MADRID - Marine biologist Lara Muaves witnessed the impact of climate change firsthand this year, when two devastating cyclones tore through her native Mozambique, leaving hundreds dead, including her best friend.
Nigerian social entrepreneur Mahmood Maishanu sees its footprint in crippling droughts that have hit his homeland. So has French-Moroccan activist Ayoub Makhloufi, who nonetheless remains optimistic that Africa—and especially its youth—can redirect a so-far grim climate change trajectory.
The three count among the growing ranks of young African activists working to spread awareness and turn the tide on what many consider the biggest crisis of this century.
"I'm an optimist," says Makhloufi, who, like Muaves and Maishanu, is attending this week's climate talks in Madrid. "I think one day we'll get there. The challenge is to find the right way so everyone can benefit.
Leading the fight
Across the planet, young people are leading the fight against climate change, prodding leaders and their parents to take action. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg—named Time magazine's Person of the Year—has catalyzed a once-lonely school climate strike into a worldwide weekly movement gathering tens of thousands of fellow teenagers.
Africa's youth, however, face particularly daunting challenges. The continent is the world's most vulnerable to climate change, the United Nations says, yet only contributes 4 percent of greenhouse gases. Droughts, floods and storms have devastated many parts of the continent, undercutting agricultural production that forms the backbone of its economy.
Yet only four in 10 Africans have ever heard the term climate change," according to a 2019 Afrobarometer survey.
African climate demonstrations remain small, and young activists say they are not getting the same attention as counterparts elsewhere, according to reports.
I talk about climate change everywhere I go," says Maishanu, 33. "And to my deepest surprise, people don't know about it."
Drought and desertification
A senior member of Abuja-based environment company Ecologistics Services, Maishanu says he wants to find "climate smart" solutions for African mining and agriculture.
Severe and protracted drought brought parts of northern Nigeria close to famine in 2017, and has helped to fuel clashes among herders and farmers. Lake Chad, a key source of water and livelihood for Nigeria and three other surrounding nations, is drying up.
"In my own hometown, not far from where my grandparents are, there's a whole lot of drought and desertification," Maishanu says.
Yet he is confident technology and innovation will create solutions, not just for climate change, but also related problems of poverty, unemployment and massive emigration that has driven tens of thousands of young Nigerians toward Europe and elsewhere.
"I'm seeing a more determined generation, more determined youths taking action," he says. "Doing what the previous generation hasn't done."
For the past few years, 29-year-old activist Makhloufi has ensured a green-friendly torch makes a carbon-free journey between each climate conference host, taking a page from the Olympic one. It was the first project of his Paris-based Mediterranean Intelligence and Public Affairs Institute, or MIPAI.
But Makhloufi's focus is squarely on Africa, starting from his parents' native Morocco southward. He networks with other activists from the African and Mediterranean region on climate issues, including creating a green investment fund for resilience-building projects and spreading climate awareness in schools.
"I think Africa is the continent where we can develop tomorrow's world," he says. "We're starting from zero. But we also have lots of resources and skills."
For her part, 25-year-old Muaves has already seen change locally, helping Mozambican coastal communities adopt green-friendly fishing practices. Area seafood markets have agreed to pay higher prices for the sustainably caught octopus and fish.
"My passion started young," says Muaves, a marine biologist for WWF Mozambique. She found her calling as a teenager, she says, watching National Geographic programs on television.
"I was so enthusiastic to do something similar," she adds.
This year, Muaves' pilot project got the green light to go long-term and national. In March and April, two massive cyclones slammed into Mozambique, causing widespread destruction. Hundreds of people died in the aftermath, many from the spread of waterborne diseases.
Among them: Muaves' best friend and colleague in the fisheries project.
"Chris died of malaria," Muaves says, sobbing. "Four to eight people were dying per week, like animals."
The U.N. estimates Africa will need tens of billions of dollars in financing to cope with climate change in the years to come. The question of climate financing is among the key sticking points at the Madrid talks.
"This is not Mozambique's fault; this is not Africa's fault," Muaves says, noting more industrialized regions are largely responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.
But she believes change is afoot — if not in government corridors, then on the street.
"I'm optimistic youth will be promoting changes and bringing something positive," Muaves says. "Definitely."