Sustainability Leadership in Kenya

A month ago I was in Kenya for a life changing trip with Compassion. What I understood and saw with pain in my heart was the effect of poverty and waste on children’s and people’s lives.  I came to Kenya thinking about the effects of climate change on poor people whose crops cannot be harvested by lack of water. I was confronted with a more visible pressing issue namely that of waste. Every time I introduced myself at a Compassion project, someone came to me asking what could be done to get rid of all the plastic bags or in some other way asked about the environmental degradation. I can try to describe what I saw in the 2nd largest slum of Nairobi Korogocho, but no words can truly define what I saw, felt and smelled. Not only do people in slums and poor rural areas hardly have any basic needs to create livelihood (lack of food, drink, sanitation, shelter, electricity, parental guidance, education, employment and most importantly love), the people in the slums actually live on the waste in between the mud. Their environment looks much like a landfill (and that’s not even including the toxic non visible waste), creating awful living conditions, sanitation problems and bad health. We wouldn’t even let our pets live in such huts. A clean, healthy environment is no substitute for basic needs but should be able to provide for basic needs.  How can healthy vegetables grow in polluted soil? How can healthy people grow up in waste? You don’t have to be a sustainability expert to understand this doesn’t work. Although to find an answer which is supported by all those involved, I think we need a new, holistic, well thought of and locally executed approach where several interests of sustainability i.e. ‘person, people, planet and prosperity’ are served. This is how our ‘waste=food=energy’ project was born and it is run locally by a team of Leadership Development Program students, whereas we are looking for partners in the Netherlands to provide their expertise to bring this project forward.

So what does this have to do with Sustainable HR? Well what became so clear to me in Kenya is the effect is of one person – and his or her leadership – on his community, the environment and prosperity. Look at  Maria Olama for example, a young woman who grew up in a slum, never knew her father, lost het mother to AIDS at age 12, and ended up becoming a lawyer, now working for a human rights organisation and leading our waste=food=energy project in her old neighbourhood in Korogocho. She contributes to others close and far from her, like her brother who she is putting through university. But also she serves the living environment by getting her old community to collect waste, cleaning their environment and making it a source of income for them. This also leads to prosperity in the old slum. You should meet her, she is full of smiles, energy and motivation. She taught me that ‘anything is possible’ as long as you believe in yourself and your cause. The ArboNed claimed based on research that “80% of employees are unmotivated and that this costs our country over €5 billion per year”. Just imagine if we had more ‘Maria’s’ working in the Netherlands! So how can HR make more ‘Maria’s’ in their own companies? Or let the Maria in all of us fulfil our own potential? What role can you play as HR? Which challenge and opportunity will you take on to make a difference in sustainability? What steps will you take to develop ‘sustainability leadership’ among your management and future leaders so they can successfully and with motivation contribute to the future of their own organisation? How can you assist them to contribute to sustainability and to serve person, people, planet and prosperity from their own work, talents and place of influence?

I am curious to hear your thoughts, questions and actions!

 If you are an HR manager of related to HR and are interested in our Sustainable HRM meetings, let me know! The next one is September 15, 2010. It is in Dutch and is about applying HRM tools to achieve sustainability.,

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