Elizabeth “Lizz” Ntonjira is a 35-year-old volcanic Kenyan, global director of communication of the NGO AMREF. We will still hear a lot about her because not only is she one of the most promising young people in Africa, but because she has exceptional communication skills. In addition to being a champion of the fight against Covid in her continent, you followed the COP27 in Egypt until a few days ago and, now that you are in Italy for a few days, VITA has interviewed you exclusively.
Lizz, what is your job all about?
I lead the communications and advocacy that we carry out in Europe, North America and Africa and lead many of the campaigns and initiatives that we carry out which concern thought leadership and positioning the voice of Africa on issues that are fundamental to us and in places such as global events – see the United Nations General Assembly such as COP 27 which has just concluded, the World Health Summit, the World Health Assembly and many more.
Where do you operate and how?
We have offices in eight African countries and operate in 35 through on-site partners, projects and programmes. Part of my job is coordinating a lot of the work we do with our local branches, which are AMREF Health and AMREF International University, which is our newest, a health HR university, a great challenge. But also AMREF Flying Doctors, the air evacuation unit and AMREF Health Innovations, which deals with healthcare innovations and how to make them grow sustainably.
You just arrived from COP 27, are you satisfied?
For me, the biggest victory was the establishment of the Climate Loss and Damage Fund. This is an initiative which had been discussed in several previous meetings, but which had never materialised. However, it is one thing to set up the loss and damage fund and quite another to decide the framework for its operation and this aspect is still to be defined and is still a very gray area. Furthermore, we still have to understand what changes with the other funds that have been created and the lack of money for them. Many of these United Nations meetings become sorts of bills of exchange. This time it was the establishment of the fund, but there was no kind of commitment from the countries. How much will each nation do, especially those that are responsible for emissions and have a huge impact on climate change? How much will they contribute to this fund? And then the other question is: is this fund different from the other climate funds already created or is it complementary? I think this is the most important question.
What struck you the most in Egypt?
Two things. The first is that conversations about health have taken a backseat, yet health bears the brunt of the impacts of climate change. We think of floods, outbreaks of new diseases. We have had health facilities in Malawi, Ethiopia and Uganda affected, an entire health facility swept by floods, with people no longer having anywhere to get medical care. And the same happens in cases of drought. All consequences of climate change but this was not discussed at COP27, except in a very peripheral way.
The other what?
Many times we have heard, “Plant more trees.” Yes, but what kind of trees? I really liked the example of Ethiopia, which embarked on a 15-year initiative involving ten ministries, where, in addition to telling people to plant trees, it says which ones, Of guavas and mangoes, for example, because they contribute to nutrition. Finally, at COP 27, I learned that in the many pavilions that existed, decisions were not taken there but that it is necessary to sit at decision-making tables, at negotiating tables, where not everyone was represented fairly. One of the major challenges of this global event is the lack of representation of the global South, made up of low- and middle-income countries that are bearing the brunt of climate change. Furthermore, another category of key stakeholders missing from the negotiating tables is young people. Their speeches are really extraordinary, a movement of young people who really care about the future. Finally, another aspect is the communication of climate change and its impact, which is very futuristic. And that needs to change, so that people feel the urgency to react and be very proactive about it, instead of reacting when things have already happened.
You created the Lizz Ntonjira Network, a platform that offers mentoring and coaching specifically for young people. Can you tell us about it?
I’ve been lucky enough to be in environments that many of my peers don’t normally find themselves in, and one of the biggest things I wanted to do was ensure that others had a platform to find themselves in these environments. Since I was 25 I have been on the leadership teams of many international regional organizations I have worked for and it is as if the opinion of young people does not matter. I remember sometimes in boardrooms I’d make a suggestion and people would ignore it, and a few minutes later someone would say the same thing and people would say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” And I was shocked because I thought, “But I just said that 5 minutes ago.” So the network for me was inspired by that. I really wanted young people to have a platform where they could engage as peers and where they could be followed by older people because I also believe in the passing of the torch, which is not often the case in our communities and industries. Many older people, who have an incredible wealth of wisdom, do not pass it on to the people who admire them. On my platforms of social media I was getting a lot of DMs from people asking me, ‘I’m looking for a mentor.’ So I thought of providing that platform to connect young people with others in the industry by organizing coaching, mentorship and training sessions. sessions held so far, we have impacted over 1,500 young people in Kenya and have partnered with other organizations and private companies to offer around 20 scholarships and study. However, all these things I did with my savings and not being sustainable I wrote a book entitled #YouthCanan anthology of 50 emancipation stories from 22 different African countries.
Who are the protagonists of your book?
The youngest is only nine years old and is a Nigerian social entrepreneur who has created her own line of teddy bears. The oldest is 60 and is currently Kenya’s ambassador to Belgium. The book is divided into 12 chapters, each of which focuses on different sectors: technology, agriculture, climate, environment, private and public sectors. Each chapter begins with an older person and an expert in the field who writes a letter to other young people to tell and teach them what they have learned over the years, as if they were passing the baton. The rest of the next chapters feature 3-4 young people who are doing amazing things in that industry. For me it was a very important moment for the work we are doing at AMREF Health Africa in Italy on afrophobia. It is about getting rid of the idea that when you think of Africa you think only of conflicts, diseases, wars and poverty. Africa is much more than this, indeed, this approach is part of the problem. However, what we continue to see in the media is that they perpetuate this narrative. So the book also wants to give people, especially young African diaspora and people in other countries, the chance to see that Africa is a hotbed of potential innovation, of creativity, of innovation, a hotbed of future leaders.
Have you met any interesting African members of the diaspora here these days?
I’ve just been here and I’ll be there for less than five days but I’ve met some really amazing young people. For example, Adda, who is part of the Champs project, and Sara, who heads a project called Africa United and which shows the perspective of young Africans living in Italy, saying that if I was born here, I grew up here , I know I’m black, I’m not white. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m Italian. And finally Tire, who directs the NGO Film Festival, is its founder, and is based here in Italy, in Rome. I am privileged to have met such amazing people who do their best, despite the difficulties they face every day, to change the narrative and make life easier for the people who will come after them.