As the GEF’s Country Relations Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa, Susan Matindi Waithaka is the primary point of contact for government officials and civil society organizations from 48 countries working with the Global Environment Facility to tackle tough challenges. In an interview, she shared how her love of geography and teaching led her to a career focused on building relationships in support of collaborative solutions for the environment.
What does your job entail?
I am the main liaison between the Global Environment Facility and our network of government and civil society partners in Sub-Saharan Africa. My job involves organizing and leading workshops, seminars, dialogues, and other meetings in the region as part of the GEF’s Country Support Program. I am responsible for five constituencies that span 48 countries in East, Central, West, and Southern Africa. I am typically the first person to interact with Operational Focal Points and Political Focal Points once they are designated by their governments. Thereafter, I work with them on any questions they may have while managing GEF-funded projects and programs.
Do you have a typical workday?
In normal times, my job involves a lot of travel to coordinate workshops and national dialogues in different countries. With the COVID-19 lockdown, our work is now mostly done through email, on the phone and WhatsApp, and through video conferences. I also spend a lot of time reaching out to the Focal Points for each constituency, following up on queries and conversations, checking in on how the pandemic is impacting different countries and communities, and planning virtual regional and national meetings where partners can learn from one another and get caught up on the latest GEF policies and strategies. In terms of my day-to-day work, I try to follow a routine, reporting to my ‘home office’ (a table just outside my kitchen!) at the same time every day, and taking regular breaks. During those breaks, I like to take a walk or just sit outside for fresh air. I’m also trying to be creative and spend time outdoors with my family.
How did you get into the environmental field?
I was fortunate to grow up in different parts of Kenya as my father’s job required frequent transfers within the country. This introduced me to Kenya’s different landscapes - from the rich highlands of Central Kenya, to the beautiful coastal area, to the semi-arid areas in the northeast. We travelled everywhere by bus and I would spend long hours gazing out the window, marveling at the differences in my country as we moved from province to province.
I loved geography and even taught it in high school after graduating from college. I also taught another subject that required research on environmental issues. At the time, I relied on a local network called KENGO, which had information on topics like climate change and desertification. This further fueled my interest in the environment. I began working with KENGO soon after leaving teaching, which gave me the opportunity to travel in Eastern Africa, partnering and providing support to other NGOs. From there, I gravitated toward training and working with organizations that were addressing environmental issues.
Is there a person you have met through your work who has had a lasting impact on you?
I have been fortunate to have met many people who influenced me at different stages of my career. I had great mentors when I worked at both the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). While at the WWF Eastern Africa program office, I managed a regional project working with schoolteachers, students, and parents at schools on the Mara River basin in Kenya and Tanzania, and the Katonga River basin in the Lake Victoria catchment area in Uganda. Engaging with them on the importance of conservation within their schools and on their farms was one of the best projects I have worked on. I trained teachers to include environmental education and greening initiatives in their teaching activities and worked with children to establish green compounds by planting trees. The very visible transformation of these school environments was very fulfilling.
What life lessons has your work life taught you?
My work life has taught me to keep an open mind and keep lines of communication open. We are all human, we make mistakes. There is something to learn from every situation.
Engaging with people from all parts of Africa has been a great experience and a lesson in diplomacy and maintaining relationships. The fact that I comfortably work in English, French, and Swahili means that I can pretty much fit in with colleagues in all the countries where I work. When we all get together from different countries to discuss what we need to do for our environment and share what is working, we realize that we have one rich and diverse continent. We all want to leave it in a better state than it is in now.