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Kenyan named among world’s ‘most influential people’

Kenyan environmentalist Phyllis Omido had made the list of the world’s most influential people in 2021 released by Time Magazine.

The list has been split into six categories namely, Icons, Pioneers, Titans, Artists, Leaders, Innovators.

Omido was among only a few Africans on the list, alongside a star-studded list that includes the likes of Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and tennis star Naomi Osaka.

The Kenyan got the nod after spearheading a campaign against a battery-smelting plant that was poisoning the Owino Uhuru community in Mombasa with lead.

Time Magazine editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal said the 100 list features “extraordinary leaders from around the world working to build a better future” who “in a year of crisis have leaped into the fray”.

Before she was an award-winning environmental activist and the executive director of the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action, Omido was a single mother working at a lead-smelting plant in Mombasa, Kenya.

When she learned that her baby boy, like others in her area, had been affected by lead poisoning, she refused to be silenced—despite reported pressure from both her employer and her government.

Fueled by a fierce desire to protect her son and all of the children in her village, she quit her job and led community efforts to close the plant.

Throughout a 12-year battle, her work led to both the shuttering of the plant in 2014 and, in 2020, a landmark Sh1.3 billion ($12 million) settlement awarded to lead-poisoning victims in her community.

Though the settlement now faces an appeal by Kenya’s environmental agency, she had the passion, the strength, and the stick-to-it-iveness to see the case through.

Two legal charities, Front Line Defenders and the East African Law Society helped with the money and defence. The campaigners were acquitted because of a lack of evidence.

The Sh1.3 billion award is supposed to be paid jointly by the government agencies that were found to have been negligent as well as the directors of the company, which shut down in 2014.

The judge also ordered the government to clean Owino Uhuru within four months, saying failure to act would result in a fine.

Ms Omido says that “money cannot even compensate” for what the 3,000-strong community has been through. Nevertheless, the funds can be used for treatment and medication.

In July, Appellate court judges ruled that the intended appeal by Nema was arguable and it would be difficult to recover the money if the residents are paid and the government wins the appeal.

“We have perused the draft memorandum of appeal. We are satisfied that the intended appeal is arguable,” said Justice Martha Koome (now Chief Justice), Justices Daniel Musinga and Asike Makhandia.

The judges said none of the victims swore an affidavit to state that they were capable of refunding the money if it is paid out and the appeal is successful.

The Nema argued that the period granted by Justice Ann Omollo to pay the huge sum and undertake the clean-up exercise was too short, considering that it is a State agency that relies on the Treasury for funding.

The regulator said it operates within the budgetary financial year cycle of the Treasury. Therefore, said Nema, it was unable to raise the 40 percent stake of the Sh1.3 billion within the 90 days it was directed to pay.