While politicians make promises at COP26, these grassroots groups have ready-to-go climate solutions that can help build a fairer world
“Next to our home”, says Ugandan development worker Noah Ssempijja, “we had a forest. As a child, it was a very beautiful place to be. Then one day, the forest was cut. It was the saddest moment. The villagers tried to oppose the cutting, but there was a rich man who was much more powerful than them. This story has been played out many times in Uganda… and in the world.”
It’s a salutary tale, told against a background of strong words here at COP26 on the need to halt forest destruction. But it’s one story with a positive outcome. Spurred by the loss of his home forest, Ssempijja now works to help some of Uganda’s poorest, particularly young women, to farm in a way which gives them healthy food, including surplus produce to earn much-needed cash – and, crucially, conserves soils so that there’s no need to cut more forest to make a living.
It’s an achievement that saw his organisation, YICE, win a coveted Ashden Award at a ceremony here in Glasgow. The awards celebrate pioneering organisations that cut carbon emissions while building a fairer world.
Uganda’s neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is home to the world’s largest expanse of intact rainforest outside the Amazon. But it too is under threat. In the remote region of Mai Ndombe, 300km north of the capital Kinshasa, though, hope is at hand. Studies have shown that giving indigenous people rights to their forest homeland is one of the best ways of ensuring its protection. In Mai Ndombe, Congolese NGO Mbou Mon Tour is doing just that.
Set up by village chiefs, it has succeeded in winning ‘community forest concessions’, which give people rights to their local forests – along with the responsibility to keep them intact. Like YICE, Mbou Mon Tour helps them improve farming practices so that they no longer need to use ‘slash-and-burn’ methods. Many of those they work with are women – like Adeline Ngamombele.
“I now have a garden,” she says. “I grow cassava, corn and sweet potatoes… I can feed myself and my children”. Other villagers have set up eco-tourism enterprises, focused around the rare bonobo ape, boosting both their prospects and the creature’s chances of survival.
Back in Uganda, female entrepreneurs are at the heart of another Ashden winner, New Energy Nexus. It helps women access training and finance so that they can buy green products such as solar lanterns and clean cookstoves, and then sell them at affordable prices within their communities. It’s created more than 650 jobs – 70 per cent of them filled by women.
Supporting women is also the focus of Bharatiya Vikas Trust, an Indian organisation that helps female entrepreneurs obtain finance to set up small businesses powered by renewables. The trust trains bank staff to see the opportunities in green technologies. This gives them the confidence to make loans, providing women with the chance of making a decent living.
Can the sun keep us cool?
Another of this year’s Ashden winners asks an unusual question: can the sun keep you cool? Just as important: can it keep vaccines and medicines at the right temperature? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’ from African enterprise Solar Freeze, set up by a young Kenyan, Dysmus Kisilu. It harnesses solar power to provide affordable cooling in challenging locations like Kakuma, site of Kenya’s largest refugee camp, with more than 200,000 residents. Not only is this helping store vital vaccines against Covid, yellow fever and measles; it’s also selling small freezers to local shops, providing the relief of cold drinks in a hot climate.
Keeping cool in an overheating world is the focus of Mahila Housing Trust. Based in Gujarat – one of India’s climate hotspots – it’s helping women cool their homes through simple but strikingly effective methods such as heat-reflecting roof paint, and replacing swelteringly hot ‘tin’ roofs with cool (and sustainable) bamboo alternatives. It can make all the difference to women like Savita Pandey, from Surat, where summer temperatures can reach 48C. She runs a small shop out of her home, in a room that until a few years ago had a steel roof.
“During summer”, she says, “we had dizziness, vomiting and fever. I used to get tired and need to close my shop in the afternoons. The [roof] made the shop too hot to stay in.” With her new bamboo replacement, she says, “I can comfortably sit inside my shop in the hot afternoon.”
The retrofit challenge
Here in the UK, keeping warm is a bigger priority, especially in hard-to-heat homes. With gas boilers due to be phased out, much of the focus has been on air-source heat pumps: but there’s another pump on the block – the ground-source variety. Cornish-based Kensa Group has developed a version which could make it both affordable and efficient for a wide variety of homes, including those in tower blocks. It could just be the heating solution the UK needs as it struggles to meet net zero goals.
Part and parcel of meeting that target will be retrofitting millions of homes to bring them up to standard. That means training a workforce equipped for the task – something that has been shamefully neglected over the years. (Around 90,000 engineers are trained to install gas boilers, but barely 1,000 are qualified on heat pumps.)
Manchester’s Carbon Co-op is doing its bit to rectify that, by running workshops to equip builders with retrofit skills. Among its 1,000 or so ‘graduates’ is Erol Tongue, who says: “Lots of contractors still see [retrofit] as a weird science. We need to normalise retrofit. A lot of contractors would be interested if it was explained in a physical sense.”
The Ashden winner closest to the COP26 summit is based in Edinburgh. Here, The Welcoming lives up to its name by supporting newly arrived refugees. Its ‘Welcoming a Greener Future’ programme mixes English language training with climate change awareness, plus practical tips on energy efficiency and an allotment where refugees can grow food and share cooking skills.
For Syrian refugee Tarek Awad, who had never gardened before coming to the UK, it was a revelation. “I found out I have green fingers! It also helped me with my neighbours – one neighbour who works as a gardener came to speak to me [on the allotment] and now we are friends. Growing my own food saves me a lot of money – and my children eat fresh veg every day. I share the food I grow with our street and the Syrian community and I also give food for the church. Every time my wife cooks a big barbecue, we invite our neighbours. [One] jokes they almost don’t need to go shopping!”
Main image: Thanks to the Congolese NGO, Mbou Mon Tour, people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being empowered to protect the rainforests. Credit: Mbou Mon Tour