“What characterizes youth today is spontaneity”

What characterizes youth today is spontaneity

She was born from a burning bush. 21 years ago – ahead of his time – Sene Alouka co-founded Young Volunteers for the Environment in Togo. Since then, the NGO has been emulated in some thirty African countries and claims to be the largest youth association for the environment in Africa with nearly 50,000 members.

Collected by our special correspondent in Sharm el-Sheikh

How did the Young Volunteers for the Environment come about and what is your personal background?

It started with a fortuitous event: a small bush fire in Kpélé Tsiko, 200 km north of Lomé. It’s June 1999, I was at university. It’s the beginning of the holidays and as usual, we were outside telling stories with friends, around the fire, just down from the chef’s house. That evening we saw a fire break out in the forest. Cries of distress echoed throughout the village. The population, my parents, used to store yams in the forest and they were going up in smoke. The village moved as one man towards the forest to try a little bit to put out the flames, the men with the flippers, the women carrying water, went back and forth between the river and the forest. Bravely, the village extinguished the fire which unfortunately had consumed most of the granaries. As young people, we reveled in charred yams. But still, from the discussion came the fact that these fires were becoming recurrent and that the green belt around the village was greatly threatened. This awakened in us an energy to want to put in place a fairer, more viable system.

My mother says the whitest porridge comes out of the blackest pot. This is how we turned a problem into an opportunity. The idea was to ensure that the young people of the village could have the training, understand what techniques can be drawn from local knowledge to better manage our ecosystems.

JVE was born on November 23, 2001. Since then, we have been recognized, we have tried to touch the hearts of young people in nearly 30 countries in Africa. We are talking about 50,000 members. It is a movement of young people who today impact society and become a force of proposal.

You can also receive additional training to the university course. Hundreds of people have visited us and have managed to create businesses either in the field of green entrepreneurship or in the field of associations as well. Many have become consultants, at the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund, in banks or recruited by the State.

Tell us about your journey…

I am a writer and a journalist by training. I was then trained at the University of Rennes (Brittany) on sustainable development, at the IUCN for organizational development and at Greenpeace for everything related to the restoration of ecosystems. As a journalist, I hosted programs on the environment which already spoke of the importance of keeping our knowledge, our traditional knowledge, because the world to come is an uncertain world.

What are your main projects?

In Mali, JVE is working on the restoration of a protected biosphere zone, the Baoulé loop, which the State has neglected for a very long time. This ecosystem was home to many animal species that are now degraded. Our action involves alerting citizens to the need to preserve animal and plant resources, to restore the ancestral practices that were used before we gradually lost them, to call on the State to take its responsibilities. A protected area is the primary responsibility of the state. So it is above all a work of political awareness and advocacy with the State.

The second project on which we are very committed is the agro-ecological transition. In Togo, Benin, Zimbabwe or Kenya, we are helping municipalities and communities to initiate an agroecological transition. It is a question of rethinking the productivist agricultural model towards a model controlled by the citizens.

A third element of our commitment is the energy transition. As long as we do not resolve the issue of biomass, we will be confronted with the degradation of our land. In our countries, the land is degrading because of agriculture, but also because of the production of charcoal and firewood. It’s important to move towards promoting improved stoves that make it possible to capitalize on the energy quotient of wood. In the production of charcoal, we lose a lot. At home in Togo, cooking kills more people than AIDS and malaria combined, because of the smoke.

How is all this implemented?

In the countries we have local branches or youth clubs. These clubs are engaged in field actions. For example, draw the mayor’s attention to the importance of moving a particular dump, of making room for a young person on the city’s management committee. Many actions also on sanitation, the construction of ecological toilets. Finally, we have a lot of educational action through theater and advocacy. These young people go to establishments, educate their peers, organize theater sessions, visits to the forests, to traditional sites. Finally, we organize cultural events to reconnect young people with our past that we are losing. We dance, we sing, we tell stories. We are writing this new Africa of which we all dream.

Mr. Alouka Minister of the Environment tomorrow, what would be his first decisions?

So Sena Alouka Minister of the Environment, from you to me, this is not likely to happen! Not in Togo anyway (laughs). I would start with education, with a systematic environmental education program with refresher training for all teachers. Training from an early age

The Ministry of Environment is the richest ministry, because our country’s economy is based on natural capital. So there is a need to support our country in committing to this transformation of the economy towards green capital. Another very important thing: human resources. There are many opportunities today, but we don’t have the means or the skills. Our young people are not trained. How many Togolese are able to develop bankable projects with the Green Climate Fund? How many are able to apply for major calls for projects? The last point would be more political. It would be about putting in place a green government. Achieve consistent management of state affairs in energy and environmental sobriety.

What characterizes youth today is spontaneity. This youth that we can’t understand, it creates, it innovates, it also shakes up. Most claims come from universities. This youth is ready to change the paradigm. In Burkina Faso, in Mali, in some countries where there have been political revolutions, young people are there. They have understood that the development model that has been sold to us for years, we cannot continue to live with.

Young people are leaving their villages: I understand, the state has resigned, there is no funding, businesses are dying, initiatives are not supported. But there are results only in determination. Do not believe that you can create an NGO, a company and in two three years, recover your funds. At JVE we were able to do what we did because we are consistent. 21 years doing the same thing, you must be crazy!

What are your expectations of COP27 as a youth organisation?

Expectations of action and decisions in general. And young people have a role to play. It is often said that we do not wait for the future like a train, we do it. It’s important that young people understand that it’s their world. When I started attending COPs in 2001, I was the only French speaker to go to COP11 in Montreal. I said it couldn’t go on like this. Today, I am delighted, having created the African Youth Climate Initiative, to see an extraordinary movement of young people taking part in the negotiations today. When we started, we were shouting invite us, we want to participate! This speech is over. Today there are enough spaces. Occupy the spaces! Go to meetings, create associations, ask questions of local elected officials.

You run a youth association, but you yourself aren’t twenty anymore, obviously without wanting to disrespect yourself. Do you think about handing over to a younger person, which would make sense?

The succession is ready. We have child nurseries that we call environmental officers. When you come to my office, I am the youngest of all these young people. We even call ourselves old volunteers. Today there is a dynamic that is in place so that tomorrow, it is my dream and it will be very soon, I will be replaced, not by a boy, but by a very young lady. On the other hand, I don’t have a dolphin, I don’t prepare anyone. I’m preparing an ecosystem of young people and everyone in my team can do the job of executive director well. Tomorrow morning I can leave. We are in the process of creating JVE international. I leave the hand to a director, I want it to be a woman. And that I can line up on the technical side or support the development of JVE internationally.