Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Olujumoke Ogunrayi Is Helping To Change Our World

Kate Mowbray
May 4 · 11 min read

A few years back, as a climate change desk officer, a colleague and I took some time off work to teach environmental education in primary and secondary schools in Ondo State. I remember telling the young people that what they give to the environment is what the environment will give back to them. And that humans can only live a healthy life if we are in harmony with nature. The message we shared with those young people resonated so well such that the Ministry of Environment commissioned us to take environmental education to the two tertiary institutions in Ondo State. Initially, we did not know we were doing the planet any good until we began to see many young people showing interest in tree planting. And to all the young people out there, making a positive impact to keep the earth livable should not be your dream but part of your daily pursuit.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Olujumoke Ogunrayi, she was born into a patriarchal society, but thanks to her family’s forward thinking, she had the same opportunities as many men. For this reason, she is now a PhD Student in Integrated Coastal Zone Management at University of Cape Coast, Ghana and Director of Ministry of Environment for Akure, Ondo State, Nigeria.

Olujumoke has also been selected to be a part of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and British Council Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort, which brings together 26 rising-star researchers — in recognition of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) — from Commonwealth countries spreading across sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Americas.

With the support of the ACU and British Council, she believes her research is going to make a difference in preserving the coastal landscape in Nigeria.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Perhaps there are few cities on earth that oceans, lagoons, rivers and creeks dominate landscapes so well like Lagos in Nigeria. Interestingly, it was in this metropolitan city that I was born and raised. My childhood was dominated by sea and the lagoons of Lagos. I was born into a patriarchal society with males having an upper hand in most cases. As a child, I was privileged in that I was born into a family that cherish girls and accord them with the same opportunities as boys. As a family with fewer opportunities, gaining quality education was a priority for my parents. They made sure as a child that, as Whitney Houston sang, I never walk in anyone’s shadow. It has always been their greatest joy for me to achieve what they could not achieve. Being the first child, I grew up to be resilient, respectful and helpful to others. As my parents moved from Lagos to Ondo State due to work transfer, I became their dependable daughter helping to look after my siblings.

You are currently leading research that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you are trying to change in our world today?

The coastal landscapes around the world are experiencing rapid changes due to human activities resulting from complex land use changes. These changes are being exacerbated by climate change and lack of adaptive capacity by communities that are already vulnerable to coastal erosion and persistent flood. Understanding the severity of the problem in order to plan intervention is a major challenge for policymakers due to lack of credible data.

Specifically, my research is drawing attention to Ayetoro, one of the coastal communities of the Ilaje in Ondo State, Nigeria. A low lying community struggling with accelerated coastal erosion. This community, made up of over 10,000 residents, is the gateway that opens other coastal communities in the mandate area to the Atlantic Ocean. Ayetoro also serves as a marine forte for other communities in the riverine areas. As a result, the rate at which coastal erosion is occurring, and given its proximity to the sea, the community will become inundated if quick mitigation measures are not put in place. Assessing the continuous changes in the coastal environment- pattern of land use and shoreline changes is very important. Flood risk vulnerabilities and their dimensions on small-scale fishery in the community is another aspect to be considered. What I am trying to change is to make data available, accessible and useful for policy making processes. Evidence-based policy is what is required for effective coastal zone management. My research is going to make a difference in Nigeria by incorporating scientific evidence and local knowledge into building adaptive capacity of local communities in the face of the rapid changes that are being experienced in the coastal landscapes of the world.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

My numerous interactions with the coasts and the people that live there stirred me to be in love with nature. As a child, I loved watching the splendor of nature. With adulthood, the love directed my interests to sustainability. I, however, had my eyes set on medicine, as was the case with most science students.

But Geography, as a subject in High School, piqued and heightened my interest in environmental science. I became fascinated with everything related to weather; its chaotic nature, its relationship with other environmental processes, including the oceans. I love the cool scenery and the general ambience the ocean provides. Additionally, being an indigene and having lived in the coastal state (Ondo State in Nigeria), I saw the extent of coastal degradation. This stirred the urge in me to see how the coastal environment could be protected. Aside from the fact that oceans provide some ecosystem services, it also sinks carbon on a large scale, thus protecting the planet from global warming as a result of climate change.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My background and my upbringing have played a major role in becoming who I am today. It let me dream big, and led me further on to make an impact wherever I find myself. After obtaining my first degree, I joined Ondo state government as a Meteorologist. My position, later on as Ondo state climate change desk officer gave me the opportunity to be one of the climate change desk officers in Nigeria. It got to a point in my working career that I felt I was being choked up by the system. The bureaucratic nature of the system does not give room for improvement, and I felt burnt out by the unending cycles of almost a failed system. This was partly due to the fact that I have had opportunities to attend international programmes/conferences and this had already exposed my world view. A number of key initiatives by the government have not provided a solid basis for the sustainable management of the coastline despite the incessant coastal erosion and flooding which have claimed more than three-kilometre length of land space, according to reports.

The final trigger was the recent sea incursions at Ayetoro community, where last year many residents were displaced and rendered homeless. Given my experience in the Ministry/Government, there exists no baseline data on coastal vulnerability to develop a coordinated approach to coastal policy. I have always loved the coastal environment because of its beauty. I always have this feeling of interconnectedness when I am in such an environment. I could not stand and watch the extent of degradation at the coastline as well as the potential extermination of coastal folks if no action is taken. This is what motivated me to take the final steps towards becoming a researcher in costal landscapes changes studies. My hope is that my research work will yield benefits for coastal communities not only in Ondo state, but also in Nigeria and around the globe.

What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

One major step I took was to turn in my resignation letter. After I got the Association of Commonwealth Universities and British Council Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort scholarship, I immediately applied to the competent authority for a study leave. I was flatly denied. The reason from the letter that was given to me was as quoted “this is based on the fact that the service presently does not require a PhD graduate to any discipline”. I was not expecting this kind of response, having completed 18 years of regular service coupled with the fact that the subject of my PhD is an important one to the State, more so that the programme is at no cost to the Government.

The misconception in the civil service is that PhDs only belong to the academics. Success in the civil service requires skills such as analytical, communication, and project management skills. These are qualities or skills that the work of obtaining a PhD bestows. The policy work is about identifying problems, proposing solutions, and mitigating negative consequences of those solutions. This task requires research, transferrable from graduate school and is a means of combating the negative impacts of climate change. I am hopeful that the completion of my programme will launch me to greater heights where I will be able to bring the skills I have acquired into practice. Another major step is leaving my family again to undergo the programme, but I believe it is all for the best.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I believe that I am where I am today because I found support in those around me; who power my soul to this day. My family has been a “speed-force” in my journey. In 2010, I remember attending a workshop on climate change with a friend from another governmental agency. Because we sat next to each other, we had opportunity to talk. At the end of the workshop he mentioned that I was good with climate change, and there and then he gave me a scholarship link to apply for training on climate change in Germany. For one reason or the other, I never did. Three years later, I applied but was not selected. This friend of mine told me not to give up and the following year when I applied again, he guided me through the application process. I was then selected by CIPSEM, a facility within the Faculty of Environmental Sciences at TU Dresden, responsible for the implementation of the UNEP/UNESCO/BMU International Postgraduate Programme in Environmental Management for Developing Countries. This opportunity gave me my first international exposure. I believe it was a defining moment for my career, as it opened my mind to a world of endless possibilities. I benefitted tremendously, as my understanding of climate change and environmental issues became so profound because I saw the practical applications of these problems.

I have been able to meet other people and forge relationships with them, some of whom have become wonderful friends and great support system till date. I have also met wonderful people that believe in me and cheer me on, people I met as I progress in my career, colleagues, bosses, professors and friends. All in all, my greatest cheerleader is my husband. He believes in me, he is always encouraging me to be the best I can be and has always been very supportive. Like Isaac Newton said in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Acknowledging that there is an overwhelming environmental wicked problem that requires an immediate and collaborative but systematic solution is one of the things that all concerned should do to help me address the root of the problem that I am trying to solve. First, the community with the visible coastal change needs to be willing for a change in order to give room for adaptation. Second, the society, in this case, the media, needs to create more awareness. Third, political institutions need to acknowledge much-needed capacity and data for effective policymaking on both adaptation and mitigation strategies. To help me address the root of the problem, these three sectors need to have the willingness to come together, act together to map the pathways to a visible coast. A joint effort that opens up co-designing processes and approaches and that incorporates local adaptive systems would be the outcome of such participatory processes.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

A few years back, as a climate change desk officer, a colleague and I took some time off work to teach environmental education in primary and secondary schools in Ondo State. I remember telling the young people that what they give to the environment is what the environment will give back to them. And that humans can only live a healthy life if we are in harmony with nature. The message we shared with those young people resonated so well such that the Ministry of Environment commissioned us to take environmental education to the two tertiary institutions in Ondo State. Initially, we did not know we were doing the planet any good until we began to see many young people showing interest in tree planting. And to all the young people out there, making a positive impact to keep the earth livable should not be your dream but part of your daily pursuit.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have always believed that whatever you want to be or do, put a plan in place, because opportunity meets preparedness. At a certain point in my life, I asked myself three thought provoking questions:

Who am I?

What exactly do I want for myself?

Where do I see myself in the near future?

I know I am someone who has a positive outlook to life, someone who believes nothing is unattainable, and a passionate advocate of climate change. What exactly do I want? I want to get a PhD degree, because it is a stepping stone to where I am going, that is where I see myself in the future. In an attempt to answer these questions, I have journeyed through rough roads, met with so many disappointments, challenges, obstacles such that at times I feel like succumbing to failure. But then, I always tell myself that nobody can stop me if I don’t stop myself, I refuse to give up. So, my favorite “Life Lesson Quote” is “NEVER GIVE UP”.

How can our readers follow you online?

I can be followed online through my Twitter and Linkedln accounts, mostly Linkedln.

Twitter: @OlujumokeO

Linkedln: https://www.linkedin.com/in/olujumoke-ogunrayi-89893a3a/

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