Baringo County, Kenya – “This charcoal is from hell.”
Susan Chomba glares out the window of the Prado Land Cruiser at dozens of motorcycles speeding in the opposite direction. Each motorcycle carries at least five bags of charcoal and for every bag, at least three medium-sized acacia trees must be chopped down and burned. Charcoal production is banned in Kenya.
Chomba loves trees. She can rattle off the scientific and local names of countless species and detail their ideal growing conditions. She holds a PhD in forest governance and master’s degrees in agriculture development and agroforestry. She is director of food, land, and water programs, continent-wide, at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global environmental research non-profit. She manages a portfolio of $20 million and a staff of 100.
She is a rarity.
Roughly 12 percent of the world’s top climate scientists are women and fewer than one percent are from Africa – a continent hard hit by climate change. “If you look at the way the world operates, it’s almost blind to the fact that women bear the biggest burden and brunt of climate change,” Chomba says. That Chomba is an African woman in such a key role is potentially revolutionary, especially because she goes out of her way to solicit the views of those most affected and often most unheard – local farmers, community elders and, notably, women.
“The way climate is seen in the world, it’s seen very much from a masculine perspective,” Chomba says. For example, while male climate scientists focus heavily on developing renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels like oil and gas, Chomba believes they pay far less attention to the hundreds of millions of women worldwide who are burning wood for tasks like cooking. Incorporating the perspectives of women – particularly poor, rural women – would better ensure comprehensive solutions, she says.
Chomba is 40 years old but still remembers the hunger pangs she suffered as a child when the land failed to yield enough food for her family. More people, most likely women and children, will suffer the same fate, or worse, if wise and profound changes aren’t made soon.
Today, she is traveling with a team of WRI experts from Nairobi to Baringo County in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, home to mountainous forests that supply 75 percent of Kenya’s water. But the expansion of agriculture into previously natural environments, deforestation for charcoal and logging, urbanization and climate change have ravaged the land, leaving it thirsty and bare. Locals say they haven’t had a yield of maize or beans, their staple crops, in three years.
Chomba and her team visit a massive gully that has split the ground into two in the middle of the farmland. The area has been overharvested and overgrazed, with few natural grasses or indigenous trees left to hold the soil together. That, combined with climate change and an intense dry season, has left the earth looking like parched, cracked skin.
An elderly farmer points to a tree and says cooking oil can be extracted from the native species.
“How can we do this through the Terrafund?” Chomba asks her team, referring to the WRI’s lending program to support businesses addressing land degradation and restoration. “We have a muze [an elder] with knowledge, a fund that wants to invest and a place that needs seedlings.”
There’s an urgent need for community-driven ideas, but hasty, half-baked “solutions” can exacerbate harm, Chomba argues on the drive to Baringo County. At the end of last year, for example, Kenya’s newly-elected president, William Ruto, announced his intention to plant 15 billion trees in Kenya by 2032. But Chomba says the plan fails to specify which species will be planted (native or foreign), where they will be planted (forest reserves or communal farms), why they will be planted (for timber, carbon, fruit, or soil fertility), and who will actually grow them.
“The devil is in the details, and that’s lacking,” Chomba says. “If you don’t address deforestation causes, forget about your tree planting. It’s useless.”
Chomba grew up in Kirinyaga County in central Kenya, where her mother cultivated a small plot of land owned by a step-uncle. Chomba’s mother grew capsicum and french beans and formed cooperatives with other farmers so they could pool their products for export. Because her mother was a single parent and was always working, Chomba was largely raised by her grandmother.
“She used to tell me that if she could have gone to school, she would have studied so much that knowledge would be smoking out of her nostrils,” Chomba says. “She made sure that I knew that education was my only path out of poverty, out of the life we had back then.”
When Chomba was nine, her mother wanted to send her to a local boarding school, but the admissions staff in Kirinyaga took one look at her shabby clothes and turned her down.
“I’m not ashamed of my childhood poverty,” Chomba says today. “It’s what propelled me back then and what makes me sensitive to-date.”
Instead, Chomba traveled alone on a bus to a different boarding school in Western Kenya. A few years later, when Chomba’s mother ran out of money, Chomba returned to the provincial high school in Kirinyaga. Each student was given their own small patch of land to farm, and Chomba grew cabbage because they thrived in Kirinyaga’s cold climate. She experimented with organic farming, opting to use garlic and blackjack instead of chemical pesticides.
Chomba flashes a broad smile: “My cabbages were absolutely massive.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Kenyans were pushing back against the dictator Daniel Arap Moi, Wangari Maathai was pressing for forest conservation and fighting for multiparty democracy. Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, inspired a generation of young, female Kenyan environmentalists.
“We just admired Professor Wangari,” Chomba says. “She taught us that nature belongs to all of us.”
Chomba wanted to study law, but she missed the university cut off by a single point. Her second choice was agricultural economics, but by a strange twist of fate, she was placed in a forestry course. It wasn’t until her third year, when Chomba took an agroforestry class, that she realized she had found her calling.
“The gods chose my life for me,” she says.
While Maathai was protesting in the streets, Chomba chose another path more aligned to her strengths – research.
“I have a lot of respect for activism, I think we need activism,” Chomba says. But she opted instead for a job that relies on evidence-based data as the basis to change systemic structures.
Chomba joined the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) and led an eight-country land restoration program, called “Regreening Africa,” which restored one million hectares of Africa’s degraded lands. By now a single parent, Chomba had to leave her son at home with her mother to pursue dual master’s degrees in Europe.
“[S]he had to really fight,” says Tom Vandenbosch, one of Chomba’s first mentors at ICRAF. “Her having a young son when she had to move to Europe to finish her studies – that’s not something which is so easy to do.”
Chomba returned to ICRAF as a climate change researcher advising some of the brightest diplomatic minds in Africa convened to tackle climate change at the Conference of Peoples (COP). Chomba called it “the most humbling space I ever occupied as a young researcher,” and says the job “touched the social justice part of my soul.”
This experience convinced Chomba to get her PhD at the University of Copenhagen.
Chomba married her husband in 2009 and gave birth to their son in 2010. Both her sons seem interested in the environment, but “kids never do what their parents want them to do,” Chomba admits. She wants them to carve out their own paths.
Chomba’s team pulls up to the Baringo County government offices after a five hour drive, enters a tiny office and crams around a table occupied by local officials. She will need their staff, resources and approval to operate in the county.
She strategically mentions budget numbers for Terrafund and as she utters the amount set aside for the Greater Rift Valley region – $6 million – the officials straighten up, their interest piqued.
But challenges remain. Chomba broaches the issue of illegal charcoal production. One government official waives aside her concerns, citing Kenya’s struggling economy. “They are selling charcoal because they have no other option,” he says.
Chomba rolls her eyes.
The following morning, Chomba spends hours in the stifling heat speaking with women who are part of a grassroots gender-empowerment cooperative. Florence Lomariwo fled her home as a child to escape female genital cutting and child marriage and became a college-educated teacher. She describes how the ongoing drought is causing armed clashes between male herders, who are ranging farther from home to graze and water their livestock. Left alone, women are bearing the brunt of this.
“Most of the women are suffering deaths because of lack of water,” Lomariwo says. “For our family to survive, a woman [must] travel, even if it is 100 kilometers.”
Monicah Aluku, a 37-year-old widow, speaks up.
“Feel our pain,” she says. “There is no water. Women are walking so far to get water that they are miscarrying. There is no healthcare system. Kids are drinking dirty water and getting typhoid. We are really suffering.”
Chomba leans forward. She nods intently with a serious, steady gaze. Chomba and her team were scheduled to head back to Nairobi around 1 p.m., but they don’t leave until hours later. And only after Chomba has heard from every woman in the room.