Our “Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture” series of interviews, which puts a face to the youth in agricultural research for development (ARD), hears their voices and obtains an insight into their roles, perspectives, experiences and aspirations, continues with Grace Mwaura. Grace, a Kenyan intern, talks enthusiastically about her work that is helping to improve teaching, learning and nutrition in many of her country’s schools. This is the first of our interviews under the “Learning together: Youth doing training and capacity building” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.
Teaching the children – shaping a generation
Grace Mwaura is someone who knows all about the power of education and coaching to transform lives. Her own experiences tell her that the best way to empower people is to make them self-sufficient enough to help themselves and society. This attitude is evident in everything that this young woman does, especially her work with the Healthy Learning Programme, an initiative of the Kenyan Ministry of Education, in partnership with the Flemish Association for Development Cooperation and Technical Assistance (VVOB), and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).
Grace, an intern at ICRAF’s Nairobi campus, works with 30 primary schools in eight districts in the dry lands of Kenya. Many of these schools receive assistance under the School Meals Programme of the UN World Food Program (WFP). One school meal a day is often all it takes to ensure that children don’t drop out of school to help their families earn money to put food on the table, and Grace’s work makes a difference by complementing these WFP efforts.
“The Healthy Learning Program focuses on training young people as early as possible, giving them the necessary skills to address issues relating to nutrition, food production and environmental conservation,” explains Grace. “We encourage schools to start up small projects based on the challenges they are facing. Such projects range from water harvesting, to tree growing (including fruit trees), to establishing kitchen gardens, to beekeeping. The schools also get technical support from the relevant ministries and development partners.
“Entire communities and neighbouring schools have learnt from these projects. Parents visit their children’s schools to see what we are doing and take the lessons learnt home with them. Teachers are also using the projects to teach all their class subjects. For example, they can teach arithmetic by looking at the amount of water needed to irrigate a small school garden and asking the children how much water would be needed for a garden, say, 2.5 times that size. It’s a more exciting and relevant way of learning for them.”
Grace has especially enjoyed gathering relevant environmental information for dissemination to the schools, motivating the students and teachers, and enhancing networks and partnerships with other organizations working on similar programmes.
“I’m always on the lookout for possible new partners and anyone willing to share knowledge and lessons from their work to enhance and upscale our work with the programme,” she says.
From university campus to international stage
Before joining ICRAF in February 2010, Grace took a year off after completing her Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences to focus on a youth climate change initiative that she had helped initiate and nurture while in university.
“While I was on campus, I led an environmental club that spearheaded the establishment of a network of Kenyan-wide university environmental groups called the Intervarsity Environment Network (IVEN),” says this industrious young woman. “We formed the network because we had many environmental groups based at Kenyan universities, but they were not working together.
“Shortly after, my African youth colleagues and I decided to build another network for youth groups across Africa working on climate change. We were further motivated because there was support for African youth both within national and international climate change policy processes.”
Thus, the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC) was born to empower, ensure and enhance the participation of African youth in the climate change agenda.
“AYICC covers rural and urban youth groups, universities, colleges and high schools,” explains Grace. “I spent all of 2009 helping build the movement across more African countries – the year ended with more than 50 African youth participating at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the biggest number from Africa to ever attend and play a role in international climate change negotiations. AYICC is now recognized by the African Union, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN) and is also a part of the YOUNGO (youth NGOs ) within the UNFCCC.”
After the establishment of AYICC, Grace decided to take a backseat in 2010. Her main goal now is to help build capacity in the leadership team and support new leaders.
Mentoring future mentors
While Grace talks enthusiastically about her role nurturing other young people, she also acknowledges the people who have mentored her.
“One person who has been instrumental in shaping my professional life is my supervisor at ICRAF, Tom Vandenbosch, the Programme Coordinator of the Healthy Learning Programme,” she says. “He keeps everyone’s spirits high and makes you want to be the best in everything you do. He has also helped me grow career-wise by encouraging me to get involved in activities outside my work. He is truly a champion of youth, and I appreciate everything he has done for me.”
Oxford and beyond
In October 2011, Grace will begin studying for her Masters in Nature Society & Environmental Policy at Oxford University, England, on a Rhodes scholarship. She sees this as another opportunity to improve her leadership skills and to keep working with other young people, both from across Africa and other parts of the world.
Looking ahead, Grace would like to focus on capacity building in other youth, possibly taking on a leadership role.
“I believe in the power of young people,” she says. “I think it’s important that young people find out what it is that they really want to do with their lives. Then they need to start small. After all, you don’t just wake up one day and become the president.”
A few years ago, Grace began her journey by organizing clean-ups on her university campus and putting up posters informing other students about environmental issues, and now she is ready to take on the challenges of Oxford. I’m not sure what the future holds for her, but I’m positive she will continue to make a difference in the lives of many people.