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Be a torchbearer and motivate people to follow

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Barirega Akankwasah the executive director of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

How did you get to where you are today?

It started my career journey as a teacher at Makerere University. I then left academia and joined the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry where I worked as a senior wildlife officer, then principal wildlife officer, assistant commissioner conservation planning and partnerships and was later appointed commissioner wildlife conservation.

I also had a stint at the same ministry as acting director Tourism, Wildlife and Museums and Monuments, so it has been a slow but progressive journey, moving through all the levels of the civil service structure. It has been hard work, patience and perseverance and putting the Almighty first in everything I do.   

What would you say has been your career turning point?

When President Museveni appointed me commissioner wildlife conservation. The responsibility was heavy and involved technically overseeing the wildlife conservation in the country.

Conservation is a complicated industry where you must not only employ science to manage the natural resources, but most importantly managing people who are the main factor for the success or failure of conservation.

The appointment exposed me to effective stakeholder engagement, partnership development, research and ecological monitoring, resource mobilisation and policy formulation and implementation. These skills would later become so important in my current role.  

What satisfaction do you draw from your job?

I am naturally a lover of nature. Growing up next to one of the world’s iconic ecosystems, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which hosts almost half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas, I fell in love with nature at a tender age.

Conserving the environment and natural resources is, therefore, not just my profession but a hobby. I enjoy every moment I make a positive contribution to conserving nature and creating a healthy and productive environment.

It is so fulfilling conserving the environment. As a regulator for the environment in the country, I draw pride and satisfaction in seeing my country take a sustainable development pathway.

Are you a leader or a boss?

This is a difficult question to answer. It would be best answered by the team that I work with. My understanding of leadership is to be a torchbearer and inspire and motivate people to follow your mission and vision.

A boss on the other hand focuses on tasks and results, relying on formal authority and control to achieve common goals. Both elements are critical in people management, depending on the situation.

I exercise leadership often but some circumstances demand military-like command and control which can be classed as being boss going by the above definition. In an ideal situation, everyone would want to be a leader. But unfortunately, in reality, circumstances can demand otherwise. I am adaptive depending on the situation. So, I can be both, depending on the circumstances.

What would you consider your career accomplishments?

These are several but the most significant accomplishments where I played a key role but working with others as part of the team, include restructuring of NEMA where staffing has more than tripled, establishment of the Environment Protection Force with intelligence, operations, investigations and prosecution capabilities, revival of the National Environment Fund and institution of Administrative Fines Scheme to have polluters pay for their actions and help restore the environment.

We have also automated environmental and social impact processes at NEMA as well as automation of CITES (wildlife trade), resource mobilisation and growing the budget, creation of NEMA regional offices and more.

What has been your biggest failure and what lessons did you pick from it?

I do not believe in failing. I do not have the word impossible in my vocabulary. I believe in success only. I am always positive in my thinking and actions. As such, I do not have failures. Maybe you can talk of challenges. 

There are always challenges of limited resources (personnel, budget and equipment) in the public sector. The public always expects unfettered and effective service delivery from us public officials.

The public is never willing to know the limitations within which we operate. This sometimes challenges morale but ultimately pushes us to work harder to address these limitations through innovative resource mobilisation and leveraging partnerships.

Who or what shaped your career journey and how?

The Almighty God did. I believe that nothing happens except by His Will. That said, I think, being born and growing up near a world heritage site - Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in one way or the other inspired me into the conservation career path.

What issues about nature speak to you?

Biodiversity conservation, pollution prevention, management and control, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation.

From where you sit, what is on your wish list to enable you efficiently do your job?

For a regulator to succeed, they must succeed first. So for NEMA to succeed as an environment watchdog, it is very important that people become conscious and work for sustainability in their day to day lives.

In addition, managers of environment segments, also called lead agencies, must be well capacitated with the mandatory manpower, tools and resources to effectively deliver.

he key success should include citizens being environmentally conscious and direct stewards of the environment, empowering lead agencies, including local governments and urban authorities to effectively take full charge of environment management, leveraging technology in environment management and transitioning to a circular and green economy.