From passion to influence 

By Dr Ndubuisi Nwafor

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At the University of Nigeria Nsukka, students have given Dr Ndubuisi Augustine Nwafor the nickname ‘Mr Plastic.’ As a Senior Lecturer, Associate Dean, and Blue Charter alumnus, Ndubuisi is passionate about all things related to marine plastics pollution governance.

‘I eat and breathe this work now,’ he laughs. ‘I want to gain opportunities to solve the public problem of marine plastic pollution in Nigeria.’

Behind the scenes, it took years of hard work for Ndubuisi to become who he is today. Not long ago, he had little experience with environmental research. In fact, Ndubuisi began his academic journey studying commercial law in Scotland before a training opportunity with the International Ocean Institute caught his eye.

‘I didn’t have much knowledge about marine sciences, but I took a leap of faith,’ Ndubuisi recalls. ‘I went to Dalhousie University in Canada for two months of training and really connected with one of my instructors, Dr Tony Walker. It was he who taught me all about marine plastics.’

Ndubuisi wanted to find out more about what he could do to help address the global plastics problem. The opportunity came in the form of a Blue Charter Fellowship, which supported Ndubuisi to formally collaborate on his first marine plastics research project with Dr Tony Walker.

‘I started to realise I had a lot to learn because my environmental background was not strong,’ Ndubuisi recalls. Guided by his determination to make his mark in the field, Ndubuisi invested all his time and energy to learn as much as he could during his Fellowship.

‘There is no bad time for learning,’ he smiles. ‘You can learn at any stage of your life.’

Filling the gaps of marine plastics governance

Ndubuisi’s legal background proved extremely valuable to his research efforts, enabling him to examine a key driver of pollution: gaps in governance. In his home country of Nigeria, the lack of plastic-focused laws contrasts with the severity of pollution.

Ndubuisi knew he needed to use his Fellowship as an opportunity to seek solutions to the sheer scale of socioenvironmental damage brought on by plastics – plastic enter people’s food, clogs waterways, exacerbates floods, gets ingested by livestock, and jeopardizes the health and mental well-being of millions.

‘The Nigerian Assembly was beginning to push towards enacting a new plastics law, and I studied it with Tony. The bill was lacking in comprehensiveness – for example, it did not include any market-based instruments or economic incentives – and therefore may not stand the test of time. So, for the Fellowship project, we decided to produce recommendations for redrafting the bill before it was passed by the Nigerian Senate into law.’

From passion to influence

The pair built a large body of research to anchor their recommendations. They compared best practices in plastics governance in countries across the African continent. They also examined legal approaches in United Kingdom – and plastic bag levies in particular – to determine transferrable approaches to Nigeria, where common law is also practiced.

Ndubuisi and Tony combined their legal and environmental backgrounds to drive their research. Within the Fellowship year, they published two articles in renowned journals like Marine Policy and Resource Conservation and Recycling.

But for Ndubuisi, like so many others in his field, research impact means going far beyond academia. He knew he had to sit at the table with policymakers.

Upon his return to Nigeria, Ndubuisi acquired a Blue Charter Knowledge Exchange Grant to organise a conference with Nigeria’s Minister of Environment to discuss the state of marine plastics pollution in the country. He subsequently received an invitation from the House of Representatives (Nigerian Assembly) to put forward the recommendations he developed through his Blue Charter research.

In Abuja, Ndubuisi also reached out to representatives from the Nigerian National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) and began to forge a collaborative relationship in the hopes of supporting new, evidence-based programmes that would help Nigerian communities respond to the pollution problem. ‘Our relationship with NESREA is still a work in progress, but we’ve been exchanging knowledge with them and seeing what we can to do together,’ he adds.

‘Never let go’

Influencing policy can be incredibly challenging, and Ndubuisi reflects on the fact that his passion and conviction about the cause went a long way to getting decisionmakers on his side. He reminds us that the most important element for success is to remain committed, even when the going gets rough.

‘Don’t ever let go,’ he adds. ‘You write many emails to lawmakers that may not be responded to, but don’t stop. Keep being in their face, keep doing what you’re doing, keep pushing – before you know it, you’ll start getting responses because people want to hear from you, they see your passion, they see what you’re pushing for. Everyone wants to join the moving train. In Nigeria, people are beginning to see they must do something to redeem the country from the grip of plastic pollution.’

Despite Ndubuisi’s achievements – which include over 22 publications on environmental law since 2019 – he knows there’s a long way to go in his journey. It’s nothing less than determination that helped Ndubuisi go far in a field that was, only a few years prior, almost completely foreign to him. Now, he wants to do more for his country so that communities can begin to turn the tide against the scourge of plastics pollution.

‘I’ve been given a lot through the ACU Blue Charter Fellowship,’ he muses. ‘I want to share what I learned to my university and knowledge stakeholders. It’s about continuing to give back.’

The ACU Blue Charter Fellowships Programme (2019-20) was funded by Waitrose & Partners.

The programme builds upon the successes of the first cohort of Blue Charter fellows (2018-19) funded by the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, and forms part of the Commonwealth Marine Plastics Research & Innovation Framework – a global hub which aims to share scientific and technical expertise in this vital area – in support the aims of the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

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Theme: Global challenges