We caught up with our November spotlight, Oladipupo Daniel Ajiroba on Spotlight Talks for his advocacy and leadership as a young African environmentalist and climate change activist. Currently, Daniel is an exchange participant at EarthCorps in the United States, and is the founder of The Environmental Advocacy/ Management Initiative (TEAM) in Nigeria.
An avid leader, Daniel is a member of the Global Youth Innovation Network, a One Young World Ambassador; an Associate of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS), South Africa and World Economic Forum Global Shaper.
In 2011, Daniel was appointed as a Special Assistant to the governor of Ogun State on Millennium Development Goals in Nigeria and has since then achieved series of other noteworthy accomplishments.
Below is our interview except with him. You can as well listen to the podcast above.
Currently, I understand that you are based in Seattle Washington right now participating in an intensive training with EarthCorps. Can you tell us more about this program and what you’re learning from this experience?
EarthCorps is a non-governmental organization based in Seattle Washington, in the United States. EarthCorps works on environmental issues and trains young global leaders in environmental management. I was selected with about 10 other young people across the world for this training exchange program to enhance my skills in environmental leadership, in habitat management, and community development. I’ve been in the United States since June, and the experience has been worthwhile. I’ve been able to learn so much about environmental management and have had a chance to increase my leadership skills, and work with different institutions here in the United States to work on different environmental programs. A key part of the program, is the leadership training where young global leaders are given the chance to prep their leadership skills and help with their capacity. One thing that has been interesting for me so far in this program is the fact that I have to live with other internationals from different cultural backgrounds. It’s been wonderful to challenge myself to learn more about other people and to appreciate the diversity we have in this world. So the experience so far has been very wonderful.
So how long is the program?
The program lasts for six months, so I’ll be rounding up my program by December 2014.
So what are your plans after the program has ended?
The training program has helped me to increase my leadership skills, my knowledge of environment, and community development. So, my intention when I finish my program is to return back home to start working on my non-profit organization back in Nigeria. I hope to put back all the skills and the knowledge I’ve obtained while participating in this program and continue to do what I’ve been doing in Nigeria; based around promoting environmental development.
So you talk a lot about environmental development. When did you first become interested in environmental and agricultural development?
While growing up as a young man, I was fascinated by things around me and I went to school to study Plant Science. And of course, Plant Science has a lot to do with the environment. While I was in college, I started studying about nature. My first experience within environmental science was around 2007, when I did my internship with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in Nigeria. And so as a college student we were expected to do an internship and I did my internship with the environmental department and that was the first experience for me. In my department I was doing pollution control and seeing oil spillages. I saw a challenge as a nation and I saw first-hand environmental degradation. As a young man I was like, what can I do? I saw the pollution control methods of the oil and gas corporation and it wasn’t really good enough. I saw how people’s livelihoods were being damaged. I saw the risk of having some of these things. So that experience really opened my eyes to see some of the challenges in that field. And also, it didn’t just open my eyes, I also thought that I could do a little to contribute to address some of these problems. So ultimately, my interest was influenced by the experience that I had with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.
You just mentioned that it was some of the challenges that you saw, that got you interested in environmental science. Is this also the same reason why you decided to establish The Environment Advocacy / Management (TEAM) organization?
Yes, that was also the reason why I established TEAM. When I finished my internship and I returned back to school to complete my program, I was so passionate about the environment. I decided that I would grab as much information to understand matters with environmental management. When we graduate from college in Nigeria, we go for the compulsory youth service, which is called NYSC. When I did my own national youth service in Oyo state I was posted to work with an environment based non-profit organization called the Nigerian Environmental Study and Action Team. And it was while I was at this organization that I began to enhance my skills and knowledge in environmental issues. As a youth corps member, I wanted to do something and wanted to contribute back to my community. I wanted to work in environmental management issues and so I called some of my colleagues together to say can we start some kind of Community Development Group where we can have free education around environmental issues for other colleagues, so they can see urgency in the matter, and that was how it started. And so we started first as The Environment Advocate and Managers because we saw ourselves as advocates and as managers of the natural resources, so it was more like a small group that we started at first to say let’s come together as a group, let’s work on communication, on public education, and environmental issues. So that was how it started through my national youth service in Oyo State.
Your response just reminded me of an online blog that I recently read, where you stated, “My position is that young people should go beyond being advocates and campaigners for developmental issues, a position that has earned young people being continually referred to as noise makers but rather get involved in meaningful research to support active participation and earn them a place in policy promulgation.” Can you expand on what you meant by that statement?
What I meant by that statement is that when I started working in different organizations, I discovered that young people were being limited to the area of being mere advocates. The depth of knowledge that young people have was something that I discovered to be shallow. So if someone wanted to work on an issue like education, they would take facts and figures from the internet. If somebody wanted to work around health issues, again they would probably take facts and figures from there. I saw the challenge as a nation and I felt that young people should be given chances, not just as advocates of government policies and programs, but also to be seen as drivers as co-facilitators of these programs. And I thought that being a mere advocate would not give young people the chance. In as much as we are a large young population base is not a reason why young people shouldn’t have a chance. Young people should have a chance because they do have the capacity to do so and I felt that being just an advocate would not really build their capacity. Rather, getting involved in building their skills in research and development, and enhancing their knowledge base to understand where the problems actually come from, to create solutions to those problems, would actually give a better chance for young people. So that’s what I meant by young people been involved in making sure that the solutions are based in research and documentation, among other things.
In 2011 you became one of the youngest political appointees in the history of Nigeria as the Special Assistant to the Executive Governor of Ogun State in Nigeria. Can you tell us more about your role and how you obtained that position?
It was actually something funny to me, myself. While I was doing my youth service in Oyo State in 2010, I mentioned that I started a group and we created some programs to encourage young people around forestation, promoting ecotourism, climate change adaptation, working around dessert service production, and many other things. And so when we started what we called a climate change awareness club with the national youth service scheme, we had a series of capacity building programs where we helped to obtain training for young people. When I finished my youth service, I got the Oyo state NYSC Chairman’s award. Somebody came across what I was doing online and decided to introduce me to the governor of Ogun State. I received an email saying that she had been following my activities for quite some time and she was impressed with what I was able to do around environmental management and young people. And the person asked me to bring my CV and said that she wanted to possibly get me a job with the government of Ogun State. So that was how it started. I was invited to come over to Ogun State, and at first I didn’t know what position I was going to get. It was like when I got there, I was told that the government is offering me to serve as a special assistant on the millennium development goals; so that’s how I got invited to work with the government as a special assistant.
Very commendable! So it sounds like you’ve accomplished so much at such a young age. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned about leadership?
Over the years, what I’ve actually learned about leadership is that leadership is service. It’s service to the people. Often times, I really prefer to refer myself as a follower, rather than a leader. And what I mean in that sense is that, when we look carefully at leaders and followers they have similar characteristics. As a follower, you have to be a good listener, a good speaker, and you have to trust your intentions. And technically, if you look at what it means to be a good leader, they have like similar characteristics. Then again, I would say for me, it’s about serving, not about a title that you carry or about the position that you have. It’s about the will to make things happen, the ability to influence people to do whatever they want to do or whatever you want them to do, without coercing them. And it comes to the passion, the burning passion inside you that people just see. They can trust their intuition feeling they want to be like this guy or they want to be like this lady, and they are actually contributing so much. For me it’s all about service.
So, who would you say are some of your role models or people who inspire you in your life?
Well I’ve had a series of role models that I have been inspired with. But if I were to talk about my career, I would say my role would be someone I call Professor Chinedum Nwajiuba and Dr. Brent Tegler. As a young man out of college, when I was doing my youth service and started working with these non-government organizations in Nigeria, I had shallow knowledge about environmental issues, and was barely fresh out of college with no big work experience. I just had a few internships and volunteer positions here and there. But then when I started with Nigerian Environmental Strategy and Action Team, I was given this platform to succeed and was really pushed beyond the confines of my comfortability, and I was given the resources to develop myself. And often times I was always challenged, to say you can do this. So I was given a real platform to succeed as a young person and even until this day, they continue to mentor me in my career; to give me opportunities to correct my work, and it’s been so wonderful.
Then, when we want to talk about the bigger world itself and those that I look up to, like in the environmental activism field; someone I really respect and look up to is someone I call Ken Saro Wiwa. He is someone who is a very great man that I really respect, who lived his life for the environmental struggle in Nigeria. He was killed in 1995 by the military administration then. But he was somebody who had great community organizing skills, and believed so much in protecting the environment. I like a particular quote that you may have heard of: “Environment is a human first right, without the environment, we cannot exist to claim other rights; whether they are social, political, or economic.” So he’s someone whose work really inspired me. He wrote so many poems about the environment, and I even, often times revisit his work and I get inspired. For someone to lay down his life for the struggle shows the kind of passion that he has for the environmental field. So Ken Saro-wiwa, Dr. Brent Tegler, who is from Canada, and Professor Chinedum Nwajiuba, are the three role models that have inspired me really strongly.
Do you have any advice for other African youths on how they can become advocates in their communities and participate in leadership opportunities?
Like I mentioned earlier on, leadership is all about service and the secret of knowing is about doing. So, I always tell people that the first thing is to have a burning passion for change. Look around your community, your country, your village, or wherever you find yourself; even where you work. Identify something you think is worth contributing to and something you think is worth using your energy to change. So it starts first by recognizing change. Once you recognize there is something you can change, you begin to have a burning passion ––be it as a volunteer, or as a facilitator. Just try to be in the community of people who have similar passions as you have. If you take a problem in your community like poor education, think about how you can contribute something. If I know a little bit about mathematics, can I gather neighbourhood kids and teach them mathematics? If my own expertise is in sports, can I gather young people to teach peace, using sports? Can I bring my community together to appreciate the diversity, to appreciate their strengths by organizing football programs, table tennis, or lawn tennis, or whatever I think I can do? Recognize that there’s something that you can change in your community. Also, it’s also necessary to understand that leadership is about service. How can you serve your community? What can you contribute to your community? Do you want to fix the neighborhood waterway? Do you want to fix the neighborhood road or drainage system? Leadership is all about service and it is also, about what some people call fellowship: Being in a group of people who are hungry for that same change as you are. Mentoring each other, increasing their capacity, understanding critical issues even beyond what you can see.
For me, it is about 1. Service, 2. A burning passion for change, and 3. Increasing your capacity to understand the conditions of such problems. That’s my advice for young people.
The advice you just gave for young people is advice that older people could also use. So lastly, as you look at the future of Africa, what is your dream of a Third Millennium Africa or an Africa of the future?
I usually tell people when I want to share my dream about Africa, I see Africa as the next big continent that will take charge of global affairs. I solely believe that we are the future and the next big thing that will happen to the world. And not just that. I have seen, many young people go outside their way to be entrepreneurs and to be founders of non-profit organizations, doing so well in community development. I see in the future, an Africa led by young people who will do everything possible within the powers that they have to make sure Africa’s name continues to be on the global map [positively]. I see Africa as the next big thing, and I see young people being drivers of the efforts to position Africa to where it actually belongs; which is the top!
Thank you Daniel for joining us today on Spotlight Talks. We look forward to more great things coming from you in the near future!