Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr

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Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr

The Groundbreaker

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In the center of Freetown stands an enormous tree, the Cotton Tree, which is something of a North Star when navigating through the Sierra Leonian capital. Its sweeping head of branches can be seen from a distance, holding court as the city’s most precious landmark for centuries, having witnessed the resettlement of freed slaves and rise of one of Africa’s most diverse urban landscapes.

Despite her joyous smile that’s about as sincere as smiles can be, the furrow between her eyes alludes to Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr being somewhat of a similar specimen.

And how could she otherwise? Aki-Sawyerr has led campaigns against blood diamonds, co-founded a charity to support disadvantaged youth in the midst of her country’s civil war, and served as a director at the National Ebola Response Centre during the pandemic’s deadly outbreak before being elected to her mayoral position in 2018. It’s no wonder she landed on the 2021 Time100 Next list of influencers.

Now, her mission is to clean up the city and improve the lives and lifestyles of the some 1 million Freetonians not only now but for generations – her two children’s own – to come. Within the context of the “Transform Freetown” initiative that she introduced, the city council is employing sustainable waste management to improve the city’s infrastructure, reduce disease spread and empower youth through waste collection micro-enterprises along the way.

But her most recent ambition is to green the city by planting 1 million trees by the end of 2022, increasing vegetation in the capital by 50 percent, and in turn boosting biodiversity, slowing riverbank erosion and contributing to the global bid for carbon sequestration.

Already, more than 250,000 trees have been planted, in backyards and at schools, on hillsides and in urban neighborhoods. Her secret weapon to do so? The city’s citizens themselves. “Tree-planting can be a bit of a trendy thing to do,” she said at a Global Landscapes Forum event on biodiversity last year. “What really matters is that the trees are growing – that they remain there beyond the planting exercise, beyond the cameras.

“And to achieve that, the piece around the communities has been fundamental. It’s been giving our residents the opportunity to be tree stewards themselves… With that planting and that stewardship comes the basis for monitoring.”

The Cotton Tree is soon to see new growth as it’s never seen before.

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Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr

The Groundbreaker