Impressive even without having started one of the most powerful environmental movements in Kenya, Professor Wangari Maathai was the first woman in East Africa to hold a Ph.D, the first woman in East Africa to be the head of a university department, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai passed away in 2011.
Wangari Maathai founded the Greenbelt Movement in 1977, which is an environmental organization that plants trees in Kenya. The rural women were having to walk further to get to trees for firewood and fencing, as a result of deforestation and environmental degradation. Their food supply and water were becoming less and less secure.
However, with the help of 50,000 poor women, the Greenbelt Movement has planted around 30 million trees in Kenya and other countries. To Maathai and the women who help the initiative, social equality means planting trees.
"Previously we talked about a trickle-down theory of development which starts in the city and is expected to get to the rural folk," she said. "This has been proven wrong. Now we know that trickle-up theory, the upward development that many women and environmental activists have been advocating, is the best."
By planting trees in the right places using the Greenbelt Movement's "Watershed Based Approach," they are able to "conserve biodiversity, restore ecosystems, and reduce the impact of climate change." The Greenbelt Movement eventually became more than an initiative to plant trees. Its focus widened to community empowerment and education as well as advocacy.
Professor Wangari Maathai's vision to empower the impoverished women of Africa continues to be fulfilled today through the Greenbelt Movement.