Success Story from Kenya: Dr. Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement

Wangari Maathai was born in central Kenya in 1940. Due to her excellent grades she received a scholarship to Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Kansas from which she received her Bachelor’s Degree in 1964. Thereafter she obtained a Master’s Degree at the University of Pittsburgh, also in Biological Sciences. In 1966, she returned to Kenya to take a research assistantship promised to her at the University of Nairobi, but on arrival learned that the position had been given to someone else. Ms. Maathai suspected gender bias and determined to obtain another advanced degree. In 1971, she became the first East African woman to receive a Ph.D. from what is now the University of Nairobi.

While serving as Director of Kenya’s Red Cross (1973–1980), Dr. Maathai kept hearing stories from women in her home community of how local streams were drying up and wood for cooking and fencing materials was getting harder to obtain. She became convinced that environmental degradation and the status of women were two of the country’s greatest challenges. Determined to make a positive change, in 1977 she started a tree planting initiative and non-governmental organization called the Green Belt Movement (GBM) that trained women in Central Kenya to plant seedlings, build their communities, and earn some income.

Dr. Maathai’s idea of empowering women while improving Kenya’s environment soon attracted outside financial support from the Norwegian Forestry Society and United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. Dr. Maathai’s 1985 book on the GBM led to even wider recognition for her work. In 1991, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco and the Hunger Project‘s Africa Prize for Leadership in London. In 1993 she received the Edinburgh Medal and the Jane Addams International Women’s Leadership Award.

In 2001 Dr. Maathai was imprisoned for protesting the Kenyan government’s apparent efforts to distribute public forests to private individuals. It was not the only time she was imprisoned, but the prospect of jail time did not deter Dr. Maathai from standing up for what she believed in.

By 2002, Dr. Maathai was teaching at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and in January 2003 she was appointed Assistant Minister in Kenya’s Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. While serving in Kenya’s Parliament Dr. Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prize. In 2005 she was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine and one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World by Forbes magazine.

In the first decade of the 21st century Dr. Maathai also authored several books (The Canopy of Hope: My Life Campaigning for Africa, Women, and the Environment, 2002; Unbowed: A Memoir, 2006; The Challenge for Africa, 2009; and Replenishing the Earth, 2010) and she and the Green Belt Movement were the subject of an award-winning documentary film, Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai (Marlboro Productions, 2008). In recognition of her commitment to the environment, the United Nations Secretary-General named Dr. Maathai a UN Messenger of Peace in 2009. In 2010, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI). The same year she was also inducted into the Earth Hall of Fame in Kyoto, Japan. Dr. Maathai died in late 2011.

Dr. Maathai has been honored posthumously by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (2012) and her two alma maters in the USA (in 2013 and 2014). Her Green Belt Movement has been adopted in more than 30 countries and is credited with having planted over 51 million trees. Through the GBM Dr. Maathai initiated the ‘Be a Hummingbird’ effort to increase the number of trees planted to 1 billion worldwide.


Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why was Wangari Maathai (and her Green Belt Movement) so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:

HER VISION arose from listening to others while NOT ALLOWING HERSELF TO BE LIMITED BY TRADITIONAL GENDER ROLES OR INTIMIDATED INTO GIVING UP ON WHAT SHE BELIEVED WAS RIGHT AND JUST. She was willing to suffer the consequences of standing up for her beliefs (such as being imprisoned on more than one occasion).

Rather than stand by idly while Kenya’s environment deteriorated, Dr. Maathai expected more from herself. She always DID HER BEST. She had the courage and COMMITMENT to see her goals through and knew the IMPORTANCE of PLANNING and GIVING THOUGHTFULLY. She knew that GOOD INTENTIONS ARE NOT ENOUGH and that they can lead to throwing money at development problems rather than actually solving them.

She was able to see links that others did not, such as those between POVERTY, DEMOCRACY AND THE ENVIRONMENT. Like other effective development workers, Dr. Maathai also recognized that people will not change overnight and that FOR AID TO BE EFFECTIVE you must work with people over time until they see the wisdom of your vision, embrace it, and carry it forward.

By Heidi G. Frontani

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