Discovering the Young Champions of the Earth Prize, Meeting Young Champions Nzambi Matee, Fatemah Alzelzela and Vidyut Mohan

by | Jun 9, 2021 | Podcasts, The Climate Daily

Discovering the Young Champions of the Earth Prize, plus we meet Young Champions Nzambi Matee, Fatemah Alzelzela and Vidyut Mohan.



The Young Champions of the Earth prize is the United Nations Environment Program’s leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The winners are chosen from seven regions around the globe, and are given funding and mentorship to support their environmental initiative.

These young people are remarkable. Each one of them, has in their own unique way embraced the idea of Act for Nature. Right here, right now. Each one of them began their journey, not looking for recognition by the United Nations, but looking for a sustainable way to solve a local problem that was harming the environment and harming people—more often than not, people of little means and low education.

In 1972, then Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi spoke at the UN’s Stockholm Convention where she first connected alleviating poverty as one wat to protect the environment. None of these Young Champions of the Earth prize winners were around in 1972. As each are only in their twenties, it’s entirely possible that none of their parents were around in 1972 either.

Yet all are working to protect the environment by creating products that provide good jobs, housing, clean drinking water and other products for the working poor. They are a testament to how prescient Indira Ghandi was and how far we still need to go to protect the climate through economic justice.

Over the next two episodes, we’re going to showcase the 2020 UN Young Champions of the Earth.

Take notes people.  There’s a quiz at the end.  

DEEPER DIVE: UNEP, Young Champions of the Earth Prize, UN



Earlier this year, The Climate Daily highlighted 2020’s seven winners. Over the next two episodes, we’re going to showcase these 2020 UN Young Champions of the Earth, beginning with Nzambi (EN-zambi) Matee of Kenya. 

Nzambi Matee has a real concern about plastic. She says, “It is absurd that we still have this problem of providing decent shelter – a basic human need. Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is enormous, but its after life can be disastrous.”

Matee is right. It’s estimated that humans buy one million plastic bottles every minute. It’s also estimated that five TRILLION single-use plastic bags are used annually. Nairobi, Kenya alone produces about 550 tons of waste plastic daily. If 50,000 plastic bottles equals one ton, then 550 tons is, well, inconceivable. 

So, Matee, who studied materials science in college before spending time in the oil industry, hit upon a way to solve the housing problem by also solving the plastic pollution problem. She founded the JihJENgay Makers. Her company produces about 1500 pavers daily. Since opening, her company has recycled 22 tons of plastic. Her goal is to recycle about 55 tons annually.

According to Soraya Smaoun, who specializes in industrial production techniques with UNEP, “We must rethink how we manufacture industrial products and deal with them at the end of their useful life.” 

And that’s why Nzambi Matee’s innovation matters to us. Her paver and building products highlight the economic and environmental opportunities as the world moves from a linear economy, where products, once used, are discarded, to a circular one, where products and materials continue in the system for as long as possible.

DEEPER DIVE: UNEP, Gjenge Company, A Simple Math Problem 



UNEP’s Young champion of the Earth from the West Asia region is 24-year old Fatemah Alzelzela. She hails from Kuwait, one of the richest nations on the planet, per capita. It is also a nation that tops the list of countries that dumps most of its waste material in the 18 landfills dotting the middle eastern nation. In fact 90% of its waste is simply dumped.

In terms of Kuwait’s path to materials sustainability and a circular economy, Alzelzela says her people are lost. “We are trying to show people the path again.” According to a 2014 study, 76% or Kuwait’s waste is recyclable, representing $130 million annually in raw materials that could be reprocessed.

So she and her sister founded Eco Star. It’s a non-profit organization that recycles trash from Kuwaiti schools, homes and restaurants. It also offers educational outreach regarding recycling, environmental threats. Eco Star also empowers young people to take positive action to save nature and combat climate change. In addition, each client gets free plants from Eco Star. It’s Alzelzela’s attempt to green Kuwait.

Alzelzela faced many challenges because her culture is often of dismissive of women. Despite her electrical engineering degree, Kuwaiti authorities doubted the validity of her business plan. Her young age was also perceived as a negative. Add to that the social stigma Kuwaiti society exhibits surrounding waste collection and processing.

Alzelzela’s tenacity has paid off. She now has 20,000 followers on Instagram. Eco Star has over 2,000 customers now who each pay $3 for her services. And she’s built a robust waste collection database. Of all the private trash management companies operating in Kuwait, Eco-Star is the first one to compile data on type, weight and location of trash collected. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” she says.

Since its launch in 2019, Eco Star has recycled almost four tons of plastic, 11 tons of paper and over 130 tons of metal.




“The open burning of agricultural residues is a big source of air pollution in many parts of the world,” says Mark Radka, chief of the energy and climate branch at UNEP’s Economy Division. “Burning contributes to climate change by releasing tiny particles of black carbon into the atmosphere. 

That’s exactly the problem Vidyut Mohan, a 29-year-old Indian engineer from Delhi, is trying to solve.  The widespread burning of crop leftovers across India’s sprawling farm belt /  causes air pollution in Delhi / which is 14 times the safe limit.

At the same time, Mohan says, “I’ve always been passionate about energy access and creating income opportunities for poor communities,” “(That) is at the heart of finding answers to the difficult question of balancing economic growth and climate change mitigation in developing countries.”

So, Mohan co-founded Takachar. The company buys agricultural waste in the form of rice husks, straw and coconut shells from farmers. The portable machine Takachar produces then roasts it at high temperatures and converts it into charcoal, fertilizer and activated carbon.

Takachar’s machine, designed to be used in remote areas, can run for up to 20 hours straight while processing just under 450 pounds of ag waste per hour. “It runs on the heat it produces and needs no other source of energy,” says Mohan. The market for charcoal are the millions of Indians who would otherwise burn wood for cooking and heating; the market for activated carbon includes water filtration companies like Brita; and the market for fertilizer is, well huge.

By 2030, Mohan hopes to be working with 1 million farmers and he thinks Takachar technology could help prevent the release of 700 million tons of greenhouse gas.

“Slowly and gradually all available funding streams and support services are turning towards sustainability,” said Mohan. “Companies are going to lose if they don’t become sustainable in the long run.”

DEEPER DIVE: UNEP, YouTube, Takachar