For many years after Akufuna Muyunda made his leap into climate action, he felt like a lone voice in the wilderness.
As he travelled around Zambia, talking about climate change impacts on agriculture and the benefits of solar power, he found that, for the people he talked to, “climate change [was] a foreign issue and nothing local.”
In a country where the agriculture sector is responsible for almost 60 percent of the jobs and where more than 90 percent of the rural population is without access to grid electricity, Akufuna persisted, knowing his message was important.
Starting several years ago, Zambia was hit with extreme flood/drought cycles – a devastating pattern that is affecting broad regions of Africa and growing worse as the world warms.
Extreme floods were hitting farms hard, and long droughts were both literally and figuratively stealing Zambia’s power. Eighty percent of the country’s electricity generation capacity comes from hydropower, and droughts not only led to many years of irregular blackouts on the grid, but also sapped Zambia’s developing economy of the momentum it was previously known for.
Akufuna still refers to the years of unstable electricity as “the dark ages.”
“Production levels went down significantly, thousands of people lost their jobs, some businesses shut down or became more expensive to run, everyone was out there looking for alternative renewable energy solutions,” he explains.
People began to call him with questions about climate change, and he saw climate action grow as a priority for businesses and organizations. Zambians began to see climate resilience as a critical new part of the country’s future.
Of course, Zambia isn’t out of the dark yet – much of the country still lacks access to reliable electricity, and the agriculture sector must adapt to the growing unpredictability of rainfall and lack of access to modern solutions, but Akufuna is working harder than ever to do his part.
At just 30 years old, Akufuna has helped families across Zambia embrace solar power, and has inspired countless young people to take action and help the environment… but there was a time when that seemed impossible.
An orphan born into a vulnerable community, Akufuna knew from a young age that his prospects were bleak. “I had no hope whatsoever that my future would be something interesting to talk about. Taking part in extra school activities was one way in which I could [protect] myself from worrying about my sad story, and I just wanted to live in the moment.” This despair led to poor performance in school, convincing Akufuna he’d never make it to university, or even finish high school.
Luckily, his investment in extracurricular activities didn’t go unnoticed. Akufuna won first prize for a project in his Junior Engineers and Scientists club, and won an anti-AIDS drawing competition. One of his teachers saw Akufuna’s potential, and took it on herself to secure funding from organisations to support Akufuna’s education. Her belief in him gave him newfound confidence.
In his 12th year at school, Akufuna took part in a provincial essay competition organized by the Zambia meteorological department on the effects of global warming. Akufuna threw himself into the research and fell deep into the subject of climate change.
The knowledge sparked a realisation that – it’s not unfair to say – completely changed his life.
“I remember when my name was called in front as the first prize winner for the competition, I told myself that ‘this is just the beginning, climate change must be addressed, and I will take it personally.’”
One particular aspect of his story has always stuck with Akufuna – that nowhere in his education, up to that point, had anyone told him about climate change. “My biggest concern has been the fact that it took me 12 years of school to get to know something about climate change,” he laments. “This is one of the most important tasks to be addressed.”
And address it he would – going on to university and eventually becoming a prolific mentor for young environmentalists in Zambia.
Seven years after Akufuna wrote that pivotal essay and began to find ways to make a difference on climate, his work was noticed by the Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) organization in Zambia. FSD sponsored Akufuna’s attendance at the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Johannesburg in 2014.
“Attending the Africa Climate Reality Leadership [Corps] training really ignited my commitment,” he tells us. “I was inspired by the huge dedication for climate action by the over 600 participants from across the world. I felt challenged, and at the same time motivated to know that there are other people out there who shared a common sense for a sustainable planet for all. I remember sitting in my chair… only to see the former US Vice President Al Gore taking stage and delivering a presentation with over 400 slides just on why climate change matters, its impacts and solutions. I left the conference room with so many questions. Al Gore has so much information and passion on the subject that concerns Africa, yet an African, I have done so little with too little knowledge? I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do differently with this new knowledge?’”
The training reignited his commitment to supporting a “greener planet and future for all,” and gave him tools he continues to use to this day. “Being a trained Climate Reality Leader has tremendously changed my life and work. My life has never been the same again. It is now much easier for me to organise almost any kind of climate change related activity with the help of the vast and well researched resources accessible on [Reality Hub]. It is even more easy to connect, collaborate and co-create with thousands of other climate leaders from across the world on the subject.”
At his very first presentation, a member of the audience turned out to be the managing director of VITALITE Zambia, a distribution and service company focused on providing access to modern energy technology (solar power, clean cooking, and agriculture solutions), especially to underserved and rural communities. His excitement for the work, deep knowledge about the climate, and knack for personalising his story for every audience quickly got him promoted. Akufuna now serves as the training coordinator responsible for the renewable energy entrepreneurship program. Through this work, he has directly or indirectly helped over 30,000 households gain access to solutions like solar power, clean cooking options, and modern agriculture technology – including affordable, sustainable solutions for under-served and rural communities.
Akufuna’s many years of work with young people in Zambia – including his efforts as the co-founder of the Young Volunteers for Environment (YVE) Zambia – helped lead to his most recent accomplishment, when he was voted in as the new Southern African regional coordinator for the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC). In this role, he hopes to foster partnerships and collaborations that uphold sustainable development practices throughout the Southern African region.
He is well-equipped for the task, in part because of his work at YVE, where he has long been supporting young advocates as they take action for climate justice and environmental sustainability. He has used the role “to raise awareness, but most importantly, promote increased youth participation in the fight for a greener and sustainable future for our planet.” His specific accomplishments range from training young people on sustainable energy practices to organizing public school debates on the topic of sustainable energy, to researching and implementing youth programs for the Chatham House’s Common Futures Conversation initiative.
On his work to support and inspire young people, Akufuna says: “This is one way to prepare for a sustainable and green future – we must start with building sustainable leadership in the people, young or old.”
Though Akufuna remains busy with these efforts and others – including a host of impressive leadership training programs – he also devotes his free time to reaching out to young people. He offers free coaching and mentoring to motivate and encourage them, to help them believe that they can develop themselves and their communities, and – as one teacher did for him when he was so young – give them the confidence to know that they, too, can make an impact.
That teacher who helped Akufuna so many years ago (Mrs. Malambo!) may not have predicted just how far he would go, but we’re sure she would be proud. Akufuna has found profound ways to help people across Zambia and beyond as they build local climate resilience and embrace renewable energy, and we couldn’t be more honored to have him be one of our African Climate Reality Leaders.