Spotlight on Future Climate for Africa Journalist Fellow: Sophie Mbugua
Future Climate for Africa recently supported BBC Media Action and NECJOGHA at a climate scientist – journalist workshop in Tanga, Tanzania (read about it here).
FCFA journalist fellow with Climate Home News, Sophie Mbugua attended the training. Below she shares with FCFA her passion for climate journalism, her plans for the future and her reflections on the workshop.
How did you get your start in climate journalism?
I always wanted to be in journalism since way back in high school. I participated in the debating club and I loved talking about issues and sharing this information amongst my peers. After finishing high school, I came to Nairobi and went on to do a degree in mass and development communication. My first exposure to journalism was through a job at the local radio station.
After some time at the radio station I began to feel like it was time for me to do something bigger. When at this crossroads, undecided on what to do I remember my dad told me, “Look within yourself, what is the thing that you love doing most, that you are passionate about, that you can wake up every morning and be happy to do. Even if there is no money that comes your way at the beginning, something 10 years down the line you will still be happy about. If you do it passionately and persistently, money will come.”
I knew this was environmental journalism. I remember noticing the changes to my immediate environment when I was growing up. We used to have a season where there were many beautiful butterflies flying around. When it rained the frogs would come out and we would have a chorus of nature sounds at night. Over time when I went back to my village I realized we did not hear or see these sights anymore. My mom would reflect on how things are changing and at that moment I knew the importance and power of environmental journalism.
My first story idea as a freelance journalist was about a new cassava variety that was disease and drought resistant. A radio feature story I pitched in 2014, published by the BBC Science in Action – a weekly run radio programme. At the end of that year, I then began writing print stories. My first one was for Reuters focusing on women in agriculture in East Africa and their use of radio and SMS to pass on climate extension service messages. In 2015 I got an opportunity from the French Media Corporation (CFI – a French media cooperation agency of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs) to attend and report on COP21. This fueled my passion for climate journalism.
It’s hard to pick the best climate stories but among my favorites is a story I wrote for Climate Home News on “Why UN climate science reports have Africa-shaped gaps.” It focused on the challenge’s scientists face in Africa and investigates the African contributions to the IPCC reports.
Why do you think journalism is an important tool for tackling climate change?
In most instances, journalists are trusted sources of information. They are knowledge brokers. Journalists are the bridge between the policy makers and different stakeholders. As a journalist when you report on climate issues it is your responsibility to break down this complex climate information to be easily understood across audiences.
Journalists ensure that the message and issues of climate change are communicated to an audience beyond the scientific community to ensure greater impact and climate action amongst communities around the world.
What challenges do you face as a climate change journalist?
A good story requires time and money. For example, I wanted to do a story on pollution around Lake Victoria but I needed to get data from a water research institution but they would not give me the data without me paying for it. There are many good stories but they require funding to investigate, to cover travel, and to write.
The other challenge we face is publication. For example, for many African publications politics takes center stage and the media houses have a lack of interest on environmental and climate change issues as they are not seen as bits that drive masses to buy the newspapers or watch the programs. Additionally, the pay is not sustainable forcing one to publish with international organizations to survive. Therefore, most of the time the local perspective of a story is lost in every international perspective you publish.
There is a need for a deliberate effort to impress on African editors, and media owners on why climate and environmental issues matter. There is not a lack of journalists reporting on climate change but few editors either appreciate its gravity or are not interested in it hence not publishing on the issue as much and as prominently. Climate change must be on the front page as it affects our day to day life and impressing editors on its importance is key for this.
Any reflections on the climate – scientist workshop that you attended?
I loved the way scientists and journalists were at the same table and engaging with one another to understand each other’s perspective – this is the ideal. In the years I have been reporting I found good information within scientific institutions. In most cases scientists will publish their research in academic journals and not disseminate the information further. Making scientists understand why it is important to communicate their findings further afield is important. Over time this will build a good relationship with scientists and journalists. Journalists need to reach out more often to scientists and that is what I loved about this workshop.
Lastly, where do you see your career in the future?
I think there is a need to humanise climate change issues to a level that everyone will understand. There is a gap to which climate change is understood in a simplified manner. I plan to use my lessons on what I have learnt while reporting across sub-Saharan Africa, to go beyond writing to talking about those perspective be it through presentations. I want to use that to talk to different communities and climate users. I plan to do more on building the capacity of African journalists and developing simplified content that different stakeholders in Africa can understand and build on.
My hope is to see more African journalists engaging in-depth with reporting on climate change and environment and linking what is happening locally, and regionally to the international perspectives such as the Conference of the Parties. I plan to do these through training and mentorship programs.
Read Sophie’s recent story on Climate Home News –“Two million in Zimbabwe’s capital have no water as city turns off taps.”
This article was written by Beth Mackay (Knowledge Manager, Future Climate for Africa).