She may be only 20 years old, but already Beatrice Phiri is tackling one of the biggest issues facing Africa today: climate change. At a very early age, she saw the effects of the changing weather patterns, and how it impacted the lives of people in her home country of Zambia. Inspired to change the course in which Africa is heading, she has found a way to reach people and create a meaningful dialogue. We caught up with the young activist to find out about the work she is doing, and the woman behind it all.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood and growing up in Zambia? 

I was born on the 9th of November 1997, in a family of five. I happen to be the last-born child of Mr Harrison Phiri (now late) and Mrs Jessy Phiri. I have two brothers and I had two sisters, but my eldest sister (the firstborn in the family) died two years ago. So, I now have two surviving brothers and one sister. I was raised by both of my parents until my father passed on when I was 15 years old. My mother then took up the role of both a father and a mother.

I grew up in a humble Christian home in Lusaka, Zambia, in a place called Chaisa Compound. This place is one of the shanty (ghetto) compounds in Lusaka, and growing up in this area … life was never easy. The area is known to have lots of alcohol abusers, school dropouts, as well as a lot of teen pregnancies. But all in all, I started my education at the Chaisa Community School and I believed so much that coming from such an area will never be an excuse for me not to excel.

In 2013 my mother and the rest of my family, we moved to one of the peri-urban areas of Lusaka called Kabanana Compound. Moving into this area, life became even more challenging because I experienced blunt environmental challenges, including water scarcity due to climate change induced by droughts. It was difficult growing up in the face of life’s greatest challenges that were exacerbated by global climate change.

I am currently working as a salesperson for a company called TiEd By Nature. I am also a second-year full-time evening student at Cavendish University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and public relations. I was a full-time day student in my first year, but I could no longer afford to pay for my tuition, so I decided to look for a job so that at least it would help me pay for my tuition fees.

Do you remember the first time you started taking notice of the environment and the way it impacts people’s lives?

Yes, I started thinking about the environment in 2013 when I was trained by UNICEF Zambia as a climate ambassador under the signature child-led programme called UNITE4CLIMATE Zambia. It was from this training that my mind opened up about the environment, and I realised that the earth was under threat, and climate change was a real global issue that needed young people to get involved in discussions, decision-making and taking action concerning it.

Would you tell me a little bit about the work that you do:
When did you start doing environmental work? 

So, for the past four years, I have been running weekly radio programmes and community outreach programmes on climate change and environmental sustainability, reaching a cross-section of society under the Agents of Change Foundation, with support from the Children’s Radio Foundation.

In December 2017, I founded an NGO called Visionary Youth for Change, with the aim of seeing more young people get involved in climate change issues and environmental sustainability in their communities. Apart from that I also help register vulnerable kids into school and make them become change agents. 

Would you tell me a little more about what the environmental situation is like in Zambia right now?

The environmental situation in Zambia at the moment is very bad, to the extent where weather patterns have become unpredictable. It doesn’t rain like it used to, and it’s hot when you expect either for it to be cold or raining. And deforestation is one major problem that we continue to see, because about 300 000 hectares of trees are cut off aimlessly every year. And this keeps leading to unstable rainfall patterns – hence causing our rivers and dams to dry up.

Beatrice interviewing people for her radio show in Zambia. Photograph by Sydelle Willow Smith

How has the experience been for you? And what are some of the greatest challenges for you as an activist right now?

The experience has really been amazing because, from the time I started my environmental activism, I have seen mindset transformation from both my family and my friends. I have also taught members of my community about the importance of keeping their environment clean and healthy. The experience is very heartwarming, especially always hearing fellow young people saying ‘I want to be like you, Beatrice’.

The challenges that I continue to face is that some people are willing to learn about the environment and how they can safeguard it, but others continue to show lack of interest in such issues. But with time I believe mindset transformation is what we need to continue working on.

What do you see 20 years from today?

In 20 years I want to see an improvement in our environment, ensuring that it is clean and healthy for every person to live in. I want to be remembered for teaching my community and the world at large how to protect our environment, starting with kids, and elderly people not being an exception. Mindset transformation and creating solutions towards making a clean and healthy environment that is sustainable and fit for every person to live in.

When you look to the future, do you think that humanity will change its ways and start protecting the environment?

I believe so much that humanity will change its ways, because climate change is real and now everyone is having a feel of it. The severe effects of climate change are what is going to cause humanity to change its ways, and I really hope that it won’t be too late for us to do something about it. But when humanity again receives mindset transformation, it’s very easy for him to change his ways. With everyone around being united and working together, it will certainly make this planet better for every person to live in.