CEO with turban fights poverty while conserving nature


Dr Ayub Macharia plays golf at the Thika Golf Club. He has been championing the use of environmental education to help communities benefit from natural resources. ANTHONY KAMAU

Members of the African Holy Ghost Christian Church — popularly known as the Akorino — are better known as prophets whose priests dress in overflowing robes with screaming colours. They are adept at speaking in tongues and their flamboyant dancing styles are legendary.

But what makes them stand out in a crowd is the turban which male members fold in elaborate designs, sometimes with a sharp pointed edge on the forehead.

On any given day, one is more likely to come across a member of the sect in a music video than in the boardrooms of corporate Kenya. And that is why Dr Ayub Macharia, 41, attracts attention.

As the acting director-general of the National Environment Management Authority, the turbaned Dr Macharia oversees a watchdog organisation without whose green light no company can set up operations that are likely to interfere with the environment in any way.

He believes that even building a hut has an impact on the environment. “It involves displacing a few worms and cutting down a few shrubs,” says the father of four, who was born and brought up in rural Murang’a before he proceeded to Kenyatta University to study teaching biology and geography.

Job market

Having been given the powers to read, Ayub the teacher was ready for the job market. And in 1994, he was posted to Kwale district. He took up the job for, as a trained teacher, he had pledged that he would work in any corner of the republic in line with the government policy of deploying civil servants to diverse regions.

Though the job had its joys and challenges, the scholarship bug bit him again after only three years he was itching to return to Kenyatta University for a Master’s degree in Environmental Science. It was while here that he developed an interest in key environmental issues like conservation of wetlands, water pollution and the protection of what he calls “benthic organisms” — the minute animals that live under water bodies. He became, in short, a wetland ecologist.

It was therefore not a surprise that he ended up working at the National Museums of Kenya. Besides conserving the cultural heritage of the peoples of Kenya and acting as a repository of the country’s history, the national museums department is also involved in environmental education. For seven years, Ayub was to remain as an educator on heritage issues. From a cursory look, his job was an easy one.

He worked with primary school teachers encouraging them to educate their pupils about the environment in the neighbourhood of their schools. Ayub would train the teachers who would then pass on the knowledge to their charges during science lessons. He hoped that this programme, which started in 1998, would encourage young people to care more about their environment and become agents of conservation in their neighbourhoods. After all, conservation, like charity, begins at home. One of the philosophies that have informed Dr Macharia’s work over the years has been the need to use education as a tool for sustainable development.

“We are trying to curb brain drain from rural areas to towns and from Kenya to Europe,” he told the Business Daily during an interview at the Thika Golf Club, where he plays the gentleman’s game on weekends. He spoke ahead of Monday’s celebrations to mark the World Environment Day. The programme is not being implement in a vacuum. Globally, it is led by Unesco and locally by Nema. Incidentally, the programme he developed while working with teachers at the National Museums of Kenya was to form the basis of his doctoral studies, which he undertook at the Rhodes University in South Africa between 2000 and 2003.

“I did my PhD in two years and ten months,” he says. Once he had his degree in the bag, he went back to teaching, but not in Kwale this time. He joined his Alma Mater, Kenyatta University, where he became a lecturer in the department of Environmental Science. At the time, the department was offering about five Environmental Education courses in all and had only a handful of lecturers. He continued to advance his thinking on the need to spread knowledge about environmental conservation and sustainable exploitation through schools for he believed that this would lead to an improvement in family livelihoods, but also because a people’s culture was and remains a product of their environment. To this day, Dr Macharia believes that there are not enough environmental educators.

This explains why he proposed that the department of Environmental Science at KU start a Bachelors and Masters programme in Environmental Education. Within two years after he joined the university, the two programmes were up and running. Although he left to join Nema as deputy director of the agency’s education department in 2006, the programmes he started at KU were elevated to the level of a department, which has, over the years, churned out more environmental educators and scientists.

Prof James Kung’u, who was a colleague to Dr Macharia, concurs that his colleague spearheaded the environmental education programme. The two were lecturers at the Environmental Foundation department which was merged with Environmental Science to form the Environmental Science department, which later spawned the Environmental Education department. Prof Kung’u is now the head of the Environmental Science department.

Drafting strategy

At Nema, Dr Macharia was instrumental in drafting the Nema Strategic Plan 2010-2013. At the time, some of his colleagues were involved in drafting the strategy but, according to Dr Macharia, it was more of a technical document. Unlike a similar document he had seen during a trip to the UK, the one his colleagues were working on had not clearly stipulated what role the public would play in its implementation. This for him, was a serious omission, yet such a policy would be “a springboard to change people’s appreciation of the environment and education in the country”.

Together with a small team, he started working on a different strategy and, through a combination of several factors, including being left to act as the director-general for one month, he pushed through the people-centred strategic plan, a copy of which can be viewed on the Nema Website, Within a short time, he made a presentation to his bosses and they agreed that that was the way to go.

“The earlier plan was recalled from the printer,” he recalls. One of the key principles of the strategy was an emphasis on environmental education for sustainable development, a key tenet that Dr Macharia has championed throughout his career. In his view, the plan fits well with the restructuring that has been going on at Nema. In August 2007, Dr Macharia was appointed director of the Environmental Education, Information and Public Participation department, a job he still holds today and which he has used to champion a change in the education curriculum to equip primary and secondary schools with the knowledge to contribute to local development by exploiting available natural resources while ensuring that the environment is not degraded.

Through his advocacy, his team has also influenced the country’s development blueprint, Vision 2030.

Under his leadership, Nema is also working with seven regional centres of excellence — all of them campuses of public universities — to devise strategies on how local communities can use their natural resources in a sustainable manner to beat poverty and stop young people from moving to towns “and become innovative at the local level”.

Economic activity

For instance, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Technology is working on a strategy on quarrying, which is a major economic activity in the greater Ruiru and Juja areas but which also poses environmental challenges.

One of the challenges that have hampered Nema — of which Dr Macharia has been acting director-general since July 2010 — is the licensing of major projects. In construction, for instance, developers obtain clearance from the respective local authorities which approve the designs and land ownership transfers.

However, councils sometimes approve developments which affect rivers or wetlands and developers ignore Nema, citing approval from councils. In such cases, Dr Macharia says, approval from Nema should be granted before developers can get licences from councils — to reduce public protests and also to protect the environment.

He also says that Nema’s role is to supervise governmental agencies to ensure that their projects, say roads and dams, conform to environmental standards. However, some agencies want Nema to implement its own recommendations.

As acting CEO, Dr Macharia oversees a budget of about Sh544 million from budgetary allocation and Sh150 million from internal revenue generated through licences and environmental impact assessment reports. His view is that the agency could make more money if all licences were paid for.

Dr Macharia has been at the helm of Nema for 11 months. According to the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act, the President is the appointing authority for Nema’s director-general. “We are still waiting for the President to appoint a CEO,” Dr Macharia said. In the meantime, he continues to discharge his duties to the best of his abilities, so help him God.

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