Kenyan environmentalist Phylis Omido wins international award

Kenyan environmental activist Phylis Omido.

Kenyan environmental activist Phylis Omido has received the prestigious Right Livelihood Award in a ceremony conducted in Stockholm, Sweden.

The prize, also known as the ‘Alternative Nobel’ is awarded annually to honor and support courageous people solving global problems.

Omido is famously known for her lead role in advocating for justice of the Owino Uhuru Community in Mombasa County. She hit news headlines in 2012 when she led demonstrations after discovering the community was suffering from lead poisoning coming from a battery smelting plant in the area.

She had been hired by the factory in 2009 to manage its human resource and compliance only to later discover in an environmental impact report she conducted that that the plant's proximity to the local community posed a risk of lead poisoning.

When the plant’s owners and government officials ignored her calls to relocate the factory, the activist formed the organisation Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) to mobilise the Owino Uhuru community to demand remediation and the plant’s closure in response.

Omido then partnered with KTN News to produce an exclusive documentary which prompted parliamentary discussions and the establishment of a task force by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). The production included conducting 100 health tests among community members.

Despite CJGEA’s tests and a report from NEMA’s own findings, the government failed to take action against the smelting plant, forcing Omido to take the case to court by suing state and non-state agencies on behalf of nearly all 3,000 community members. The battery plant ceased operations in 2014 after years of continued advocacy.

The court case is ongoing after the defendants filed an appeal.

In addition to her role in the Owino Uhuru expose, Omido has also established a network of 120 grassroots land and environmental defenders (LEDs) across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, empowering and mentoring others to protect their communities. 17 toxic sites have been closed in Kenya thanks to her activism.

Dubbed the “Erin Brockovich of East Africa,” Phylis walks in the footsteps of the late Prof Wangari Maathai who also won the Right Livelihood Award in 1984.

“I am honored to receive this award because Wangari Maathai received it before me and this shows environmental activists have been making Kenya proud. We hope the government of Kenya will walk with us because the journey of an environmental activist is a lonely life.” Omido told the Standard after being feted.