By Jessie Tu
The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, established by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have been awarded to seven young environmental trailblazers across the world.
The winners were selected from a large pool of candidates who have created meaningful and immediate solutions a diversity of challenges affecting the world; including climate change, biodiversity loss, water pollution and waste pollution. Four of them are women working in China, Kuwait, California and Kenya.
Xiaoyuan Ren, Fatemah Alzelzela, Niria Alicia Garcia and Nzambi Matee will each receive US$10,000 of seed funding as well as the chance to attend UN environmental meetings to collaborate with potential stakeholders.
Dechen Tsering, UNEP Regional Director and Representative for Asia and the Pacific, said that each winner will be expected to implement their project and ideas and maintain contact with the UNEP. The UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen marked the occasion of the inaugural prize to encourage more young people to contribute to cutting emissions and protecting ecosystems.
“As we enter this decisive decade where we work to cut emissions and protect and restore ecosystems, UNEP Young Champions demonstrate that all of us can contribute,” Andersen said. “Every single act for nature counts, and we need the entire spectrum of humanity to share this global responsibility and this profound opportunity.”
Let’s take a closer look at each of the female winners and their projects.
MyH2O – a data platform for clean water
Regional Winner for Asia and the Pacific
As an MIT alumni, Xiaoyuan Ren has accrued a lot of awards for her work in environmental sustainability. In 2019, she was named a Forbes “30 Under 30” in the category of Social Entrepreneurship. She was on the BBC’s 100 Woman List in the same year. She was a Chinese representative for Homeward Bound’s STEM leadership expedition in Antarctica. And of course, she’s the creator of MyH2O, a data platform for clean water in China.
MyH2O (Water Information Network) offers solutions to China’s rural communities — many of whom lack clean drinking water. Ren’s data platform provides information on drinking water quality and helps educate villagers on water pollution, keeping them safe from disease and contamination.
“Through a nationwide collaborative youth volunteer network, MyH2O aims to collect clean water data, diagnose water problems on a case-by-case basis, with the goal to connect data-driven water resources and solutions to the underprivileged communities in need and improve their overall health,” Ren expressed.
In 2020, Ren’s platform has swelled to over 100 field teams covering more than 3800 datasets across twenty-six provinces in China. According to the 29-year old founder, it has “successfully delivered clean water stations to tens of thousands of villagers in China.”
Joakim Harlin, head of UNEP’s freshwater unit, said in a statement that Ren’s creation “addresses the root causes of deteriorating water quality whilst safeguarding water resources in underprivileged communities.”
“UNEP encourages such bottom-up approaches and through this award, we hope that MyH2O can inspire many others,” he added.
Eco Star — trade in plastic for plants
Regional Winner for West Asia
Fatemah Alzelzela, 24, combined her passion for electrical engineering with environmental work to develop her own organisation, Eco Star which allows individuals and companies to hand in their waste products such as paper, plastic and metal in exchange for plants and trees. In the last 12 months, Alzelzela’s company have also launched the first contemporary study in the field of waste collection in Kuwait to capture data on the country’s waste and environmental outlook.
Alzelzela’s home country remains one of the richest countries in the world, and yet, according to the young entrepreneur, “does not have many sustainable solutions in the field of recycling, with 90 percent of waste going directly to Kuwait’s 18 growing landfills.”
“There is a lack of waste oriented data despite high consumption patterns… and Kuwait also lacks functioning green areas and has air pollution problems.”
Clearly, Alzelzela’s promising environmental service is turning things around for the country.
Niria Alicia Garcia
Run4Salmon – indigenous-lead conservation
Regional Winner for North America
Niria Alicia Garcia is a 28-year old Xicana human rights advocate, climate justice organiser, educator and storyteller. In 2016 she created Run4Salmon, an indigenous-lead conservation movement that aims to inspire, educate and engage people to restore the natural habitat in America’s west coast and retain the indigenous ways of life.
Through social awareness campaigns such as group events involving walking, running and biking and petitions and letter-writing campaigns to politicians, the organisation raises awareness about the policies threatening endangered species that is essential to the health of Californian fauna and flora, including the Winter-Run Chinook Salmon, which are on the verge of extinction.
Garcia’s organisation put into place the Winnemem Wintu Salmon Restoration Plan, which is currently in the process of raising money for data collecting research. Run4Salmon also offer interactive lesson plans and virtual reality tours to educate young people about the importance of conservation.
Gjenge Makers Ltd — turning waste to bricks
Regional Winner for Africa
What do you do with the recycled waste plastic and sand that fills up thousands of tonnes in landfills each year in Kenya? 29-year old entrepreneur and mechanical engineer Nzambi Matee has the solution.
A few years ago, she decided to partner with a host of different plastics manufacturers and pharmaceutical industries in Kenya to build a sustainable, alternative and affordable, building products manufacturing company. Gjenge Makers was born. What exactly do they do?
They turn the plastics bottle tops and seals in drink cans into a building material which looks like bricks.
“We have financially empowered over 112 individuals the majority of whom are women and youth groups who are our partners in supplying the waste plastic and the pre-processing stage of our production process,” Matee said.
To date, her organisation has recycled more than 3000 tonnes of plastic waste, turning them into colourful bricks that hold twice the weight threshold of traditional concrete blocks.