Welcome to our interview series where we speak with purpose-driven and sustainability-focused professionals from around the globe. Every few weeks, we’ll dive into their journeys, learn about their wins and challenges, and the resources they couldn’t do without.
Prepare to be inspired and learn something new!
Today’s guest is Taringana William Nyamunda, an environmental scientist and consultant.
Please tell us a little bit about who you are, your background, and your current job. What inspired you to start a career in sustainability and what was your journey to where you are now?
I was born and raised in a middle income family in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. My dad has a general interest in wildlife while my mother is a gardening enthusiast, so they had an influence on my love for the natural sciences. I always used to enjoy science subjects at school and that’s why I decided to study Biotechnology for my first university qualification which I did it with INTI University in Malaysia. While working towards my degree, I realized I didn’t enjoy full time lab work; I was happiest when I was outside in the field. I guess the final nail in the coffin was struck when I had finished my degree and I had volunteered to work in a medical lab. I felt it was too boring, and that is when I chose a career in the environmental field (my Environmental Biotechnology lecturer probably inspired me too!).
In 2017, I registered for my Postgraduate Diploma in Environmental Management with Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and that’s when my environmental career began. I immediately started searching for organizations I could intern with, Friends of The Liesbeek (FOL) an NPO based in Cape Town invited me for an interview to see how I could fit in with them. They accepted me and that’s when I started working with them on rehabilitating and monitoring the Liesbeek River. Even though I had a short stint with them, it opened up a lot of doors. Andrew Bennette, who was the Education Director with FOL allowed me to shadow him at his other job. He mentored me for some months and I really learned a lot from him. From there I was involved in the disputed Two Rivers Urban Park saga where we were advocating for the protection of that piece of land and stopping any development on it as agreed in its Environmental Management Plan. The fight was lost due to politics and the corporate Amazon started development of the land earlier this year. Later I joined Communitree, an NPO based in Cape Town where we were working hard to restore urban spaces back to their natural state and create green corridors within the city for animals. I worked under the founder Frances Taylor, who works hard to mobilize people that can volunteer to work with the organization to create the green spaces.
In 2019, I joined Happy Acres and moved to Magaliesburg in South Africa where I worked with them as a Field Guide. Happy Acres is the oldest Environmental Centre in South Africa. There I taught people about nature, my main focus was on plants and fungi and I was also running environmental sustainability projects. I learned a lot about resourcefulness and leadership during my time with them. The Covid 19 pandemic affected the business and during lockdown, I started a mushroom farming business using agricultural waste as feed, but that did not go so well. Most of us eventually voluntarily left Happy Acres. I moved back to Zimbabwe earlier this year and started my own environmental consultancy.
What’s your day-to-day like?
I normally start working early, around 5/6 AM. The first thing I do is to go through my emails and messages after that I work through some small jobs/tasks that are pending and search for future contracts for an hour or two. I head out for my morning meetings first if there are any or I go straight to the office. I do my work for the rest of the day; I leave the office around 3 PM, and I do about an hour or two further work once I get home and I also start planning my work schedule for the next day. Sometimes I head out for some physical exercises in the evening to end off my day.
What do you like the most about the work you do?
I enjoy the constant learning, there’s always something new that you didn’t know about. I know I am most likely not going to stop learning and that’s interesting enough for me to keep me going.
How does your work address societal and/or environmental issues?
I work on different projects, and issues which each project addresses depends on what the client is looking for. Take for instance, right now I am helping one client in America with sustainability assessments for various products, this will enable the promotion and uptake of environmentally friendly products in particular global markets, while some products will be looking to achieve some of Sustainable Development Goals that provide basic human necessities, like access to clean sanitary water. Some of the work I do hits home where we try and address income issues while addressing climate change resilience and adaptation. In Zimbabwe, I help an NGO based in Harare with planning projects and drafting funding proposals for those projects.
In your experience, what are the main challenges of working with mission-driven and/or sustainability-focused businesses?
Not everyone is interested in sustainability issues, so it is difficult to attract clients/customers that are willing to pay for it, especially in the African context, environmental sustainability is really not a concern. Another challenge is that sustainability focused products are often costly in their initial phases when compared to their conventional and often unsustainable counterparts, and this poses an existential challenge for businesses marketing these products. It often takes economies of scale for prices to drop, people are not willing to buy those products unless they become cheaper, it’s a catch 22 situation.
Is there anything that you do outside of your work that is driven by similar (sustainability) objectives?
When I am not working, I look for invasive species and clearing them in the yard, it’s a habit I picked up from the old job I guess lol. I recently decided to add a small grey water system in the kitchen to reduce water consumption. I have also been experimenting with hydroponics, which is useful in this water scarce country.
In your opinion, what are the top skills necessary to be successful at a “green job”?
Green jobs are quite diverse and the skills can be specific to a job. But looking at skills that can apply all throughout, I would say having software skills will prove to be an asset, whether it’s for life cycle analysis or for geographical information systems. Report writing is also an essential skill along with analytical, critical thinking and problem solving skills.
What green careers/sectors do you see growing the fastest right now and/or will become mainstream within the next 10 years?
The renewable energy sector is rapidly growing and it will continue to grow with the world now realising the urgent need to shift away from fossil fuels.
Ecotourism will see greater growth; environmental awareness is increasing and a lot more people are going to be more interested in ecotourism. This will likely go hand in hand with the rise of environmental conservation. Covid has affected tourism, but I believe ecotourism will see itself rising in the long term.
In- door agriculture is another industry I suspect will see gains in the years to come. Agriculture contributes the most to deforestation and land degradation; in door food production like hydroponics, laboratory grown meat and microbe produced proteins will become even more necessary to meet global food demand while trying to reduce our negative environmental impacts from food production.
What are the most common mistakes or misperceptions you have seen when it comes to green careers?
There is a very common misconception where I come from that green careers are a waste of time and resources. People do not see the need for such careers, yet we are the ones that have to be very diligent since we are likely going to be the most affected. This misconception usually stems from a position of being misinformed/uninformed about environmental issues.
You have a diverse background and experience working in circular economy and environmental management. Could you highlight some of the key differences and potential green career paths within industries/sectors you’ve worked with?
The key differences between the circular economy and environmental management industries can be viewed as follows. With the environmental management jobs, they leaned towards constant environmental monitoring; attending to any environmental problems that may have arisen and putting measures in place that would help keep the environment safe. In contrast, the circular economy job was more or less the management of processes, products or waste materials so that they can be made use of in one way or the other so as to avoid environmental waste and minimise environmental damage. The two are closely linked since the circular economy principal is a part of environmental management.
Potential green career paths in environmental management are in environmental policy where you draft and assess environmental policies and legislation, and as an environmental officer where you assess environmental compliance and draft or modify company environmental management plans. Environmental engineering is where you develop solutions that minimise the environmental impacts of processes.
Green career paths in the circular economy are in R&D where you research and develop environmentally sustainable technologies/processes. Or as a sustainability officer where you assess the environmental impacts of a company’s activities and develop ways of reducing its environmental impacts and minimising waste products by maximising their uses. Environmental engineers can also work in this sector.
Any “lessons learned” or advice you can share with others looking to succeed in their purpose-driven career?
My first piece of advice for anyone is to start your career early by volunteering to work for organisations, even if they don’t pay you. That exposure will offer you valuable work experience and it will open other avenues for you. The more you are involved in environmental work the more you will know what you like and what you don’t, and what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Secondly, don’t be afraid to start your own thing, yes it may fail but you learn from that failure. Experience is the best teacher. Thirdly, things rarely go as expected, when they that happens, you might face setbacks, but don’t let that discourage you, there is always a way forward. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
What inspires you every day to wake up and keep going?
Knowing that my work has had and will have a positive impact on people’s lives and that it is preserving lives of other organisms that deserve to enjoy the planet as much as we do.
I’m a curious soul always striving to better myself.
I enjoy science and I’m also a fan of the arts, I’m part time a musician during my free time.
My Honours research was in DNA Barcoding of Hibiscus plant species. I work as an environmental consultant, which is something my colleagues have always suggested I do.
I have worked with non-profit organizations and in the private environmental industry.
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