Vanessa Nakate

‘We cannot give up’

Vanessa Nakate, a young woman from Uganda, is a leading voice for climate justice.

Text: Bettina Rühl Photos: picture alliance/Hans Lucas, picture alliance/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Vanessa Nakate first came to international attention for being erased. The climate movement Fridays for Future had invited the young climate activist from Uganda to attend the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos in early 2020.

Nakate, then 23, was photographed in Davos with Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer and two other activists after a press conference. The news agency AP cropped the photo and erased the only climate activist of colour in the version sent to the newspapers.

In an emotional video posted by Nakate on social media, she asked, ‘Does that mean I have no value as an African activist? Or the people from Africa don’t have any value at all?’ and later stated that the news agency ‘did not just erase a photo’ (…), they ‘erased a continent’.

Many international media outlets reported on Nakate and the cropped photo. She used this attention to talk about the challenges of climate change in Africa. The continent is particularly hard hit by extreme weather events like droughts and flooding, which are becoming increasingly frequent. In addition, the regular pattern of rainfall is changing: in some cases, rainy seasons are becoming more intense, do not last as long or do not occur at all as there are longer periods of drought.

Nakate joined Fridays for Future in 2019. In interviews, she explains how talking to her uncle helped her understand the existential impact that climate change is having on the people of Africa: harvests are failing because farmers no longer know when to expect rain and when to sow. And crops are drying out in the fields because the sun’s rays have become too intense.

The direct impact of this is hunger, as the majority of the African population still depends on their own crop yields to survive. In sub-Saharan Africa, around two thirds of the working population – more than 215 million people – work in the agricultural sector.

Screenshot - Vanessa Nakate - Twitter/X

Screenshot: Vanessa Nakate | X (Twitter)

‘How will we have climate justice if people from the most affected areas are not being listened to?’

Vanessa Nakate
Climate activist

Making African voices heard

Nakate is now one of the world’s best-known young climate activists. She is particularly committed to making African voices heard internationally. Nakate, who grew up in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and studied business administration at the renowned Makerere University, set up the Youth for Future Africa and the Rise up  Movement. ‘How will we have climate justice if people from the most affected areas are not being listened to?’ asked Nakate in her acceptance speech at the presentation of the TIME CO2 Earth Awards in April 2023.

Nakate is demanding climate justice – for the opportunities and burdens of climate change to be distributed fairly across the globe. She is also calling on the political elite to end all fossil fuel subsidies and investment in fossil energy sources. And she is also directing her demands at African politicians because some African countries want to begin supporting fossil fuels. One example is Nakate’s home country, Uganda, which is set to begin producing oil in 2025.

Nakate, on the other hand, is hoping for a green energy transition. At the first African Climate Summit in Kenya in September 2023, she and other climate activists vigorously advocated for change. According to media reports, they took part in demonstrations on the streets of Nairobi, demanding that leaders really stand with African people and their needs.

‘We want solutions that are led by African people, for African people, on African terms,’ she is quoted as saying. She does not plan to stop and is calling for a mass movement for climate action. Her message is clear, ‘We cannot give up.’

Vanessa Nakate - Act in Time

Vanessa Nakate in Kenya's capital Nairobi during the African Climate Summit in September 2023