Phyllis Omido

Awarded 2023


For her groundbreaking struggle to secure land and environmental rights for local communities while advancing the field of environmental law.

Phyllis Omido is a Kenyan environmental activist leading the battle for the justice and health of the Owino Uhuru community that has suffered from lead poisoning ever since a battery smelting plant began operating in their village. Omido’s use of litigation, advocacy and media engagement has set vital legal precedents, affirming people’s right to a clean and healthy environment and the state’s responsibility to safeguard it.

Omido, dubbed the “Erin Brockovich of East Africa,” initially worked at the battery smelting plant that poisoned her, her son and thousands of Owino Uhuru community members. When the plant owners and government officials refused to act on the environmental impact report she conducted, Omido mobilised the community in protest. Following a 2012 demonstration, Omido was attacked by two men at her home and arrested on unfounded charges of terrorism and inciting violence.

Thanks to Omido’s activism, 17 toxic sites have been closed across Kenya. She has also used her experience to consult the United Nations, leading to a resolution on lead-acid battery recycling in Africa. Determined to spread knowledge on environmental rights far beyond Owino Uhuru, Omido has established a network of 120 grassroots land and environmental defenders (LEDs) across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, empowering and mentoring others to protect their communities.

It’s a time when communities are feeling dejected...This Award will give them hope that their struggle is not unique to them, they are global struggles.

Phyllis Omido, 2023 Laureate


Phyllis Omido is a Kenyan environmental activist protecting the environmental and socioeconomic rights of marginalised communities residing near extractive industries and toxic sites.

Her fearless pursuit of justice has led to the closure of 17 toxic sites, catalysed a movement of land and environmental defenders across East Africa and influenced the UN to pass a resolution on lead-acid battery recycling.

Lead smelting's toxic toll on African communities

Lead-acid batteries are used in everything from cars and motorcycles to backup storage for mobile phone towers and solar panels. Their relative affordability compared to other battery technologies makes them popular worldwide. This, coupled with their short lifecycle, has resulted in over 1.2 million tonnes of used and end-of-life lead-acid batteries accumulating across Africa annually.

Smelting plants have opened throughout Kenya to extract the used batteries’ remaining lead for resale. These plants are highly toxic to the people working there and the surrounding environment. Not only do they emit lead-laden fumes, but their untreated wastewater can also enter local communities’ water supply. Long-term exposure to even small amounts of lead causes brain and kidney damage, hearing impairment, reproductive complications and learning disabilities in children.

When one such plant began operations in Owino Uhuru in 2007, residents were told it was a sweets factory. However, it wasn’t long before people fell ill, including Omido, who was hired in 2009 to manage the plant’s human resources and compliance. The same year, Omido conducted an environmental impact report, which revealed that the plant's proximity to the local community posed a risk of lead poisoning.

The plant owners and government officials ignored Omido’s repeated calls to relocate the factory. In response, Omido founded the organisation Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) to mobilise the Owino Uhuru community to demand remediation and the plant’s closure.

The Owino Uhuru class action lawsuit

In 2014, after years of advocacy by Omido and CJGEA, the Owino Uhuru plant ceased operations. But the damage to people’s health and the local environment remained. When the government and the plant refused to remediate the damage, Omido got creative. She organised a conference to train local media outlets on human rights and environmental issues to bolster accurate reporting on the Owino Uhuru community. This initiative led to a partnership with KTN, one of Kenya's largest news channels, resulting in an exclusive documentary that included conducting 100 health tests among community members.

The documentary prompted parliamentary discussions and the establishment of a task force by the National Environment Management Authority, which, to Omido’s surprise, found more severe pollution levels than CJGEA’s tests. Despite these findings, the government failed to hold the smelting plant accountable. Frustrated by the government’s inaction, Omido took the case to court, suing state and non-state agencies on behalf of nearly all 3,000 community members.

A 2023 court ruling in the ongoing appeal has established a groundbreaking precedent, overcoming previous legal delays. It holds both state and private entities accountable for harming the Owino Uhuru community. This landmark decision underscores the state's duty to safeguard the environment and its citizens. Omido’s work on the case continues today and focuses on planning remediation efforts to ensure the eventual compensation and remediation benefit the community.

The Owino Uhuru case has become a globally recognised battle for environmental and community rights. Omido’s success in the case led her to consult UN experts on Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being, offering a grassroots perspective on exposure to hazardous chemicals and pollution. In 2017, the case informed the successful passage of a UN resolution on used lead-acid battery recycling in Africa.

Empowering East African communities and land and environmental defenders

Omido’s efforts on behalf of the Owino Uhuru community have transformed ordinary citizens' confidence in the law, empowering them to defend their rights in the face of powerful interests. Her activism often centres on educating communities on their right to information.

Omido also disseminates her environmental rights knowledge through the Environmental Rights Organisation (EROG), an LED network with representation in every county in Kenya that has recently expanded to Uganda and Tanzania. Omido founded the network in 2017 to foster knowledge-sharing among grassroots activists. Under Omido and CJGEA’s guidance, EROG provides critical support to 120 LEDs, building their capacity to respond to emergencies and developing security protocols for those facing threats to their life. Omido’s vision is for the network to operate independently, which took its first step to becoming a reality in 2022 with EROG's inaugural election.

Alongside CJGEA, Omido’s latest focus is Kenya's plan to establish nuclear power plants along its coast. The government’s limited knowledge and resources for such a complex operation pose significant threats to public health and the environment of coastal communities. As an alternative, Omido advocates for a shift towards sustainable infrastructure and renewable energy and is preparing communities to defend their socioeconomic and environmental rights. Omido recently submitted a public petition opposing the power plant to the Senate, supported by more than 1,000 signatures from the Kilifi community. The petition is currently awaiting review.

Omido, known as “Mama Moshi” or the “Mother against Smoke” by the communities she engages with, is a beacon of hope in the battle for environmental justice. Over the past decade, she has fearlessly challenged forces prioritising development at the expense of human rights and local communities' health. A role model for an entire generation of activists, Omido has strengthened ordinary citizens’ knowledge of their rights and their ability to protect them.

Laureate news
Culture and Education