Wangari Muta Maathai: The Woman Who Revitalised the Kenyan Countryside

This piece was originally written by Jack McGovan in collaboration with Plan A. It is one in a series of pieces on the woman who made sustainability what it is today. All of the illustrations have been provided courtesy of Plan A.


A contrast to the destruction of the bushfires.

2020 is off to a rocky start when it comes to environmental issues. On one hand we have reports of a disappointing summit in Davos from the perspective of the young climate activists, with the fires blazing across the Australian countryside dominating the headlines. Yet in the shadow of the flames, more people than ever are taking steps to reduce their impact on the environment – for example, record numbers of people signed up for Veganuary (according to the official twitter page).With a new decade comes a new chance to change our ways. If we do, we might just achieve the goal we so desperately need to ensure our planet remains habitable in the future – and where better to look than in the past for inspiration? For the final instalment of this series on women in sustainability, comes the story of how one woman managed to change the face of both the Kenyan countryside, and the country’s politics.

Growing up in rural Kenya.

Wangari Muta Maathai paints a beautiful picture of her childhood in Kenya. Born in 1940 in a small village in a rural area called Nyeri, she said that “It was heaven. We wanted for nothing”. She also compared the experience to the modern day, “Now the forests have come down, the land has been turned to commercial farming, the tea plantations keep everyone poor, and the economic system does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live”.

Having started school at the age of 8 – an unusual act for girls at the time – she made her way to top of the class by age 16. At this point, she was granted a spot at the only Catholic high school for girls at the time. During her early life, Kenya still remained a British colony. However, as her studies came to an end, so did colonialism in East Africa. In a process known as the Kennedy Airlift, hundreds of promising East African students were offered scholarships to study in the US. Wangari was one of them.

After obtaining a bachelor’s in biological sciences in Kansas, she went on to study a master’s in Pittsburgh, following which she pursued a doctorate in Germany and at the University of Nairobi. By obtaining a PhD in Nairobi, she became the first woman to obtain a doctorate degree in East and Central Africa. Through her work she eventually became the head of the university’s veterinary department.

The Green Belt Movement.

While working as a vet, she often visited some of the poorest parts of Kenya. It was there that she saw the degradation of the environment, as well as the people it affected the most – the women producing food. Through deforestation to make way for plantations, there were significant losses in terms of biodiversity, more drought and more poverty.

In order to combat this, Wangari set up the Green Belt Movement. It was set up to encourage rural women to grow saplings and plant trees, in order to bind soil, provide food and provide firewood. The women were (and still are) paid for their work. However, Wangari realised that there were deeper issues at play. To her, individuals had lost the agency to change their political, economic and environmental circumstances. This led to the organisation expanding from their original goal, although that still remains integral to their function. They held seminars educating people on the aforementioned issues, and began to demand for greater accountability from national leaders.

The environmental effects of planting more trees.

As you most likely already know, trees and plants in general are important to life on Earth. Not only do they produce oxygen via photosynthesis for us to breath, some plants even convert the suns energy intro nutritious food to sustain us. They achieve the latter point by synthesising carbohydrates – molecules made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – from water and the notorious carbon dioxide.

However, there are also those plants (or parts of the plant) which don’t end up on our plates. Trees are an example of this. In this case, all of the carbohydrates which have been synthesised remain inside the tree, which in turn means the carbon dioxide used in the synthesis is also trapped there. This is the basis of why planting trees is essentially a carbon storage technology. A recent study even suggests that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of manmade emissions from the atmosphere.

In addition to being a carbon sink, there are other benefits to natural solutions to the climate crisis. By reversing the process of deforestation, we can allow our landscapes to undergo a process known as rewilding – allowing natural processes to restore damaged ecosystems and increase biodiversity. Given that between 1970 and 2014 there was a 60% reduction in wildlife populations, any solutions which promote biodiversity should be considered. Not only this, natural climate solutions have been show to improve soil health, water quality and air quality.

First African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize..

Despite the work she put into these environmental issues, Wangari was a major force for political change in Kenya, being a vocal opponent of the government. In 1989, she successfully led a campaign to stop the production of an office complex, which would have only benefited the multi-millionaire backers to the detriment of local communities. Due to her refusal to back down, she was allegedly placed on a list of people to be assassinated by the government she was fighting against. Not only this, she was deemed mad among other things – a typical insult used against women who refuse to be silenced.

Eventually, she made her way into politics and set up Mazingira, which is Kenya’s equivalent of the Green Party. After being elected into her constituency with a landslide victory, she joined the coalition which overthrew the government which had previously branded her as mad. Finally, in 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and was the first environmentalist and African woman to win it. With the international platform she also received as a result, she continued her work and in her belief that ecology and democracy were intrinsically linked, up until her death in September 2011.

In a world where so many women are still left behind, the story of Wangari and all of the other women included in this series shows how central they are to the movement, in a plethora of different ways. From scientific contributions, to legal battles and community work, each of the women has pushed sustainability forward in a society in a world which placed them at a disadvantage. We can only imagine what could have been if that disadvantage didn’t exist.

While her journey began as a way to sew a seed of hope in disadvantaged communities, the work of Wangari has already resulted in 51 million trees being planted. Though this offers a huge boon to the environment, her legacy remains one of someone who refused to leave anyone behind.



Jack McGovan is a freelance journalist from the UK, currently living in Berlin. Using his background in sustainable chemistry, he is interested in communicating science and sustainability to a wider audience. In particular, he enjoys writing about social issues and culture in the frame of these topics.