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Exclusive: Chatting to Gen Z activists Jeremy and Michelle

Michelle and Jeremy are siblings from Western Kenya who describe themselves as energetic environmentalists. Their dream is to improve the cleanliness of our oceans and build better habitats for aquatic life. They built an app to do just that.

Michelle, a 16-year-old final year student from White Oaks School, Kisumu, is a co-founder of Osiepe Sango (Friends of Sango), a nongovernmental organisation that helps to improve Lake Victoria’s ecosystem.

She is a lover of music and plays both piano and bass guitar. An ardent public speaker who loves economics and literature, she’s also an Ocean Heroes ambassador. Impressive stuff.

Her younger brother Jeremy, meanwhile, is in ninth grade and is passionate about 3D design. He’s using his tech knowledge to re-discover Lake Victoria’s original condition and learning how it can be restored through new technology. He’s also the co-founder of Osiepe Sango.

During our Zoom call, the bubbly Michelle and Jeremy talked about how their love for the environment first came about.

Both grew up around Lake Victoria. In 2018, while walking with their cousin along the shores, they saw plastics pollution all across the water – plates, slippers, bottles, and everything in between.

Though they had a desire to remedy the situation, school commitments kept them too busy to dedicate time finding potential solutions – until 2020.

Credit: Derrick Wachaya

During the first Covid-19 surge which led to nationwide lockdown in Kenya, Michelle attended the virtual Ocean Heroes bootcamp.

Over forty youths attended from five continents. Her peers asked her about the lake and looked to her as a guiding force on positive environmental change. It was then that it dawned on her that she had to act.

‘During the first lockdown last year, we had extra free time and decided to explore the internet to find out what we could do concerning the lake,’ said Michelle.

Jeremy – being a tech enthusiast – focused on online research while his sister studied the lake’s ecosystems.

They collected data with the help of their mother, picking up plastic along the shores and sorting it into specific types.

Water bottles topped the list as the most common item, with six different brands found. ‘You can’t solve a problem without knowing its root cause,’ Michelle explained. Next, they had to find where the plastics came from and close the gap between supplier, consumer, and eventual pollution.

They found that wildlife at the lake has suffered. In fact, freshwater fish have been affected severely, and most of them are no longer available in the area due to pollution and climate change.

‘My mom told us about some type of fish fry used to eat back then, which nowadays are nowhere. I’ve been wondering for all these sixteen years I have been alive, what really happened to our lake?’

In 2020, Mitchell, Jeremy, and their mum went to a government facility in Kisumu, the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI).

They met two young engineers who listened to their ideas and gave them newfound confidence. Mitchell says she wasn’t sure a whole government facility would listen to and encourage her ideas on the environment at her age, let alone take her to a conference hall for a one-on-one meeting.


The beginnings of building an app

‘Upon agreeing with KIRDI on the importance of sustainability and a recycling project to curb plastic pollution, we had to visit the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to collect data,’ the smiling Michelle said.

At NEMA, they were advised about the plastic policy in Kenya and what the organization is doing to combat plastic pollution.

From there, they were directed to Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Instutute (KMFRI). They met Dr. Chris, the Assistant Centre Director who invited them to work with their Lake Debris Volunteer Program and get involved with weekly beach clean ups to collect and analyse litter.

The clean up along Kisumu inspired the creation of an app, and Jeremy is at the forefront of the initiative.

Through the assistance of KMFRI, the app is still at an early stage and once completed will require users to input their name, location, and upload the types and quantity of plastic collected in their specific location.

Using GIS technology, the app will automatically direct the user to the nearest recycling plant to ensure proper waste management of the plastics collected.

Michelle and Jeremy tend to focus on young people and the problems affecting them. ‘We want focus and target young people who engage in clean ups and can use the app to their advantage,’ said Jeremy.

Targeting a country where Gen Z makes up more than a half of the entire population is a boost to ensure the country’s shores are cleaner.

Michelle adds that a ‘lack of awareness has affected the country and, as Gen Zers, we’ve taken advantage of the internet to find information. We’d like to make systems more efficient for our growth as a nation and as a continent.’


Challenges faced as young activists

The two have faced various challenges as burgeoning changemakers.

They’ve juggled school staff, managed various campaigns, and organised summits to educate and inform people on the importance of the environment.

As Michelle said, ‘nowadays we wish we could have 36 hours in a day – time is so limited on our side and we have much to do.’

Additionally, the duo mentioned that dealing with people who aren’t passionate about environment conservation is a challenge, especially given their age.

Older generations don’t take them seriously when it comes to education and learning. This has been a major challenge in Africa, where older folks tend to make decisions while younger generations are largely forced to listen.

This narrative has made Gen Zers feel voiceless in most areas of development and politics.

According to Jeremy, some peers are not confident in what they’re currently doing and research opportunities aren’t easy for young people as they’re expensive in both time and resources. Put simply, more Gen Zers need to get on board and look at long-term problems affecting their local areas.

 

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Strategies for effective environmental conservation in Africa

The environmental duo advise that African nations need to change policies concerning environment conservation and encourage people to actively protect their nearby wildlife.

Young people should be given opportunities to explore issues via the internet and other public educational resources. Everyone deserves to be able to learn and put the time towards having a positive impact on the environment.

While Kenya has the strongest environmental laws in Africa, more has to be done by the government and the continent as a whole to protect nature.

According to Michelle, overall Gen Zers are doing more than millennials in terms of social change. This is due to having resources closer to them and reliable information.

Young people have the opportunity to get engaged with the climate crisis earlier in life, and have done more to help the environment and ocean matters as a result.

Having teenage activists involved in various dialogues concerning social change will favour future generations, many of which currently entirely rely on technology to solve problems.

Having clean ups, planting trees, and doing small acts such as turning off the tap after use is crucial – and if everyone, regardless of age, adopts these practices we could see real differences.

Michelle says that African problems should not be entirely solved through Western practices, and Africa can design its own systems for change that supplement the West.


Advice to young African Gen Zers and the world

Jeremy says that young changemakers should research problems and refer to what other people are doing to solve them.

The current generation shouldn’t be afraid to start making change, or be intimidated to ask for help in situations that can change the livelihoods of people.

‘Collaborating with likeminded people is a good strategy to make an impact as a team,’ Jeremy concludes.

‘Look around. That problem that pisses you off, what can you do to solve it?’ Michelle adds.

Uniting people is the paramount goal to create change. Having no skills should not be a barrier and by bringing more people on board via social media, we can unite millions across countries and generations.

 

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