By Tatiana Sehring
Morris Koffa, an American Public University graduate, has helped establish a non-profit organization, Africa Environmental Watch, whose purpose is to educate African citizens on environmental issues such as toxic waste, hygiene and beyond. In this article, he discusses his group’s work with local governments in Africa to provide better education and leadership re- sources for its citizens, help- ing prevent events such as the Ebola crisis.
Q: What Is The Africa Environmental Watch, And What’s Your Role Within The Organization?
Koffa: I am the co-founder of the Africa Environmental Watch, which was formerly the Liberia Environmental Watch. Our initial purpose was to deal with post-war environmental issues following the 14-year civil conflict ending in 2003. There were many serious environmental and humanitarian issues in Liberia; today, this includes the current Ebola contagion. We also include issues impacting the entire African community — and we’re continuing our mission by providing environmental expertise on protecting human health and the environment through educational awareness. It’s our hope to create, lead and maintain safe living environments and a sustainable future for all of Africa’s citizens.
Based on our longevity in leading regional awareness, we’ve received support from Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency. What we didn’t realize at the time is that the agency was very much incapacitated. Rather than see it as a barrier, we felt there was an opportunity to provide leadership. So we started by arranging international environmental conferences. The last one featured many leading environmental organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, some tangible results were strategized and then delivered to Liberia.
Q: Tell Us About Your Personal Background And What Inspired You To Help Others?
Koffa: I had a civil and construction engineering background. I decided to enroll at American Public University to complete my master’s in environmental policy and management degree, and then another in emergency and disaster management. I developed a strong interest in my studies [as] the crisis in Liberia developed. I was selected to go with a Liberian delegation to travel to West Africa to participate in a conference, and I saw many environmental concerns. My professors motivated me to make a difference. And we founded the Liberia Environmental Watch. Since then, the issues we’ve addressed have developed into a broad scope of environmental activities. Then, the Ebola crisis hit, and we are currently working toward resolving the efficacy issues that surround the Ebola outbreak.
The Ebola virus outbreak is a crisis that has risen to a level that no one was fully prepared to manage. Historically, Ebola originated in 1976 from areas of South Sudan and what was Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It then subsided to the point that no one paid much attention to it. Last March, in an area near the Guinea and Sierra Leone border, the virus developed, spreading into Liberia. The model of transmission between humans is through contact with bodily fluids and secretions. When this happened, it was caused by a lack of education. People were not following the right procedures to contain the virus. The virus was spreading due to an African tradition in that when someone dies, everyone tries to touch the body. That’s how it got disseminated through many communities. In the broader scope, the death toll and the growing numbers of cases is alarming.
From an environmental perspective, this is also a serious concern. When someone passes away, the body is supposed to be cremated, but because Liberia doesn’t have the capacity to do this properly, it conducts mass burials. When multiple bodies buried near wetlands decompose, it poses a serious threat to the water sources. More than 75 percent of the population in Liberia has no means of getting water except from natural creeks or wells, which may become contaminated. So when people drink the water, it’s a major environmental concern, so we engage in educational awareness in these communities.
Q: What Is Your Approach To Leadership, And What’s The Impact You’ve Experienced As A Result Of Your Work?
Koffa: When I meet with leaders, I share a clear sense of direction and leadership — much of which I learned during my studies at American Public University. I find there needs to be passion for your work. Passion inspires leaders to make a difference, therefore driving protocol,which is how you create a level of connection with the people and the causes you support. Leadership is about how effective you are in creating new relationships and building upon established ones to bring together the science, policies, procedures and awareness that’s needed to solve problems. So I talk about the need for creating partnerships as well as for education to drive worldwide impact.
I emphasize education, because there is a deficiency. Working with the Liberian EPA, I found that about 90 percent of the agency’s 150 employees had less education than a high school diploma. It’s difficult to solve technical issues with this lack of training. We volunteered our time to educate people, starting with how to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA). That worked well, but we also wanted to ensure the next step was addressed, which was leadership training.
It is critical for any organization, agency or country as a whole to overcome the lack of training and education. Then you must provide the right leadership skills to actualize the training into results. Only when you have trained, well-qualified people who know exactly what they must do, can you achieve the greater goal. It’s through education, training and effective leadership communication that we can bring change in the traditional protocols to eradicate this crisis.
We’ve helped to create a level of heightened awareness that never existed before. Today, no company does business without first conducting an environmental impact assessment. We’ve also added a corporate social responsibility clause, which ensures that corporations provide incentives for the communities in which they operate, including employment, schools, clinics and more. It’s all about development through education, training and opportunity.
We hope to build on the progress that is under way in hopes we can reach a level in Liberia so (a) it’s no longer considered a country of misfortune, but instead, a country of hope and (b) to inspire positive changes toward worldwide social and environmental impact.