For 17 years, Fiesta Warinwa, has worked with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). Warinwa began her career with AWF in 1999 as an intern and was then hired full time as a Landscape Conservation Officer. The current Philanthropy Africa Director spoke to Donah Mbabazi about her career in conservation.
Women encounter many challenges getting to the top. What sacrifices have come with your journey?
There were quite a number of challenges and one of them - conservation being a male dominated career. It sounds so strange for a woman to get into it and more so an African but the good thing is I’m not the first woman in this field. It gives me encouragement. You have to literally fight your way through and make sure people recognise you, and you have to stand by your word.
In regards to work, within the literate group, it was not much of an issue but with the communities I worked with, it was hard because I was dealing with pastoral communities and they were not content with women being in leadership. But I had to kind of assert myself, and eventually, they opened up. When they did, it was good because we became friends and they would consult with me before doing anything, even after leaving the programme, they call me for guidance.
Is conservation something you’ve always been keen about?
I have always had a passion for wildlife; when I was still in high school, I was a member of the Wildlife Club in South Sudan and that’s how I developed the interest in wildlife conservation. As for my position, I would say it came along the way because my intention was purely conservation but eventually, I moved to this department and that’s how I ended up in the philanthropy.
I joined the Wild Life Africa Foundation in 1999 and that was when I had just finished a Master’s programme in Wild Life Management and Conservation, which I did in the UK. I started out as an intern and in October 2000, I became staff. I was deployed to Northern Kenya as Landscape Conservation Officer and at that time I was covering five districts where I worked for close to eight years. Then after, I was transferred to southern Kenya and I was there for another six years working as Heartland Director. Later I got transferred to the headquarters in Nairobi and I was now given the position of Country Director so that I could oversee the entire AWF programme in Kenya, until June this year when the programme came to an end I was shifted to philanthropy.
What does your job entail?
Philanthropy as a department is based in our office in Washington so this is the first time we are having this in Africa in the history of the organisation. I monitor how it grows and see that we reach out to fellow Africans and raise the needed money for conservation.
My role is to reach out to different companies and individuals all over Africa to make them contribute towards conservation, some of the projects include species protection, land conservation among others.
Being a non-profit organisation, we rely a lot on donors most of whom are international. For instance, a lot of people in the US like to give back to society and have passion for wildlife, in Africa on the other hand, some people like giving back to society but in areas like education or health and rarely to conservation or the environment. So what we now need to do is to reach out to different people.
President Museveni said that Africa needs to wean itself off donor funding. If you agree, what mechanisms do you think can work towards achieving this?
We need to go out of our way and stop being reliant on international donors 100 per cent. we also need to allocate our budgets as countries efficiently and that’s what we are doing as AWF, trying to talk to the different governments to allocate adequate budgets and consider other vital sectors like the Ministry of Environment. If we work accordingly we can actually raise our money locally.
The question of balancing conservation and investment keeps coming up, tell us more about it.
The challenge with the balance is that people are not aware, when I talk about people I refer to the entire society, and that includes the government itself. Development is good and everybody wants it but then you need to see how you balance development and conservation.
Most of the national parks are actually state owned property, but if for example a road is to be established you will find that they rather the roads go through the national parks. Now that is where the problem is and it is a challenge we are having now but if we don’t speak about it, nobody will. So what we are asking for as a conservation organisation is to let the investments come but let the government sit down with the investors to direct them on where to invest and if they have to invest in that particular area. Information on this should be available and should come from the responsible ministries.
Organisations like yours are dedicated to fighting poaching and deforestation, among other things. Very many women still fight poverty so how are you helping women contribute to society rather than destroy it?
Women face lots of challenges because they carry the biggest burden of the family, in rural settings, it’s difficult to wake up early to fetch firewood, come back and start cooking, and also care for the children. Meanwhile, the husband is probably not even bothered. The burden is mostly on women and that’s why organisations like ours will always ensure that there are certain specific projects that are only for women so that they help in generating additional income for them since it is not only for her, but for the entire family including her husband.
What we do is to talk to some companies, let’s say those in tourism, to at least employ a certain percentage of women; we help them join cooperatives and open bank accounts, especially with pastoral communities.
What do you tell young women who think that conservation is a field for men?
Well the message would go more to school girls; when your heart gets into something, go for it regardless of whether it’s a male dominated career or not and never give up. Conservation is not difficult, yes there are challenges but one can always figure out how to navigate through.
I used to manage a team of 14 people and out of that we were only two ladies, the sky should always be the limit, be honest and use your mind and you will actually find yourself having more solutions to a problem than the men. That is what has made me stick with the organisation for 17 years.