Meet Bilha, Co-founder of Jacob’s Ladder Africa, CEO of Great Carbon Valley, and beVisioneers Advisory Council Member. Entrepreneur, solutions architect, African leader, youth and women champion – Bilha is a visionary force for change. We spoke to her about bridging the gap between tech and climate, harnessing the power of young innovators, and her vision for Africa and the world.
Please share a little about who you are, what you do, and what drives your commitment to the planet.
My name is Bilha Ndirangu. I am a co-founder of a nonprofit called Jacob’s Ladder Africa, that’s seeking to drive the intersection between climate change and African youth and catalyze jobs in the green economy for African youth. Secondly, I’m the CEO of Great Carbon Valley, a project development venture looking to make the East African Region a hub for direct air capture and carbon removals.
Climate is a defining challenge of our generation. It’s a personal challenge, but at the same time, looking to see the role of young people in making a difference and being part of the climate conversation and debate.
Could you share a little about Jacob’s Ladder Africa’s value, Umoja?
Umoja is a Swahili word that means oneness or unity, and part of our value is that we cannot do anything as individuals. We must come together, especially around common goals, and recognize that we need each other. Each person cannot do it by themselves. When you bring cohesiveness and togetherness, each person can play their role.
How do we encourage oneness, especially rallying people around common values, common goals and giving everyone a chance to play their role? Not everyone has to come in and do what every other person is doing, but if we are all pulling in the same direction, then we have a chance to solve some of the problems that we are looking to solve globally.
What makes you optimistic about the future of our planet?
Young people. When I think about the latent potential stored in them and the potential we could unleash, I can be hopeful about the planet. Yes, of course, there are lots of negative things going around. When you think about the climate problem, it’s easy to look at that and feel quite gloomy about the future. But speaking to young people and the energy they exhibit gives me a lot of hope. When I think about beVisioneers and what we’re trying to do with this program, it’s taking in and harnessing the power of young people and that potential. We can put this potential to good use and use it to solve some of the challenges facing us in the future.
Why have you committed your time and energy to supporting beVisioneers?
One, it’s focused on young people. As I said, young people give me hope for the future. Secondly, it’s focused on climate, which is a defining challenge of our generation, and then thirdly, it’s entrepreneurship. It’s this idea of combining young people, giving them the agency to know that they can make a difference in climate while at the same time creating jobs and livelihoods. This intersection of climate problem-solving and allowing young people to build jobs and businesses is exciting.
What’s the key piece of advice that you would give to aspiring young planet-positive innovators?
One is to honestly believe in themselves because sometimes you’re coming up with an idea, and it’s a new space. You do feel like you have to do something that people understand or something that’s been seen before, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But to solve some of the challenges impacting us, there’s a need for solutions that don’t exist today, and there has to be someone brave enough to bring them on board. That’s part of the reason I’m excited about beVisioneers because, hopefully, it begins to give a chance for these sorts of solutions to find life.
Secondly, it’s finding the right mentorship, and sometimes it’s unavailable. But for the participants in beVisioneers, it’s taking advantage of all the resources given to you. Not just the important monetary resources, but who are the advisors? Who can you reach out to who has done something that could be interesting before? What doors can they open for you? How can they help you build a business, or how do they help you build a team? Being open to identifying the right advisors and taking in advice will save you a lot of pain as you go along.
Then there’s the aspect of collaboration. It is, again, going back to this Umoja concept. There are lots of people globally that are looking to solve the same problems. We live in an era where technology allows us to connect much better than we used to. For potential Fellows in beVisioneers, you have this cohort of people that are doing different things but all working towards the same goal, solving climate and the green economy, so speaking to each other, trying to learn from each other, growing and collaborating, I think it’s really, really important.
Lastly, never stop learning. There’s never a time when you get to a place where you think you know it all. There are new things that are being discovered every day. There are new technologies that are coming up. I’d encourage young people to get on a growth trajectory, to keep learning.
You’re doing so much within the African green economy through Jacob’s Ladder and Great Carbon Valley. Are there any case studies or key projects that stand out for you?
A few months ago, we came together with one of the leading technology schools in Kenya to do a hackathon combining climate and technology. We wanted to push young people to see what they could do for the climate from a technology perspective. Watching these young people go into their communities and come up with problems that affect their own communities blew my mind. We had a range of solutions, from smart waste collection to regenerative food systems. Now some of the kids are starting to look at carbon markets and how they could utilize those.
What was interesting about that project was giving the kids a challenge to look at climate and see how they could apply their tech skills. It brought us some interesting solutions, but it was also the questions the kids asked and continue to ask about the possibilities.
There’s a particular project right now that’s in the works looking at how to use mangrove areas in the coastal parts of Kenya as carbon storage. Why that’s profound for me is because the team doing it is based in Nairobi and had never thought about the mangrove ecosystem. It goes back to the potential in young people, and sometimes it takes us pushing them a little bit in the right direction, and then they begin to open their minds and explore and expand.
Where do you want to see the world in 2030?
We’re getting there, but it would be great if, over the next seven years, the world has come to a place where it recognizes the need to fight climate change. More specifically, speaking as an African, I’d like to see Africa playing a key role in climate action. When I think about Africa, it’s very well positioned to solve the climate problem; we have lots of renewable energy potential and many minerals required in this green revolution in the African continent. We have lots of young people, lots of land. A lot of things that the world needs to help it decarbonize. It’d be great if by 2030 if Africa is well on its way to being a leading solutions provider to climate action and leading the charge as to how the green economy will work. It would be great if Africa were sitting at the table and leading many of those discussions.
I would like to imagine we’re building a robust green economy which means that many young people, especially young Africans, are creating jobs and businesses that are part of that green economy. So overall, it’s a world that has taken the challenge of climate change seriously and doing everything that it can, and Africa is playing a key role in making sure that it provides solutions and transforms livelihoods in the process.