Today marks the 12th anniversary of the day I spent in Nairobi’s Korogocho Slums with some of the world’s “poorest of the poor.” I was profoundly affected then and still am – but I have some new thoughts.
In hindsight, this experience, which I found to be so special and impactful at the time, feels a little problematic. I realize now that bringing affluent, [mostly] white visitors into contact with poor, Black locals is a cliche, and it smacks of both volunteer tourism and white saviorism. I wonder how my Black and African classmates felt about it. Did the feel the same? Or did they feel it was exploitative? Or . . . other? Rather than getting so caught up in my own emotional journey, I should have spent more time on that trip seeking out their perspectives.
Reading through my blogs for the entire Kenya trip, I’m more than a little ashamed of the hubris with which I described “challenging” and “advising” Kenyan business leaders. Did we really believe that our privileged education in one of the richest countries in the world gave us any clue how to solve problems in such a different context? We – many of us, at any rate – were so colonial!
That said, I did learn a lot, which was the purpose of the trip – and I definitely returned more motivated than ever to be the change I wanted to see in the world, resolving to “give it all I’ve got.” So, 12 years later, how am I doing? Am I driving positive change or were those just hollow words?
Shortly after this trip, one of my dear friends and IMD classmates moved to Kenya to launch GIVEWATTS, a nonprofit deploying solar energy to off-grid schools and clinics throughout East Africa. I joined the GIVEWATTS Board of Directors and created/led the USA organization. In 10 years, we have:
● 40,000 solar lamps and 10,000 solar stoves deployed
● 142,000 tons CO2 avoided
● Improved health outcomes by eliminating fumes from kerosene
● Improved education outcomes by enabling homework outside of daylight hours
To be clear, I am just a very small part of the entire GIVEWATTS team but I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished. GIVEWATTS is now run by a crack team of Kenyans based in Nairobi and is self sustaining / growing with minimal foreign help.
Reading through my blogs from the Kenya trip, I’m reminded how unsustainable growth in the region was (is?), how disproportionately affected by the climate crisis they were (are!), and how important entrepreneurship was (is!) to solving it.
The region was being exploited for its resources – minerals, arable land, and fish and wildlife. It was growing economically but making the same mistakes that we already made in the west: dirty energy, dirty infrastructure, inefficiency, etc.
Our meeting with the Executive Director of Climate Network Africa demonstrated that they were already feeling the effects of the climate crisis and were seeking help in combating it. At the time, I was defensive about the blame she was throwing at the developed world for our outsized role in creating the climate crisis but . . . she wasn’t wrong!
That discussion inspired me to think through climate solutions in the East African context. Multiple technology breakthroughs would be necessary but my project on Kenyan entrepreneurship revealed that there were significant barriers in the way of entrepreneurs and innovators there: business education, access to capital, gender inequities, and many more.
So, we need to solve climate, we can only do it together through global collaboration, and supporting entrepreneurship is critical to getting it right. That leads me squarely to Third Derivative, a fully integrated, global engine of climate innovation. We are working not just to deliver climate solutions everywhere in the world, but to source them around the world too so that everyone can participate in the unprecedented, multi-trillion-dollar opportunity of climatetech.
Climate Justice Is Social Justice
From one of my blog entries: “The dichotomy of Kenya is strong. We have met with wildly successful entrepreneurs and we have played with those rejected and forgotten by even the poorest of society. Perhaps I am naïve in thinking Kenya is exceptional; perhaps such disparity exists everywhere.”
Just how naïve I was has become abundantly clear in the ensuing 12 years and especially recently in the US. I don’t have to travel halfway around the world to see systemic inequality; it is right here in my back yard.
I also marveled at the tribalism in East Africa: “Whenever one tribe is in power, it commits atrocities against the others. When the others are in power, they want revenge. The tit-for-tat cycle continues indefinitely and I have no idea how it could be broken.” Is our current state of US political polarization so different?
At Third Derivative, we are still figuring out how to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion deeply into everything we do but, in the meantime, I take solace in the idea that climate justice is social justice and in being part of a larger team working to that end.
When I returned to Switzerland from Kenya, I wrote that, “I feel so safe and comfortable.” When I returned to the US from Switzerland, I did it for patriotism and to fight on the front lines of the climate fight. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it has put me right into the fray of the social justice fight as well.
When I moved across the country to launch and lead a major new weapon in the climate / social fight, I wrote of living a life not of comfort and complacency but of service and adventure. I may not have solved climate yet, but I do think I am living up to my commitment of 12 years ago to “give it everything I’ve got.”