These women are creating climate solutions

Students hold seeds to plant as a part of Patricia Kombo's PaTree Initiative. (Courtesy of Patricia Kombo)

Women and girls around the world are using their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills to find climate solutions.

These four women have been recognized by the U.S. Department of State’s Innovation Station initiative, which builds a network of woman and girl climate innovators from across the United States and around the world.

Anika Puri flying drone in wooded area (Courtesy of Anika Puri)
Anika Puri flies a drone, similar to those that authorities use to monitor wildlife populations, in a park near her home in New York. (Courtesy of Anika Puri)

When Anika Puri visited her family in India as a child, she was struck by the many ivory carvings for sale at a Bombay market. Puri was inspired to find a way to help authorities track and apprehend elephant poachers in Africa and India. Drones used to track poachers have difficulty differentiating between humans and animals. Puri’s app, ElSa (short for Elephant Savior) uses artificial intelligence to distinguish between the two. The app has a 90% success rate detecting poachers in wildlife parks. Puri hopes ElSa will be used around the world to detect poachers more easily and thereby protect endangered elephant populations. “The main idea with ElSa is to implement this methodology and this model with systems already in place in national parks,” she said.

Diptych of dolphins jumping in the air and Erin Ashe using detection device on long pole (Left: © Rob Williams. Right: © Ryan Tidman)
Erin Ashe collects dolphin breath samples in Puget Sound as a part of her Oceans Initiative research. (Left: © Rob Williams. Right: © Ryan Tidman)

Erin Ashe grew up in the Pacific Northwest and remembers watching orcas off the coast of San Juan Island with her aunt as a child. “That moment really stuck with me. It felt like we were alone with the whales,” she says. “I came to realize that these killer whales were declining, their populations were in trouble.” After receiving her Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Ashe decided to pursue ocean conservation at a scale beyond her doctoral research. She and her now-husband, Rob Williams, founded Oceans Initiative to collect data on marine mammal populations and growing problems in the Pacific Ocean. Their findings will help policymakers understand the impacts of climate change, noise pollution and plastics pollution on ocean life. “We’ve always put a high value on mentoring women in science and recognizing that these conservation problems we’re facing are significant and we need everyone’s involvement,” she said.

Fatema Alzelzela remembers the moment when she began to notice that her country of Kuwait’s landfills were filling quickly. “I knew that I would do something. I knew that I wanted to take action, but I didn’t know what kind of action I wanted to take,” she said. Alzelzela and her sister decided to use their collected savings to create a nongovernmental organization, EcoStar, that would prove a nationwide recycling system was possible. Alzelzela recruited volunteers — primarily women and girls — to help her, and soon they were recycling hundreds of metric tons of waste. She hopes to expand in the future and to collaborate more with her government to implement a permanent recycling infrastructure in her country. “Kuwaiti women are very strong,” she said. “We’re empowered.”

Patricia Kombo outdoors holding tree seedling (Courtesy of Patricia Kombo)
Patricia Kombo holds one of the many trees her organization is helping schoolchildren to plant. (Courtesy of Patricia Kombo)

During a trip to northern Kenya, Patricia Kombo noted the drier climate and how local children had little access to greenery or water. When she returned home to Mbooni in 2019, she launched her organization, PaTree, to get local schools involved in planting trees in their municipalities. So far, PaTree has worked with 15 schools to plant 15,000 trees. During the pandemic, the organization shifted gears to educate schoolchildren on growing new plants from mango and avocado seeds. “We realized there was a gap in food and getting food to [families to] stay healthy,” she says. “I’ve seen the biggest impact working with children,” said Kombo. “You see their positive energy.” Kombo wants to expand her organization to develop a curriculum to educate children about the environment. She believes direct action is the best way to combat the climate crisis. “Communities are only changed by what they see,” she said. “When you go and plant a tree, people will plant a tree. Once they see it happening, they will actually pick it up.”