Breathing deeper, better, cleaner, one idea at a time.

Young innovators and entrepreneurs find pathways to disrupt climate change through UPSHIFT

Natalie Bailey, UNICEF Innovation
Juan Spain 17 years old Student
22 April 2021

From Kosovo to Vietnam, when young people have the space, time and support, they lean into creative solutions to solve local challenges, often focused on the heavy pollution clogging their communities.

Vertical gardens in Kosovo, a planting robot in Uzbekistan, carbon-fighting algae in Vietnam – these are ideas that have all made the journey from idea to reality, turning young people into social entrepreneurs who are changing the trajectory of climate change one green idea at a time.

These projects, all in various stages of realization, have been made possible through the trust and encouragement young innovators have found in UPSHIFT. The UNICEF program started in 2014 to generate skills and jobs for young people facing high unemployment rates in Kosovo. Seven years later, the UPSHIFT wave has washed over 1.3 million adolescents and young people across 35 countries. In the program, young people have thought, done, failed and tried again. Many have succeeded.

Arlinda Cakai was an environmental engineer university student at the time she applied to UPSHIFT in Pristina, Kosovo with the intention of raising awareness of available solutions to her city’s well-documented and growing pollution problem. Her campaign was successful enough to catch the attention of the municipal government which supported her idea for vertical gardens and provided the investments necessary to turn the awareness campaign into a prototype, then ultimately a self-sustaining business, Te Pema.

Te Pema vertical garden
Te Pema

“Such programs are very important, especially in developing countries, because through their activities they give youth opportunities to have a place where they can express their ideas and at the same time have support.”

Arlinda Cakai

The connections, mentoring and incubation support provided through UPSHIFT were crucial to her success, she said.

“Not only did UPSHIFT give us financial support, but the guidance we received was amazing – from the economics of the idea to how to manage the business,” she said. Te Pema now has eight vertical gardens in the town’s main square, equivalent to planting more than 500 trees. Awareness of the need to combat carbon emissions is growing along with their client-base and the demand for green walls throughout the city.

Te Pema now has eight vertical gardens in the town’s main square, equivalent to planting more than 500 trees.
Te Pema
Te Pema now has eight vertical gardens in the town’s main square, equivalent to planting more than 500 trees.

Rustamjon Madraimov also wanted to increase the number of trees in his home country - Uzbekistan. A year prior to joining UPSHIFT, Rustamjon had decided he must help solve the problems arising from the now dry Aral Sea, situated in the most remote region of the country, Turktul in Karakalpakstan. Where a fishing industry used to thrive, violent sandstorms have become common and damaging. The labor-intensive work of planting dessert trees to anchor the sand must happen in winter months when the sand is frozen enough to be accessible by car, but temperatures dip to a dangerous negative 30 degrees Celsius.

Rustamjon Madraimov
Rustamjon Madraimov

After devising and testing a planting robot, now outfitted with solar panels, Rustamjon presented at an UPSHIFT youth consultation devised to connect ideas with funding. Rustamjon first learned how to present the project and articulate the problem he intended to solve. He now has funding to build more robots and begin planting.

“We understand that there is no way to return water to the Aral Sea, but if we do not try to correct our mistakes, if we live indifferently, the consequences will be even worse.”

Rustamjon Madraimov

Further afoot in Vietnam, young innovators used UPSHIFT to experiment with algae to combat the carbon emissions from prevalent and polluting motorbikes which number 7.3 million in Ho Chi Minh City. Tien Linh’s project – BITBO, was among five given seed funding for incubation in 2019-2020.

Tien Linh in the Laboratory
Tien Linh

“We were not afraid of failure. Even though there were ups and downs, quarrels, and misunderstandings, we have reached the end of the incubation together,” Tien said. Now they must test the feasibility of their idea.

First implemented in Vietnam in 2015, UPSHIFT has directly involved thousands of young people across the country and has increased opportunities for sustainable livelihoods through employment and entrepreneurship for adolescents and youth.

“The reach and impact of UPSHIFT cannot be understated,” said Herve Morin, UNICEF’s global lead on UPSHIFT. ”What started as an idea to increase the professional readiness of young people in Kosovo has grown to an adaptable framework that has inspired young people around the world to use local challenges as transformative experiences. Beyond the specific projects, this kind of thinking, problem solving, teamwork and understanding of how to realize an idea is training a generation of innovators.”

Additionally, the million plus participants have an increased understanding of how to engage with local and central governance decision-making, and emerge after just a few days with better job prospects to help them navigate the transition from student to professional. The program is particularly transformative for young girls and those from at-risk groups.

“UPSHIFT changed my life,” said Jean, an adolescent migrant in Morocco who joined a program in January 2021 shortly after the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports launched the program via a call for proposals. “I worked as part of a team for the first time in my life.”

In India, the UPSHIFT platform has now gone digital. Partnering with the state Government to create one innovator in every household, UNICEF launched UPSHIFT as a teacher-led extra curricular programme in over 4,000 schools, reaching 24,000 students with its training and ideation platform.

“UPSHIFT knows no bounds. It is a small spark that catches quickly thanks to the enthusiasm of the implementors and the kids who become part of it.”

Herve Morin, UPSHIFT Global Lead, UNICEF

For young people looking to combat environmental problems, Arlinda advised, “Think first locally, then globally.” Adding, “If you have ideas, the right place to take them is UPSHIFT. In case you have an innovative idea or project, they will support you.”