Fighting Air Pollution with Innovation

Arlinda’s Quest for a Cleaner Prishtina

20-year-old Arlinda Cakaj together with other members of ‘Te Pema’ sitting by their finished City Tree.
18 November 2018

During last winter, air quality monitor devices all over Prishtina showed alarmingly high air pollution levels and Prishtina was listed as one of the most polluted cities the world. Protesters went to the streets and the government went on to take measures. But somewhere inside the urban jungle of the city, a group of adolescent girls were quietly concocting up their own plan of action.

“The situation was disquieting for Prishtina’s residents. Air pollution was so high that the city found itself in an emergency situation with no end in sight,” says Arlinda Cakaj, a 20 year old from Prishtina. “That’s when I first gathered a group of friends and started jotting down ideas of possible remedies that we as young people could design.”

Flicking through international news outlets, Arlinda came across a line of fascinating articles that talked about the appearance of City Trees in German cities. The trees were well-designed and contained moss panel installations which remove pollutants from the air. “‘That’s it’ we thought,” Arlinda tells us enthusiastically, “we had finally came across an interesting idea that could alleviate air pollution and help us do something for the benefit of our community.”

Indeed, the moss panel installations containing a special flora of greens are highly effective at absorbing air pollution. They look gorgeous and include benches and its own watering system. But the prospect of being able to design a City Tree of their own seemed almost impossible at first. It needed specialized skills, professional mentorship, financial support, and linkage with decision makers; none of which Arlinda possessed at that point in time.

Social change through UPSHIFT

Enter UPSHIFT: Social Impact Workshop. Initiated by UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo, UPSHIFT is a promising social innovation initiative which empowers young people by providing transferable and entrepreneurial skills, and by supporting them to establish grass-roots, youth-led social ventures – it makes beneficiaries more resilient, knowledgeable, and adaptive to dynamic labor markets.

At UPSHIFT, UNICEF Kosovo’s Innovations Lab provided Arlinda with all the mentorship, resources and support she needed to drive social change in her community. Together with her friends, she was empowered to become a young founder and a social innovator.

Weeds growing out of the City Tree called ‘Te Pema’, now located in the city square.
Weeds growing out of the City Tree called ‘Te Pema’, now located in the city square.

Not long after her experience at UPSHIFT, she founded the social impact project ‘Te Pema’ (loosely translated as ‘By the Tree’) which managed to manufacture a modern-looking city tree, an innovation which is set to mitigate air pollution as one of the most pressing challenges of Prishtina.

Financial literacy and funds management

Prior to beginning the implementation of her project, Arlinda and her group underwent additional training on financial and administration reporting and processes. The training included budget management, procurement processes, contracting and payment procedures, financial report compilation, tax planning for those who want to register businesses or NGOs, bookkeeping, and documentation.

To the Innovations Lab, providing financial education for adolescents like Arlinda is especially important since it is rarely taught in the education system for K-12 grades. As a result of the training, Arlinda learned how to make informed money management decisions and how to navigate in the modern financial world. The knowledge and confidence beneficiaries acquire from these financial literacy sessions are imperative for them to later establish a fully-fledged, sustainable social venture.

Youth-led Environmental Innovation

“Te Pema is an awareness raising product that purifies the air and consists of a panel installation containing around 250 weeds that absorb pollution, contain it in their biomass, and produce a large amount of oxygen in return,” Arlinda says. “The weeds were selected in consultation with biologists, agronomists and ecologists, and some calculations point at them being the environmental equivalent of around 70 small trees.”

Indeed, the City Tree has its own benches and its own unique watering system, which waters the weeds once every 24 hours. Being environmental engineering students, Arlinda and other members of the project were directly involved in the manufacturing of the city tree.

The result is a remarkable engineering feat that is not only highly beneficial to the community, but also outstanding in its design. The end result is also several times cheaper than its European equivalents, and all building parts including the weeds are available in Kosovo.

After engaging with the Municipality of Prishtina with UNICEF support, the Municipality offered to relocate the city tree in Prishtina’s city square. The Municipality was so impressed by the product that it agreed to work with the young girls and finance the building of another 10 city trees in the coming months, to be placed in the areas that are most affected by polluted air. Other municipalities have now also expressed similar interest.

Having always been a nature lover and an unapologetic advocate for eco-friendly approaches to urban development, Arlinda explains that the realization of this project is a dream come true. “I am so happy to see this project take off like this. The support we received from UNICEF was just incredible and frankly it’s all still a little hard to believe,” she says. “Ten more city trees will be built in the coming months, and there’s other municipalities and private companies contacting us as well. We hope to be able to expand our impact in all of Kosovo in the future.”

UNICEF Kosovo is extremely excited about this innovation because it's an affordable, scalable solution that paves the way to a cleaner, more resilient Pristina city. ‘Te Pema’ is one of more than 230 youth-led projects supported through UPSHIFT: Social Impact workshop, and Arlinda is one of more than 40,400 UPSHIFT beneficiaries. UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo will continue to create new spaces and innovative ways for realizing children’s, adolescents’ and youth rights through 21st century tools and approaches.

*All references to Kosovo are made in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)