The London accountant, who returned to Africa to respond to the Ebola outbreak, has become a leading figure in the fight against climate change.
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr won a scholarship to a master’s degree at the London School of Economics and helped set up the Financial Services Authority in the wake of the Nick Leeson banking scandal.
She returned to Sierra Leone while working as a consultant for the UK Department of International Development on the Ebola outbreak in 2014, but ended up staying.
In 2018, she was elected mayor of Freetown, its capital, and is now campaigning for poorer nations to receive more help addressing the challenges of climate change.
Mrs Aki-Sawyerr, 53, who is in Glasgow with Sadiq Khan as part of the C40 delegation of city mayors, has previously lived at Wimbledon and worked for Andersen Consulting.
“Most of my clients were in Canary Wharf, the Financial Services Authority was the most important,” she told Standard. “I helped set it up after Barings [collapse] and Nick Leeson, in 1996. “
The “turning point” in her career was the outbreak of Ebola. “I just could not see it unfolding on my TV screen,” she said. “I went home and said to my husband, ‘I have to go.’ It felt like a pretty crazy thing to do, because all the planes came out full and went empty in.
“On November 13, 2014, I boarded a plane. I went to Freetown with DFID. I went to the National Ebola Center and said, ‘What can I do?’ Within six weeks, I became Director of Planning for the National Ebola Response Center. “
The experience made her line up. She has renamed her city “Freetown, the Tree City” in a campaign to plant a million trees and is seeking funding for a cable car to connect isolated areas where a growing population has grown with the city center.
“The decision to run for mayor was inextricably linked to the environment and sanitation,” she said. “We must never lose sight of the extent to which the climate affects the daily lives of all my residents, and I dare say that many people in the global south – millions of people.”
She said Mr Khan was aware of the challenges her city was facing after visiting in 2008 as a Member of Parliament while volunteering with VSO to train lawyers.
On Tuesday, Mr Khan said that during his presidency of the C40, two-thirds of its annual budget would be spent on Global South member cities.
“We are a very different city from London,” said Mrs Aki-Sawyerr. “This is part of what the challenge at COP is – the narrative about climate is generally aimed at the West. What I want them to talk about the most is how they stop emitting 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from just a handful of countries – focus on that.
“Some cities, like Sadiqs, have access to far more resources than we have. It is incomparable. The discourse needs to be more balanced and the economy needs to be far more balanced. People’s health is really in danger. “