10 Activists Who Had a Breakout Year in 2019

Authors: Joe McCarthy and Olivia Kestin

Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Global Citizen
Why Global Citizens Should Care
Achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals requires broad participation across society. Activists, in particular, have a key role to play in shaping discourse, agitating for change, and spurring investment. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

Activism is persistence. It’s movement building. It’s overturning entrenched corruption, dysfunction, and discrimination. 

Activism takes many forms, but it’s usually concerned with opposing injustice and improving people’s lives. It’s Nelson Mandela taking on apartheid. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. tackling the vicious system of Jim Crow. It’s Greta Thunberg advocating for climate action.

Activism demands constant action — and 2019 was no exception. 

Activists improved maternal health care in Cameroon, reduced air pollution in Kenya, got more kids into the classroom in Pakistan, and much more this year. 

Here are 10 activists who had a breakout year in 2019.  


Tracey Malawana 

Radical_GirlsEducation_FieldShots_006.jpgTracey Malawana (far right).
Image: Courtesy of Radical Media

Tracey Malawana grew up going to a South African school that lacked clean water and safe toilets. As she got older, she traveled the country and saw that some schools had access to these basic amenities while others didn’t, and quickly realized that a serious injustice was taking place in her country. Lack of access to water and sanitation primarily affects young girls, as they are sometimes forced to drop out of school when they are unable to discreetly and effectively manage their periods. 

Malawana has fought to expand access to safe sanitation, clean water, and menstrual products through the nonprofit Equal Education. 

She has tirelessly organized to build a broad movement for bringing about gender equality in schools. Malawana is featured in Global Citizen’s documentary series, ACTIVATE: The Global Citizen Movement, which aired in September.

“I was born an activist,” she told Global Citizen. “When I was young, I'd question things. I'd resist. I’d say, "I can't do this. I won't do this. It's against my principles, even though I didn't fully understand what principles meant.”


Wawira Njiru

GCF19_WawiraNjiru_Fran Katsoudas_RyanMuirForGlobalCitizen_008.jpgCisco EVP and CPO Fran Katsoudas and Founder & Executive Director Youth Leadership & Food for Education Wawira Njiru speak onstage during the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park on September 28, 2019.
Image: Ryan Muir for Global Citizen

Wawira Njiru is on a mission to feed the schoolchildren of Africa. It’s a lofty goal, but her ambition has so far been met with concrete results through her organization Food for Education. In less than two years, her team has scaled its operations to feed 10,000 children per day in Kenya, and they're on pace to reach 100,000 students per day by year the end of their third year. 

Njiru was awarded the first-ever Global Citizen Prize for Youth Leadership presented by Cisco, awarded at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 on Dec. 2, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and her organization has evolved even more this year as a result.

“Africa is the future,” she told Global Citizen. “One in 4 people in the world in 2050 are going to be African. 

“This is not something that’s nice to do,” she added. “It’s necessary to do.”


Yogesh Kumar

Kang_GlobalCitizen_Waislitz_87.jpgYogesh Kumar at the Waislitz Global Citizen Award Reception in New York, September 2019.
Image: Sangsuk Sylvia Kang for Global Citizen

Yogesh Kumar was appalled by the pervasive sexism and misogyny he witnessed growing up in New Delhi. Following a horrific gang rape incident in 2012, Kumar decided to dedicate his life to making public spaces safer for women. 

“For many women in India, due to overarching patriarchal norms, many public spaces are not accessible. Women, unlike their male counterparts, are not free to move about in public environments without fear of violence or harassment. This is a huge barrier for young women to access opportunities that may better their lives,” he told Global Citizen.

He launched Delhi Oye, an organization that helps to empower women with economic opportunities, advocates for criminal justice reform, and spreads awareness of women’s rights. 

Earlier this year, Kumar won the 2019 Waislitz Global Citizen Disruptor Award, a $50,000 prize that will help him expand Delhi Oye and gain networking support from people worldwide.


Qabale Duba 

Kang_GlobalCitizen_Waislitz_11.jpgQabale Duba is photographed at the Waislitz Global Citizen Award Reception in New York, September 2019.
Image: Sangsuk Sylvia Kang for Global Citizen

By the age of 14, Qabale Duba had been subjected to the gruesome practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced into marriage by her parents. 

Against all odds, she managed to finish her secondary education and became the first girl in her village in rural Kenya to become a university graduate. 

Nowadays, Duba is working to empower young girls through her organization, Torbi Pioneer Academy, whose motto is “Daring to Dream.” The Torbi Pioneer Academy offers mentorships, literacy programs, menstrual products, and employment opportunities. The nonprofit is also working to end the injustices facing young girls — including child marriage and FGM.

“No matter where they come from, we want our children to dream big and work towards achieving their life goals," she explained to Global Citizen. "On the other hand, educating the women empowers them economically. After knowing how to read and write, many of them have started their own business and getting personal incomes."

Duba was a semi-finalist in the Waislitz Global Citizen Awards program, receiving a $50,000 cash prize that her organization can use to provide education to girls and women in Kenya.


Charlot Magayi

Kang_GlobalCitizen_Waislitz_98.jpgCharlot Magayi speaks at the Waislitz Global Citizen Award Reception in New York, September 2019.
Image: Sangsuk Sylvia Kang for Global Citizen

More than 4 million people die from inhaling contaminants from poorly ventilated stoves and open fires each year.

Charlot Magayi is intimately familiar with the hazards of indoor air pollution — for years, too poor to afford an alternative, her family burned charcoal briquettes and other pollution-heavy materials in their poorly ventilated home in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Magayi was determined to escape lifelong lung infections and a reduced life expectancy. She went to school, became an environmental activist, and founded Mukuru Cook Stoves, an organization that sells sustainable and safe stoves at an affordable price. 

Her work has been so effective that she won the 2019 Waislitz Global Citizen Award, including a $100,000 cash prize that will help her expand her organization and improve health outcomes. 


Haroon Yasin 

GCPrize_Haroon Yasin_SaiynaBashirForGlobalCitizen_027.jpgHaroon Yasin, co-founder and CEO of Orenda, shows students the Taleemabad app at the Saya School in Islamabad, Pakistan on Oct. 9, 2019.
Image: Saiyna Bashir for Global Citizen

There are an estimated 22.5 million children throughout Pakistan who are unable to go to school, largely because of widespread poverty and misogynistic norms that keep girls from the classroom.

Growing up in Islamabad, Haroon Yasin often saw kids rummaging through landfills to find things to sell for money to go to school. The sight unsettled him so much that he dedicated his life to providing free education to children living in slums. 

He founded the organization Orenda, which uses an educational mobile app called Taleemabad to supplement the classroom experience in underserved communities. 

The app offers engaging, gamified content and regularly tests children on their knowledge to ensure their staying ahead of the curve. 

Yasin was one of the finalists for the 2019 Global Citizen Prize Cisco Youth Leadership Award.

“If you've ever been a part of a classroom where there's a teacher who walks in and you look forward to having that teacher in front of you every single day, that's what Teleemabad does for 130,000 children all across Pakistan,” Yasin told Global Citizen.


Luisa Bonin

GCPrize_Luisa Bonin_Patricia MonteiroForGlobalCitizen_003.jpgLuísa Bonin, co-founder of the NGO Tamo Junto and finalist for the Global Citizen, poses for a portrait in São Paulo, Brazil.
Image: Patrícia Monteiro for Global Citizen

Micro-entrepreneurs dominate Brazil’s economy, representing an estimated 99% of all businesses. They’re a potent anti-poverty force, as they provide communities with opportunities for income, but it’s often difficult for small business owners to navigate regulations and maximize their profit. 

Luisa Bonin saw her father struggle as a business owner and wanted to make things easier for future entrepreneurs, so she started the free mobile app Tamo Junto. 

The app provides free online courses on a range of subjects including effective pricing rates and how to access the capital necessary to expand. Bonin was one of the finalists for the 2019 Global Citizen Prize Cisco Youth Leadership Award

Tamo Junto currently has 30,000 users who have benefited from the app.

“Tamo Junto is really committed to make the lives of the micro-entrepreneurs better and help them to have an income source for them and for their families,” Bonin told Global Citizen. 

“Because when they succeed and they can support their household, their neighbors, and the entire community can be inspired by one success story,” she added. 


Priya Prakash

GCPrize_Priya Prakash_SahibaChawdharyForGlobalCitizen_007.jpgPriya Prakash, founder and CEO of HealthSetGo, walks with a student at Shriram Millennium School in Faridabad on Nov. 7, 2019.
Image: Sahiba Chawdhary for Global Citizen

At a school Priya Prakash once visited in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, none of the students had ever seen a doctor. 

Her organization, HealthSetGo, began conducting routine medical exams and uncovered widespread anemia, poor vision, vitamin deficiencies, and other ailments. 

“The parents came together,” Prakash told Global Citizen. “They were so happy and overjoyed that they were crying tears of joy that their children could finally have access to these doctors and finally give these medicines that they could have never gotten before because they simply could not afford it.” 

Prakash founded HealthSetGo for exactly this reason — to ensure that all students throughout India are able to receive quality health care and medical attention. Students who have untreated health issues are often unable to reach their full potential in the classroom, HealthSetGo has so far reached more than 200,000 students, and they aim to reach 1 million children by 2023. Prakash was one of the finalists for the 2019 Global Citizen Prize Cisco Youth Leadership Award.

She sees her work — ensuring that all students excel in the classroom — as fighting for basic human rights. 

“Since we are living in this world, it is our responsibility to not only live for ourselves, but also to ensure that we leave behind a world that is much better for future generations to come,” she said.


Nashin Mahtani

GCPrize_Nashin Mahtani_AndriTambunanForGlobalCitizen_007.jpgNashin Mahtani, co-founder of Peta Bencana, poses for a portrait at their offices in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Image: Andri Tambunan for Global Citizen

The streets of Jakarta, one of the biggest megacities in the world, flood so often that the government is relocating the metropolitan area. 

In the meantime, the platform PetaBencana.id is helping city officials, nonprofits, and everyday citizens navigate floods and extreme weather events. 

PetaBencana.id is overseen by Nahsin Mahtani, an architectural researcher and designer who advocates for environmental justice. The platform allows floods to be mapped out in real time by combining images, video footage, and information from citizens, along with official government data and other inputs. The platform allows emergency responders to minimize casualties, harm to infrastructure, and economic disruption. 

Mahtani was one of the finalists for the 2019 Global Citizen Prize Cisco Youth Leadership Award. The platform has proved so effective that it could be rolled out in countries around the world in the years ahead. 

“Reports have shown that climate change is going to drive at least 100 million more people into poverty by 2030," she told Global Citizen. "We can't stop the disasters from happening, but what we can do is ensure that everyone at least has the information they need so that during the time of the disaster, they can at least minimize their loss." 


Alain Nteff

GCPrize_Alain Nteff_Daniel BeloumouForGlobalCitizen_031.jpgAlain Nteff works wit his team at the GiftedMom HQ in the Melen district of Yaoundé, Cameroon in . November 2019.
Image: Daniel Beloumou for Global Citizen

Childbirth is fraught with risk around the world, but it’s especially dangerous in Cameroon, where 600 women out of every 100,000 die from giving birth.

Alan Nteff was disturbed by the huge risks women took by getting pregnant and decided to do something about it. He started the platform GiftedMom to provide women with more holistic healthcare.

GiftedMom revolves around an app that allows women to access the most scientifically relevant information, ask doctors questions, and schedule appointments at facilities. The nonprofit also helps finance health care for women without the necessary financial resources. 

These simple interventions are helping hundreds of thousands of expectant moms who might otherwise not get the help they need. 

GiftedMom also sends text messages to mothers who sign up informing them about health conditions pregnant women are vulnerable to — and how to avoid them — such as malaria and parasitic infections.

Nteff wants to roll out GiftedMom to neighboring countries and, ultimately, to the rest of the world. He was one of the finalists for the 2019 Global Citizen Prize Cisco Youth Leadership Award

“Our vision is to provide instant access to quality health care, education, and financing to prevent this from happening,” he told Global Citizen. 

“We want to save 25 million lives in the next decade,” Nteff said. “This is for me. This is for my family. This is for my society.”