Next came invitations to speak at events abroad like the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Nowadays, I have the privilege of being a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador speaking up about global issues. When I started in activism though, I just wanted to contribute what I could to helping people at home in Uganda.
In the months before I carried out my first climate strike, I had looked into the biggest challenges facing ordinary people in my country. I found that climate change was one of them. My uncle Charles shared with me the difficulties that Ugandan farmers face with changing rainfall patterns, with the unpredictable weather dramatically lowering crop yields. I was shocked that no one seemed to be talking about it. Alongside extreme weather, energy poverty — defined by the World Economic Forum as “the lack of access to sustainable modern energy services and products” — is also a major issue for Ugandans. One-third of our population is considered severely energy poor.
For decades, foreign oil and gas companies have moved into Africa, promising development and wealth to local people. But the companies largely export the oil, gas, and profits back to the rich world without generating investment in reliable local energy infrastructure. Discoveries of fossil fuels have left not widespread development, but often violence, corruption, and environmental destruction in countries like Nigeria and Mozambique. In total, around 600 million sub-Saharan Africans still lack basic access to electricity.
I started searching for small ways I could fight climate change and energy poverty at the same time. In 2019 I started a project to install solar panels and eco-friendly cookstoves in rural schools in Uganda. To date we have completed installations in dozens of schools, giving students the opportunity to study in well-lit classrooms and reducing toxic air pollution in school kitchens. I have learned about the power of distributed renewable energy to transform lives.
Africa holds 39 percent of the world’s renewable power potential — more than any other continent. Yet, it receives only about 2 percent of global investment in the renewable sector. Meanwhile, money continues to flow into Africa to fund extractive fossil fuel infrastructure that displaces communities, harms ecosystems, and lines the pockets of the wealthy.
There is a real opportunity for private investment from the United States to help African nations develop their economies in a clean and fair way, to ensure that African energy benefits African people, and to develop a domestic energy sector teeming with potential.
Institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund must also do all they can to reduce the financial hurdles that African countries face in making and receiving such investments. They can massively increase the low-interest loans available to lower-income countries for such projects as restoring and protecting nature, adapting local infrastructure to protect it from extreme weather, and building clean energy capacity. They should also help ease debt burdens faced by countries like Zambia, which, due to debt repayments, cannot afford to invest in basic public services — let alone new green infrastructure.
These institutions and private banks must also stop investing in fossil fuels. At last month’s UN Climate Ambition Summit in New York, which I attended, Secretary General António Guterres warned that “humanity has opened the gates of hell.” It is our job — and especially the job of countries like the United States, which produces so much of the greenhouse gases that created our current climate disaster — to shut those gates now.
Vanessa Nakate is a Ugandan climate justice activist, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and author of “A Bigger Picture.”