Since she was a little girl sitting in front of the radio listening to leaders such as Nobel Prize-winning Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai and former US first lady Michelle Obama, Anita Soina has known she was going to try to change the world.
She just didn’t know she would start so soon.
Frustrated by Kenya’s slow progress on cutting climate-heating carbon emissions and curbing deforestation, the 22-year-old activist is vying for a parliamentary seat in the country’s general elections on August 9. A win would make her the youngest member of parliament (MP) in Kenya’s history.
“After completing my university education and realising I am qualified for the member of parliament position, I decided to go for it. It’s the challenges that are pushing me not to wait any longer,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
From school strikes to street protests, young people around the world are pushing leaders to do more to transition to clean energy, protect the environment and support those hardest hit by climate impacts. But Soina, who is running for the Kajiado North seat in Kajiado County, just south of the capital Nairobi, believes change isn’t happening fast enough with activists working outside politics.
“I realised that fighting from outside may not really be the answer,” she said during a campaign meeting in the town of Ngong with drivers of “boda boda” motorcycle taxis, who make up a powerful voting bloc in Kenya. “Having a voice from inside parliament ... makes it easier, because I would be in a position to sponsor and pass bills and speak to these issues from within the corridors of power,” she said.
A member of the indigenous Maasai community, Soina has spoken out about environmental issues since she was 17, carving a space for herself as a fervent climate action advocate. She grew up witnessing the consequences of rising temperatures linked to climate change.
“I’ve seen the Mara River in different stages, from when it was an all-season river to now, when it’s turning into a seasonal river that sometimes has no water at all,” she said. By high school, she was teaching herself about climate issues and realised the Maasai, whose livelihoods rely on livestock, were being hit especially hard by the cycles of drought gripping Kenya.
Since then, she has published a book, ‘The Green War’, highlighting environmental injustices around the world, and presented a TED Talk on the topic. She also founded an activist group called the Spice Warriors, who aim to disrupt climate denial.
Her high-profile fight to get Kenya’s leaders to ramp up their climate action has also pushed her into the headlines, including stories about her dating life, and subjected her to attacks on social media.
But that intense attention could be an advantage when Soina goes up against 16 other candidates for the seat next week as a representative of the Green Thinking Action Party, said the party’s founder, sustainable development advocate Isaac Kalua.
Kalua said he started the party when he realised that, after three decades of protests, public talks and newspaper op-eds, his efforts had done little to speed up Kenya’s progress on protecting people from climate change. “(Soina) has made great strides at international levels, talking about issues that are affecting common people. She is someone who can address the issues of the environment in the space where it matters, not only from the outside,” he said.
In a survey about the concerns of Africa’s young people published last year Foundation, an African charity, 70% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they were concerned about climate change, but less than half were satisfied with how their leaders were tackling it.
On the world’s youngest continent - nearly 60% of Africa’s 1.25bn people are aged 25 or younger - Soina says youth don’t see enough urgency in the way their governments are dealing with the climate crisis, which will affect young people most of their lives. “In Kenya, I can say we have zero voices for climate from within parliament,” she said.
“As long as there is such a voice in parliament - even if it’s not myself - that’s going to bring change faster than if we had no voice at all.”
Soina has pledged to work on some of the major social and economic issues facing Kajiado County, such as the county’s high unemployment and school dropout rate. But as the self-proclaimed “Green MP”, the environment is her priority and if she wins the seat she said she wants to use that momentum to influence climate policy for the whole country. Her platform, however, also includes smaller-scale, local solutions that she hopes will show people they all have a role in the climate fight.
That includes planting fruit trees at schools, police stations, religious institutions and homes to provide shade and food and to help the country reach its goal of having 10% of its land covered in trees by the end of the year. “I will also turn waste into cash by promoting recycling activities in my constituency,” Soina said.
Out on the campaign trail, groups of young people surround Soina asking her to promise to create more jobs and get their climate concerns taken seriously by the government.
Kajiado-based political analyst Douglas Were said Soina’s “climate flag” could play well at the polls in a county where drought is killing the pastures and livestock that the mainly pastoralist population depends on. “If someone can play that card and say, ‘We need to plant more trees, we need to conserve our rivers, so that you can provide food for your families’, the people will resonate with that,” he said.
For some of her other supporters, it’s Soina’s youth and energy that are her greatest assets. “It’s important because of the urgency of action required to stave off the worst climate change impacts,” said Wanjira Mathai, regional director for Africa at the World Resources Institute and the daughter of Nobel-winner Wangari Maathai.
“Africa is especially vulnerable and our youth are the future.”