Nancy Karigithu is Kenya’s Ambassador and Special Envoy for Shipping and the Blue Economy. In an interview, she explained how the maritime sector can reduce pollution, rein in carbon emissions, and combat wildlife trafficking on a global scale.
What do you do for a living, and what do you enjoy about it?
My formal title is Principal Secretary, State Department for Shipping and Maritime, in Kenya’s Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development, and Public Works. In this role I am responsible for supporting and promoting Kenya’s maritime and shipping industry while also preserving the marine environment. I also work closely with the President of Kenya in my role as Ambassador and Special Envoy for Shipping and the Blue Economy.
Over the course of my career, I have worked to develop and launch programs geared towards sustainable ocean governance and a greener, more environmentally focused maritime sector. It is very satisfying to see the industry trend in this direction, and I see great promise in the path ahead. I especially enjoy working with and mentoring women and young people who are increasingly getting involved to address challenges in the maritime and blue economy sectors.
What does shipping have to do with wildlife trafficking?
It is very important – for the global economy, and for the global environment – that ships have safe passage and operate without criminal exposure. In Kenya, the State Department has for years worked closely with national security agencies including the National Coast Guard Service to protect shipping from piracy and armed robbery. We have more recently expanded this work to include monitoring and preventing illegal trade in wildlife, as well as to combat the trafficking of animals or their parts through ports and waterways. Through our collaboration and cooperation with other countries, at the IMO and in other international bodies, we have been working to raise awareness and bolster preventive and deterrence measures to combat illicit activities related to the illegal wildlife trade in maritime transport – not just in our country or region, but around the world.
Is there a GEF-funded initiative that is close to your heart?
The Global Environment Facility funds the world’s largest effort to address illegal wildlife trafficking, the Global Wildlife Program. This program has been so important in raising awareness about the illegal wildlife trade, much of which travels through ports and then spreads across supply chains. When people working in the maritime sector are more sensitized and aware about this issue, it is much easier to take action to contain it.
I have also worked closely with GEF experts on international efforts to build a sustainable ocean economy and to ensure the global shipping sector takes action to alleviate carbon emissions and reduce pollution, while also preparing to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Could you describe a project or issue that you are currently focused on?
A big priority is preparing for the entry into force of the new International Maritime Organization Guidelines focused on prevention and suppression of smuggling of wildlife using ships engaged in international maritime traffic. The Government of Kenya, with support from UNDP through the Reducing Maritime Trafficking of Wildlife between Africa and Asia project under the GEF-funded, World Bank-led Global Wildlife Program, was deeply involved in the process of proposing and developing these Guidelines and ensuring that they included actions to tackle the illegal wildlife trade in addition to other criminal activities. When enacted into national laws, their impact will span the breadth of maritime activities and fortify efforts to address the illegal wildlife trade around the world. They will involve national authorities, ship-owners, shipping lines, seafarers, and other maritime transport operators working together with a common purpose to protect our heritage. Shining a spotlight on the illegal wildlife trade and having the IMO’s member states explicitly address wildlife trafficking as part of their maritime facilitation efforts will be of major global impact.
What first prompted your interest in the global environment?
I grew up in rural Kenya, where wildlife was essential to our natural heritage. While the “Big Five” – the lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard – were most widely revered, we also respected and spoke often about the rhinoceros, hippopotamus, zebra, and wildebeest. Tales about animals were a staple of my childhood evenings, and my school holidays often included trips into game parks and nature reserves to see these animals in their natural environment.
These childhood memories are an imprint in my mind and a constant reminder to do my bit to reduce threats against wildlife. When I moved to coastal Kenya as a young woman, I teamed up with likeminded young people to form what we called the ‘Mazingira Club’ – Swahili for Environmentalists Club. It was around this time that I came to understand the threat and scale of poaching, which almost decimated some species of wildlife in our beautiful nature reserves. Poaching truly assaulted my sense of justice and awoke within me a strong desire to contribute to the cause of saving wildlife, in Kenya and beyond. I want to contribute to the preservation of the beautiful world I was born into.
What life lessons has your work taught you?
One of the best leadership lessons I have learned is that when you empower, enable, and energize those around you, it enriches their lives and has many positive effects that stretch far beyond a single task or project. This is how the next generation of leaders grows.
Another value I hold dear is the importance of maintaining an open, non-hierarchical culture where colleagues are comfortable contributing questions and ideas. This is a prerequisite for collaboration and innovation, and really brings out the best in people.
Finally, while not all my ideas have worked - and some of them flopped and had to be put out of their misery - without trial and error there is no learning, no success. There is truth in the old cliché, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Environmental issues are very often complicated and concerning. What gives you hope?
I am heartened to see how seriously political and industry leaders around the world are now taking environmental issues. In the maritime space, this is evident in the priority being placed on addressing environmental degradation and protecting endangered species. These are major priorities in an industry that was once singularly focused on efficiency of international trade.
I also draw hope from the increase in technical assistance and other support to developing countries to address ecological and environmental crises, and the proliferation of bilateral, inter-governmental, civil society, and community partnerships in this space.
What advice would you give a young person contemplating a career related to the environment?
The world is under severe pressure from climate change and pollution, and from a growing range of intense economic activities that are disrupting and destroying ecosystems. This calls for all hands on deck. We need innovative solutions, forward thinking, and a holistic approach to management. Young people can offer new ideas and approaches as agents for change, development, and peace. I would encourage any interested young person to take a seat at the table and find their own way to positively contribute to environmental sustainability.