Youth Leadership

Sometimes programmes have both overwhelming quantitative and quantitative impacts. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) “Environmental Leaders” programme is one of these. In seven years, 128 people have taken part in the programme; nearly 100 are now in full-time employment, while 19 have returned to university.

This is a phenomenal success rate in any industry, particularly the burgeoning environmental sector. More than half of the graduates have gone on to work in government, the public sector and in nongovernmental organisations — sectors of the economy that often struggle to attract skilled workers.

Much of this success came from the 2005 Table Mountain Fund, run by the WWF, which included space for interns to learn on the job. It helped develop South Africa’s environmental sector skills plan, and the biodiversity human capital development strategy. These national plans created opportunities for growth in the environmental sector and help to address the skills shortage there.

The environmental leaders programme had its first intake in 2011. Only six positions were created, all at WWF South Africa. This allowed everyone to see gaps and opportunities for the programme, creating a culture of constant self-assessment and progress. That has helped it to grow, with 50 people in last year’s intake.

Each year, interns work on all sorts of programmes. Some have worked on international environmental policy, some with fishing communities to discuss marine protected areas, and others on the data that feeds into biodiversity assessments.

Companies pay a monthly minimum of R9 000 for the environmental leaders. This competitive salary means the internship is an attractive option, especially for people who don’t have parents to support them. It is also a healthy change from the usual industry internships, where people are often underpaid and tasked with menial jobs such as making coffee.

WWF interns work in the field and in offices, on the kind of things that they would like to do in their future careers. The interns work at their highest capacity, which is probably why so many end up with permanent work thereafter.

Ensuring the right person ends up in the right place means the recruitment process can take up to nine months. Mentors are also given training, so the interns work in a place where they are both useful and given real support.

This win-win situation is why 40 of the 128 interns secured jobs at the same places where they were sent for their internships.

Runner-up: Kwathema off-grid sustainable engineering rural community centre project

Renewable energy presents a great opportunity to create self-sustaining communities, with the cheap power unlocking all sorts of potential. The problem comes in actually getting projects off the ground, financing them and then ensuring that they continue to operate.

Achieving all of this is what makes Zero Point Energy’s rural community project all the more impressive. The brainchild of two University of the Witwatersrand electrical engineering students, the project started to come together in 2015 when the duo began the company. The goal was to build turnkey projects in the energy sector, so people could walk in, flick a switch and have everything working.

This ease of use is critical for creating trust in renewable energy. A chat with an engineer helping Engineers Without Borders led to another meeting with the South African National Zakáh Fund. The fund wanted to use renewable energy for electricity and lighting in a community centre in KwaThema, east of Johannesburg.

Zero Point Energy did this by building a solar PV plant at the centre, ensuring renewable energy for its 25-year lifespan. A battery storage system provides energy at night; a solar thermal heating system creates hot water.

As it now has lighting, the centre is used at night, as a training centre and a place for study and learning. There are even plans to make it an internet hotspot and a library so that young people — who have little data and struggle to access information — can come and learn there.

About 15 people were employed to work on the project. Nine women work in its vegetable garden. This number will increase as the centre begins to recycle and compost waste.

All of this is thanks to the power provided to the centre by its solar panels and battery backup. It is small projects like this that show the huge potential of decentralised energy. 

Runner-up: Marico Biosphere Reserve Initiative, Youth Development Programme

The Marico Biosphere is a part of South Africa under intense pressure from mining and other development. Anything it can do to create jobs, and help people living in its communities, is invaluable to help advance the argument for conservation.

Its youth development programme started in 2006 in the form of youth camps. Children came to the biosphere to learn life skills and receive counselling. At that time the focus was on orphaned and vulnerable children. Now children from all sorts of schools come for the programme, with each school starting its own environmental club.

The largest of these, at a primary school in Ottoshoop, has 50 members.

Here, environment is a way to also talk about social issues, with sections of the programme focusing on parents. This focus on environment in its widest sense works towards a healthy world, and healthy people.

In 2015, the department of environmental affairs recognised this work by giving the Marico River Conservation Association a three-year contract to clear alien and invasive plant species from the Upper Marico. To accomplish this, 125 youths were trained in clearing plants and 24 were trained as firefighters.

With that programme ending, the biosphere is now looking to the next step; it hopes to get funding to teach more young people vital environmental conservation skills.


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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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