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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: An Example of Sovereign Leadership on Sustainability

Tim Nixon

06 Aug 2018

August 6, 2018

“Tribalism rears its ugly head at election time when politicians drive a competitive wedge between us.  It’s easy, though dangerous at such times, to focus on what divides us rather than what unites us.”


Kenya is a surprising country in many respects.  At a time when many nation states are seeing increasing tribalism and fragmentation, Kenya has just successfully navigated its contentious election with both sides coming together to work constructively for the greater good of the people.  At a time when much wealthier countries decry the damage plastic is doing to our oceans and environment but make little tangible effort to stop it, Kenya has passed a nationwide ban on using and producing single use plastic bags.  At a time when the planet urgently needs examples of countries using renewable energy at a rate which gives us a chance of meeting the Paris climate accord targets, Kenya has achieved 60%+ renewable energy, and is investing to make that number even higher.

Why does Kenya do these things, when, given the enormous challenges it faces in terms of unemployment, poverty, terrorism and urban blight, it could easily sacrifice long term benefits to solve immediate and politically calculated goals?  To begin to understand the apparent paradox, we sat down with Ruth Kagia, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Strategy for the President of Kenya.

Ms. Kagia explained that the bedrock of much of this long-term thinking starts with education.  “Education is a threshold issue.  It was a struggle to get our children into school and to complete at least seven years of quality education, and while this continues to be a work in progress, education has enabled everyone to achieve  sufficient levels of understanding of the importance of the environment to our country.  This foundation allows us to move onto a deeper and more strategic discussion.”

And by strategic, Kagia means the ability to create awareness around the importance of basic environmental infrastructure to the health and economic welfare of the country.  “We face heavy demographic pressure. The temptation is to sacrifice the environment to accommodate a fast growing population.  But we know we are custodians of the environment and are working to ensure that demographic pressure does not lead to environmental degradation. For example, deforestation, particularly along our rivers, must be stopped.  Construction on riparian land must be stopped and is being stopped in some cases by removing buildings that lie on riparian land.  In fact, President Kenyatta is driving a general greening of our country, following in the footsteps of our Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai, who mobilized a movement led by poor women to plant trees.”

And digging deeper into the ethic driving leadership in Kenya, it’s clear why a Nobel Peace Prize for planting trees was awarded in a context of tribal fragmentation, poverty and environmental risk.

Ms. Kagia reflects on the recent election and the aftermath which could have become quite violent had the parties not found the wisdom to work together for the greater good.  “Coming out of two elections in one year, the economy was on its knees and the national fabric was under severe stress.  Kenyans were tired of politics and needed to see a shared destiny. At the end of the day every Kenyan family wants to be able to put food on the table and to co-exist peacefully with their neighbors. They look to politicians deciding and working together to enable them achieve that goal.”

“Investing in a common and greater future, as Wangari Maathai did with the environment or our political founders did so well in building a nation state, is what has propelled Kenya to become a beacon of success on so many fronts.”

And Ms. Kagia issues a warning for many of us.  “Tribalism rears its ugly head at election time when politicians drive a competitive wedge between us.  It’s easy though dangerous at such times to focus on what divides us rather than what unites us.  But we have lately seen great leadership which is thoughtful and deliberate in the manner in which power and resources are to be shared fairly.”

And now that the elections are over, and as Kenya moves forward in a more united manner, the country seeks like-minded foreign investors and corporate partners to help drive sustainable economic development.  Kagia explains that “we have a mixed record on corporate environmental sustainability as we have tried to broaden our foreign investor base.  We know what clean investors look like, and we have an active civil society which raises the alarm when foreign investors fail to meet minimum environmental standards, but we could do better in increasing investments without it undermining our environment.”

It is clear that there is a significant ongoing challenge with evaluating global firms’ environmental credentials in the early phases of investment.  “Transparency on prior performance is lacking.  Clarity on go-forward corporate strategy is difficult to find, but we will continue to put a premium on environmental sustainability. And we are putting our money where our mouth is.  Kenya is hosting a major global conference on the Sustainable Blue Economy which brings together global leaders on environmental sustainability to promote the protection of the oceans, seas and marine resources, and ensure that socioeconomic development through ocean related activities does not lead to environmental and ecosystem degradation”.

Despite many ongoing challenges, Kenya has seen visionary leadership. Kagia concludes, “our Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, set the pace.  She showed us the consequences of environmentalism.  Our President is on record several times reminding Kenyans that we need to leave our environment better than we found it.  Long term, you are better off, with healthy water, air soil, green places to live, a respect for the land, and a country united to keep it that way.  The net economic benefit is much higher, and with this vision, you can light up an entire country.”

And perhaps help light up an entire world.

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