Interview with UNEP Africa climate change expert Dr Richard Munang

Dr Richard Munang wears many hats; a widely-published author, an environmental scientist, a policy expert, an ardent leader and more. His hope and vision for a better world radiates through everything he speaks about. For him, every challenge is an opportunity waiting to be realised. 

Currently, Dr Richard is the Africa Regional Climate Change Coordinator at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). He is responsible for guiding the actualization of UNEP’s climate resilient development strategy for Africa in a manner that ensures human wellbeing.

 Dressed joyously in orange with a poster of his book ‘Making Africa work through the Power of Innovative Volunteerism.’ in the background. Ayushi Shah speaks to Dr Richard over zoom. Excerpts from the conversation below.

Innovative volunteerism
A visit to Kagumo in Kenya. Photo courtesy: Dr Richard Munang

Ayushi Shah (AS): Africa is disproportionately affected — 20 of the fastest warming countries globally are in Africa. What are the unique climate change challenges that the continent faces?

Dr Richard Munang (Dr RM): Africa’s unique climate change challenges centre around two key dimensions. The first is the biophysical dimension which relates to the physical climate change effects. The second is the socioeconomic dimension, which relates to the socioeconomic losses relating to climate change.

On the biophysical front, while Africa has contributed least to climate change, and is responsible for a mere 2 – 3% of global emissions, it stands out for suffering disproportionate impacts of the changing climate. For example, some parts of Africa have been recorded as already heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe. But increasing temperatures is not the only indicator of climate change risks. Whether we are talking about a 20% decline in precipitation, or a 20% increase in storm intensity, or an 8% increase in arid and semi-arid lands, or an up to 50% drop in rainfed agriculture potential, or a 14% higher sea level rise in African cities compared to the global average, the impact of climate change has continued to wreak havoc on the continent.

These give rise to socioeconomic impacts. For example, while unmitigated climate change is projected to shrink the global economy by about 23%, average income in the poorest vulnerable countries, most of which are in Africa, will reduce by a whopping 75%. This is happening in a continent whose economies are already 20 times less productive than their competitors in the global space. In a continent that has up to 257 million people going to bed hungry, climate change is exacerbating this dire scenario by degrading the nutritional value of key staples across the continent.

So, all these together constitute the uniqueness of Africa when it comes to the changing climate space. The overarching message is socioeconomics. While climate change effects are global, the poor are disproportionately vulnerable to its effects because they lack the resources they need to afford the goods and services to buffer against the worst of the changing climate effects. This then means that Africa needs to have the resources that they need to build resilience and adapt to the changing climate.

AS: A solution you strongly suggest is to turn these problems into opportunities through innovative volunteerism. Could you tell us more about it?

Dr RM: When you look at these challenges, climate change is actually like adding salt to injury here, because we have high poverty levels, we have food insecurity, we have a huge unemployment and so climate change is compounding already existing challenges. We need a societal approach that goes beyond financial resource help. And that is where Innovative Volunteerism comes in. It focuses on involving state and non-state actors, as well as individual citizens to contribute to action that can help move the needle forward. By volunteering and using their skills to address the problems in their village or community, they help one another and at the same time, when the actions of many such individuals are added, they contribute to the broader development of a country, a continent and the entire world. Innovative Volunteerism is based on six principles.

The first is that challenges are disguised opportunities. It means that the challenges we face as a continent are opportunities for young people to create enterprise solutions, and generate income.The second principle is that we must capitalize on what we have in abundance. Two sectors – sustainable agriculture and clean energy, which constitute up to 70% of the continent’s climate commitments and are most economically inclusive & accessible by employing a majority – especially agriculture, should be the sectors of choice in driving actions.

For example, Africa faces up to $48billion in annual postharvest losses (PHLs). So if we are able to add value by using clean energy, we’ll be able to reverse this post harvest losses. So tapping into that and using young people’s ingenuity, to study energy and water use like using solar dryers, young people have been inspired to develop coping models to reduce post harvest losses, putting more food on the table, and more money, more pockets. Young people have devised simple solar dryers as we are seeing across the continent, they are hoping models to dry their vegetables to dry their food, dry or cassava. And this is becoming a game changer.

The third principle is that our biggest capital is people. So the sovereign capital of a nation in its people, and mostly the young people. Studies show that a skilled populace capable of turning challenges into opportunities is 15 times the value of natural capital and 4 times the value of produced capital. But you can only get a dividend when you have invested and that means we must retool skills.

The fourth principle is what we call skills retooling. What this means is that young people and the young at heart, regardless of areas of training and background, will need to be structurally guided and inspired to improve, refine, and adapt their skills, talents, and ongoing work so it aligns to devising solutions and tapping opportunities in the catalytic areas.

Fifth is collectivism and not individualism. Individually, we might not be able to go far but collectively, we can really move forward. Sixth, is building on already ongoing work to minimise start-up risks and duplication of efforts. This implies that Africa is not starting from scratch but only needs targeted interventions to bridge gaps towards the end of achieving sustainable clean energy powered

AS: Can profit and volunteerism go together?

(Dr RM): The biggest difference between volunteering and innovatively volunteering is to solve a problem in a way that benefits you and the community. The idea is to turn challenges to opportunities where you benefit. From learning a skill on YouTube to new ideas to replace coal; like volunteers have devised a solar dryer that reverses post harvest loss. The volunteer makes money, the community problem of losing money and pollution gets solved.

AS: Tell us about how innovative volunteerism inspired the solar dryers.

(Dr RM): Innovative volunteerism has become like a wildfire blowing from the western part of the continent to the eastern part, from the southern part of the continent to the central part. It is a mindset change tool. It becomes an incubation space that actually connects young people in Ghana to devise solutions to replace charcoal with briquettes. Our youth in Nigeria are trained to do the same.

In Kenya, where people were losing their vegetables, are now using the solar dryer to dry them for their customers. And they are putting more money in their pocket because they earlier they would throw away their vegetables at the end of the day, because they do not have a place to store them. But today, they do not face that challenge, just because of a simple action that has been carried out by young people. This is helping them sell their vegetables at a higher price. And even when they are able to sell it, they will not lose it because they’ve already dried it and it can stay for six months.

AS: You are very active on social media. What is the role of social media in helping solve the climate crisis and empowering the youth?

(Dr RM): Social media has had the effect of democratising information and how it is shared. Information sharing is no longer an exclusive business, but an inclusive one where anybody can participate. And this has opened up opportunities for more voices to contribute their fair share towards the solutions process. Each of us must bring to the social media space what we are doing in terms of solutions that touch many lives, and selflessly share our successes and methodologies with the hope of not only informing more people, but inspiring more people to action. Through Innovative Volunteerism we are seeing this happening first-hand.

Social media is one of the best opportunity that has ever happened. But we must use it to communicate solutions, not complaints, because it’s also been wasted whereby people go there to complain and blame others. But when we come to social media with content to inspire, to motivate, we might actually be making the world a better place.


A visit to Kirinyaga in Kenya where innovative volunteerism has led to eco-briquettes becoming affordable and accessible. Photo Courtesy: Dr Richard Munang
A visit to Kagumo in Kenya. Photo courtesy: Dr Richard Munang

AS: Why is investing in a green economy and the youth imperative for the continent?

Dr RM: The continent of Africa today has a population of 1.3 billion people, but 60% of this population are young people. That means that they’re the biggest non-state actors, when it comes to climate change implementation. If you miss them, then you will not be able to build resilience. That’s a fact. But at the same time, this youth is energetic, they’re innovative, have entrepreneurial spirit, and their passion and their ingenuity in innovativeness is seen. Without engaging them, we will not just be missing an opportunity to inspire them to become the movers and shakers when it comes to climate action, but also miss out on the biggest community of the world to take action in a way that can actually touch many lives, and therefore inspiring them to see themselves as a solution providers. It’s very important to inspire the youth and guide them in a structured way. I use the word structured way because young people are doing things in their own right individually. But the biggest action is not individual action. The biggest action is collective action. And so when you bring young people who can devise different solutions, but work in a system approach, you will notice that each of them has a challenge that is an opportunity for another. When we connect these dots, we have solutions that will end up addressing an entire community and country problem in one go and everybody benefits. 

AS: ‘Rain does not fall on one roof alone’ – African proverb. The climate crisis is going to cause collective punctures across the continent and affect every single person. What policy changes are immediately needed to curb that?

Dr RM: I think we need to first appreciate that actually Africa is a leader when it comes to climate action policy. 52 out of the 54 countries in Africa, have ratified their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), making Africa the continent with the highest compliance rate than any other continent on the planet. 

Most of the countries that have ratified the Paris climate change agreement, as well. But where is the disconnect? It’s one word – implementation. And the disconnect between implementation and policy is actually the reason that we must engage the young people. Because when you look at all these policies, they create an enabling environment, but policy only works when it gets implemented. But who are those who will implement it? It’s you and me, isn’t it? It’s then behoves each and every one of us to then inspire the citizens to become part and parcel of implementing policy not standing on the sidelines. That is the essence of innovative voluntourism – inspiring people to act so that they can start to turn their passion into profit. The most important aspect is implementing policy in the segment of society that can easily lead them from the bottom of the pyramid of poverty. 

AS: If any of our young readers want to follow your path and become a part of the UNEP – what advice would you give them?

 Dr RM: One word – passion. But not any kind of passion, it’s what I call purposeful passion. We are all on this planet, for a purpose. And the purpose of life is to be useful.  If you only work for yourself, you will soon run out of steam as you realise that you are not that important. A clear purpose to touch many lives inspires passion. And passion is what I call the biggest capital.

Second, to stick to this path requires that you have self-discipline – where you do the right things, not things that you feel like doing.

Third, is skills retooling. In today’s dynamic world, everybody must be willing to continuously learn or refine their skills and add new ones and new skills.

AS: You often quote proverbs to draw parallels in your conversations and your book. What proverb/ saying would you like to leave us with today?

Dr RM: “Every adversity carries with it seeds of equal or greater benefit”. From today, wherever you are, when you see a challenge, don’t fear or faint, rather be excited that you are being confronted with an opportunity to become a solutions provider and become a valuable member of the human community. So, get to researching solutions and how to deploy them. Get with others of similar mindset and collaborate and complement each other. In this era of the internet, solutions are just a click away. So, do not let opportunities pass you by.

A simple skill like fabricating a solar dryercan actually take you a day to learn on Youtube. And that’s how value is acquired. And when you acquire that value, you are devising a climate action solution that can help a community become better, that can help put more money in your own pockets and create enterprising opportunities for the community. That’s value. And value is solutions. This value is what the community and society needs, not complaints, and folding arms and sitting waiting for orders to do it.

AS: Anything else you’d like to add?

Dr RM: We are living in an imperfect world. But it is important to remember – negative energy dissuades and disempowers. Whereas positive energy inspires. We must become the light we seek. Even though we’re faced with climate change, we can still build resilience by doing and playing our part regardless of whether you are a social media activist or a teacher, it doesn’t matter. We can all play our part.  This is the essence of Innovative Volunteerism.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

In our Spotlight interview, we have a wide-ranged, in-depth conversation with a green changemaker. The conversation focuses on them, their eco-friendly organization or project and the philosophy that guides them. All images are courtesy of Dr Richard Munang including the feature photo.

Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.

I'm Ayushi Shah and I co-founded Eco-Spotlight to tell stories of green innovation and remind the world (and myself) that there is hope for humanity and the planet. Reach out to me at ayushi (at) eco-spotlight (dot) com

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