Rutgers Mandela Washington Fellow Alum Transforming Recycling in Cameroon and Beyond

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Ismael Essome three photos
Thursday, September 2nd

Ismael Essome traveled from Cameroon to New Brunswick in 2019 to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Leadership in Business Institute at Rutgers University, led by Kevin Lyons, Associate Professor of Professional Practice at Rutgers Business School and Johanna Bernstein, Assistant Dean for Global Programs at Rutgers Global. Described by faculty as quiet and humble, he has proven himself to be a force of nature by attempting to fundamentally change the process of plastic waste management in his home country of Cameroon. Essome is gaining both momentum and international acclaim and recently announced a partnership with TerraCycle, the innovative international recycling organization based in New Jersey with a mission of “eliminating the idea of waste.” 

Essome, who is an environmental engineer focusing on aquatic ecosystem management, founded Madiba & Nature, a non-profit organization with the mission of addressing marine plastic pollution by promoting a circular economy and ensuring the conservation of nature and its biodiversity. As the website notes: “We are green business researchers and entrepreneurs. Through an environmental education system, we want to help change people’s attitudes and bad habits about the management of plastic waste that degrades sensitive ecosystems.” 

Madiba & Nature has been lauded for its innovative Ecoboat, a fishing boat constructed entirely of reclaimed plastic bottles and made in the traditional Cameroon method. Essome and his team of 50 staff and volunteers collect the bottles from the clogged and overflowing rivers and waterways in Cameroon. According to a news story on the Madiba & Nature site, 37 Ecoboats have been created from more than 24,000 reclaimed plastic bottles. 

Essome has also established the Ecobin, made of plastic bottles and placed in front of stores in downtown areas to encourage the recycling of plastic bottles and to eradicate the common practice of simply throwing bottles in local rivers and waterways. Because Cameroon doesn’t have a governmental agency focused on environmental awareness and recycling, Ismael Essome and his small team are trying to create the change they want to see in their communities—bottle by bottle. (Watch a video from Al Jazeera featuring Essome.).

Essome has received numerous grants and prizes for his work, including the economic track award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) through the Think Beyond Plastic program, and the top prize in science and technology from the Ministry of Higher Education of Cameroon. In addition, his recent project proposal submitted to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) GEF Small Grants Programme was selected and awarded a grant of $22,000. Beyond being a Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumni, he is a One Young World Ambassador and recipient of the 2017 UN Cleansea Award.

Most recently, Essome announced that Madiba & Nature is partnering with TerraCycle to supply plastic to TerraCycle in France as needed. TerraCycle, now based in 21 countries, is committed to recycling all kinds of materials with their innovative recycling platforms. As their website states: “Leading companies work with us to take hard-to-recycle materials from our programs, such as ocean plastic, and turn them into new products.”

Essome was able to connect with TerraCycle because of a visit to the headquarters organized during the Mandela Washington Fellowship Business Institute. He calls the connection, and the partnership agreement that resulted from it, “the magic of Mandela Washington Fellowship!” Essome sees this agreement with TerraCycle “not a business to business but a business to social action” arrangement.

By not only taking the initiative to address marine plastic pollution in Cameroon in a completely innovative way, but also highlighting the economic benefits of recycling, Ismael Essome is truly creating a circular economy in a way that incentivizes participation from his own community, and the world at large. For more about Ismael Essome and Madiba & Nature, please visit: https://madibanature.com/ 

About the Mandela Washington Fellowship at Rutgers University

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX.

Since 2014, through the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the U.S. Department of State has supported nearly 5,100 young leaders from across Sub-Saharan Africa to develop their leadership skills and foster connections and collaboration with U.S. professionals.  

Rutgers University is a sub-grantee of IREX and has been a proud partner of the Fellowship, hosting two cohorts of Fellows each year since 2016. 

Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and with the health, safety, and well-being of Fellows and Partners as the highest priority, the U.S. Department of State held a virtual Fellowship for 2021. While remaining in their home countries, Fellows participated in virtual Leadership Institutes, which included leadership training, networking, mentoring, and professional development. In July 2020, Rutgers hosted the first-ever virtual reunion for our 250 Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumni. 

For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit: https://www.mandelawashingtonfellowship.org/

Learn more about the Mandela Washington Fellowship at Rutgers University, and connect with Fellowship Alumni here.