A Heart of Gold and Fingers of Green: The Story of A Kenyan Beauty Queen

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Emah Magdewa is an international civil servant with several years of experience working as a communication specialist to address critical social issues. She also has an almost unhealthy obsession with the color green — which is also a very healthy obsession for the Earth.

This is her story.


How It All Began

It all started in 2006 when I saw an advert for the Miss Earth Pageant. The requirements for this pageant were however very different from the other pageants in Kenya. They were looking for young girls who had previously initiated environmental projects on their own. This specific criteria would be added to the final scores in selecting the winner.

At the moment, there were not so many young people involved in environmental issues. But I knew I qualified: I had previously volunteered at the National Museums of Kenya where I planted trees and nurtured their gardens. I had also planted several trees along Langata road as part of the city council’s beautification project.

These, along with several other small projects I did, added up to my scores. I emerged the winner of the Miss Earth Pageant in Kenya in 2006. I later represented the country in Manila, Philippines at the international pageant.

I was so excited. I never thought that planting trees or simply using art to create awareness would make me win these prestigious awards. I was young then, and my mom took up being my mentor and manager.

Numerous projects followed after my win at the Miss Earth Pageant. In 2007, through the Miss Earth Kenya Office, Mrs Alice Kamunge the franchise holder and introduced me to a great opportunity at Ecotact Limited, a social enterprise that has built the beautiful public toilets in Kenya called Ikotoilets.

Miss Earth Competitions held in The Philippines

Miss Earth Competitions held in The Philippines

That same year I attended a Youth conference with the United Nations, joined the Billion Tree campaign that had Wangari Maathai as the patron, and later got the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) internship. The opportunities were all incredibly amazing.

Despite still being a university student at the time, I still got a chance to represent the country again in another pageant: Miss Tourism of the Millennium in Ethiopia. There, I won another special award.

So I juggled school, internship, working as the Ikotoilet sanitation ambassador (I had to do numerous media interviews describing how the Ikotoilets were an environment friendly project), planted trees, and gave talks, all at the same time.  This was the same year I was the country’s Miss Earth. Quite a busy girl I was back then!

Miss Millenium Heritage Award at the Miss Tourism of the Millenium

Miss Millenium Heritage Award at the Miss Tourism of the Millenium

In 2008, the Bayer Young Environmental Envoy competition was announced and again I put up my application. I had done so much for the environment and this was a more prestigious international award, as it was by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Again, I emerged as the winner of  the 2008 title, and I had a chance to represent Kenya in Germany. By then, there were only 400 Bayer Young Envoys from all over the world. The theme that year was on water and sanitation, so I had a global platform to showcase the Ikotoilet project.

After my internship at UNEP, I knew that it was the right place for me to grow in my career. I graduated in 2009 and continued working for Ecotact since I was still their sanitation ambassador.

Later, in 2010, I joined UNEP again as a communication specialist. Here, I used communication strategies to address social issues. I was mainly dealing with events management, awareness-raising and outreach, media relations, and communications strategy development and execution. I further used my writing to document success stories of great environmental initiatives around Kenya and Africa.

I traveled to several African countries, where I made presentations on how to use communication tools to address social issues. At Ikotoilet, for instance, I developed an outreach strategy to address sanitation issues in the slums using a puppets program.

I planted trees in most of the countries I travelled to. Some of those countries were Kenya, The Philippines, Norway, Germany, and Ethiopia.  I planted so many trees I was later recognized by the Billion Tree Campaign for the great number of trees I had planted.

I also assisted in mobilizing the youth to attend the 3K Campaign, Keep Kenya Klean, with the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

Planting trees with NEMA

Planting trees with NEMA

The Recent Ventures

My most recent venture happened before I moved to the US, and was working at the Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations (FAO). Here, I traveled to Upper Eastern Kenya and documented humanitarian stories of the communities in Marsabit.

This was my first time in this region, and spending time to learn the rich cultures and natural heritage of the community fascinated me. It was a great way to utilize my love for writing and photography to address food security in the country.

While at the US, I again volunteered for World Partnerships, the official US Department of State partner for hosting global leaders under the Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in Florida’s seven-county Tampa Bay area.

Here, I worked as as a social media specialist where I provided support to the World Partnerships visitors alumni. I had several interactions with them to promote their work and projects by sharing techniques and best practices.

At the same time, I was selected as an online United Nations Volunteer working for the nonprofit Play for Peace. Here, I was a digital marketing specialist basically using digital communication tools to address social issues in order to advocate for peace.

I was later hired by Edible Peace Patch Project, a remarkable nonprofit in Florida whose mission is to eliminate poverty as a factor in educational success and diet-related health issues. They are at the forefront of teaching wellness and healthy eating to children and families.

Working and volunteering for these great organizations has fully equipped me into being more conscious about taking care of the environment and to further apply the same skills in any given platform.


Moving Forward from Here

Today, my plan ​is to use both my environmental and communication technical skills to reduce environmental impact in the health industry through “Dispose My Meds” program. This is a program where customers are asked to bring in their unused, expired medications back to the pharmacy so that they can be disposed of safely.

‪Improper drug disposal has been proven to have adverse effects on the environment  following a  2008 Associated Press investigation which discovered a wide array of pharmaceuticals detected in drinking water supplies affecting at least 41 million Americans and are disrupting aquatic ecosystems and organisms.
I hope to educate patients and help remove unused and expired drugs from the supply chain in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.


Everyone Can Help

From what I have experiences, one component that I could think of that would be helpful to improve Kenya’s social economic environment is being conscious about your environment. For instance, having the realization that there is a great need to restore our natural resources would be very important.

The greatest part about this is that we do not need any complicated technology. Plant a tree  in your backyard, plant trees at your rural homes, organize a weekend out to plant trees in one of the Kenyan forests…. Make it an enjoyable process — organizations can donate trees, or introduce incentives to encourage employees to plant trees as a group. Basically, just plant a tree somewhere.

In the long run, these trees will benefit the country by increasing biodiversity, which in turn contributes to enhancing our tourism industry. Trees improve an area’s water quality. Planting fruit trees at schools can aid with food security. Fruit and olive trees can provide produce that can be used in feeding schemes. Indigenous trees increase property values and can provide natural air conditioning for homes.

As Wangari Maathai said in her story of the hummingbird:  It doesn’t matter how small the action is, if we all do the little we can, collectively, we can make a difference.

Planting trees at Aberdare Forest

Planting trees at Aberdare Forest