Rolex Empowers Africa’s Environmental Trailblazers

Beth Koigi from Kenya and Inza Koné from Côte d’Ivoire are among the 2023 Rolex Awards for Enterprise laureates.

By Debbie Hathway
2023 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Beth Koigi in front of Majik Water’s atmospheric water generator during the installation process in Kakuma refugee camp. © Rolex/Eva Diallo

Ten world-renowned experts from various fields recently adjudicated the 2023 Rolex Awards for Enterprise in favour of five laureates whose projects stood out for originality, impact on the world, and spirit of enterprise.

“When reviewing the candidates for the Rolex awards, I wanted to see people who had a vision of a better future, and who had a plan on how to help us get there,” says Katharine Hayhoe, Rolex Awards panellist and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

Constantino Aucca Chutas was recognised for his community-centred forest ecosystem restoration and protection programme in the high Andes, Denica Riadini-Flesch for her regenerative farm-to-closet clothing supply chain project geared towards strengthening women’s empowerment and preserving local Indonesian cultures, and Liu Shaochuang for his work to track and save the last remaining wild camel herds in the Gobi Desert regions of China and Mongolia. Representing Africa, Beth Koigi’s project will provide solar-powered generators to harvest water from the air in Kenya. At the same time, primatologist Inza Koné will continue to preserve and protect a richly biodiverse forest in Côte d’Ivoire.

“We could feel, breathe, and really experience what these amazing changemakers and leaders are trying to achieve,” says Tsitsi Masiyiwa, Rolex Awards panellist, philanthropist, and chair of Co-impact’s board of directors.

The Majik Water office in Kenya, where the team produce the atmospheric water generators. Their units produce between 20 litres and 500 litres of fresh water per day, depending on air humidity, and stacked together could produce 100,000 litres a day. © Rolex/Eva Diallo

Koigi, an award-winning Kenyan social entrepreneur and Nairobi University graduate, cofounded Majik Water in 2017 to provide clean water to off-grid communities using renewable energy. Her units have been installed in Kenyan communities ever since.

Despite growing up with abundant clean water, Koigi faced water challenges while attending college in eastern Kenya. She recognised the scarcity of clean drinking water in the country, which leads to 10,000 deaths annually, and developed a successful water filter business as a solution.

2023 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Beth Koigi explaining the technical details of an atmospheric water generator to her team in a Majik Water warehouse. Majik Water is led entirely by women and installs these machines in arid and semi-arid regions where they extract clean, mineralised water from thin air. © Rolex/Eva Diallo

How does it work? Solar-powered Atmospheric Water Generators (AWGs) tap into the vast freshwater supply in the atmosphere, producing up to 500 litres of water daily and supporting agriculture, job creation, and community health. Depending on humidity levels, AWGs can generate 20 to 500 litres of water daily and potentially scale up to 100,000 litres daily. “If you have air, you can have drinking water by stacking together multiple devices,” she says.

Responding to questions about what it means to have won and what the Rolex Award will help her achieve, Koigi says, “It’s given me validation that our project can impact the world. For me, being recognised as one of the Laureates was very special and will be significant for the project’s future. This connection with Rolex will give us the visibility to collaborate and partner with more organisations to do similar installations.”

Majik Water operates units in arid regions, producing over 200,000 litres monthly. The Rolex Award will facilitate the installation of AWGs in Turkana, northern Kenya, benefiting 3,000 people in refugee camps and off-grid communities over two years.

Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Inza Koné in the Tanoé-Ehy forest. Koné has been director-general of the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques in Côte d’Ivoire since 2018, where part of his role is to help protect and study endangered primates. © Rolex/Nyani Quarmyne

Inza Koné, a seasoned conservationist with a PhD in animal ecology, is renowned as the first primatologist from Côte d’Ivoire and a pioneering figure in Africa. He serves as a professor of biosciences at Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan and is the director-general of the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques in Côte d’Ivoire (CSRS). With a career spanning academia and fieldwork, he cofounded two local conservation NGOs and played a pivotal role in establishing the African Primatological Society in 2017. His efforts have been recognised through multiple awards, including the Order of Merit of National Education in Côte d’Ivoire.

An aerial view of the Tanoé River meeting the Ehy Lagoon in the Tanoé-Ehy forest in south-eastern Côte d’Ivoire. © Rolex/Nyani Quarmyne

His lifetime commitment to protecting wildlife was inspired by a childhood experience with a pet baboon. Koné spearheaded efforts to preserve the 11,000-hectare Tanoé-Ehy swampy forest, under threat of deforestation and home to endangered primates: the Roloway monkey, the white-naped mangabey, the white-thighed colobus and Miss Waldron’s red colobus. He is documenting evidence of these four critically endangered monkeys, hoping to prove the presence of Miss Waldron’s red colobus, last seen alive in the 1970s.

A white-thighed colobus, one of the world’s 25 most endangered primate species. The species is endemic to West Africa, meaning the Tanoé-Ehy forest in Côte d’Ivoire is one of the last remaining places they can be found in the wild. © Shutterstock /Torbjoern Lundqvist

His conservation programme engaged local communities, thwarting plans for a palm oil plantation. With the forest declared a community-managed reserve, Koné continues his work, focusing on ecological data collection, tree planting, and wildlife documentation.

His Rolex Award supports expanding his project and promoting community-based forest conservation across West Africa, with plans for a transboundary conservation area spanning Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

“I applied for the Rolex Award because the conservation project I run has reached a stage where we need more exposure and recognition, nationally and internationally. The Rolex Awards for Enterprise is one of the best platforms to do so. Winning the Award brings me immense pride because it’s an incredibly competitive prize. I have a deep respect for all those who have won the Award before me; it gives me a sense of responsibility,” he says.

The Rolex Awards were intended as a one-off, honouring the fiftieth anniversary of the world’s first waterproof wristwatch, the Oyster, in 1976. However, they gained such traction internationally that Rolex created a biennial programme that has since supported 160 laureates in their work, impacting 65 countries.

“The Rolex Awards establish a connection with the laureates that lasts years, and they’re able to tell their story and provide mentoring and connections. I don’t think there’s any other award quite like it,” says Brian Schmidt, Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist.

The Rolex Awards focus on people and the planet, supporting the protection of more than 30 ecosystems and 50 endangered species in their 48-year history. The laureates receive funding to implement their projects.

“Rolex knows that it takes years to implement real change. If you don’t have a long-term approach, you will never succeed,” says Helen Czerski, Rolex Awards panellist, oceanographer, broadcaster and writer.

Rolex’s determination to support pioneering individuals intent on improving life on Earth is enhanced by its Perpetual Planet initiative launched in 2019, which encompasses these awards, a partnership with the National Geographic Society to study the impacts of climate change and Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue initiative to safeguard the oceans through a network of marine-protected Hope Spots, the latest one in Africa being Maputaland.

Visit rolex.org for more information.

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