In this episode, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop chats with Thai actor, singer and environmental activist Alex Rendell. Together, they discuss the importance of youth education in protecting the world's natural environments, what can be done to mitigate marine plastic pollution and how learning based solutions can be applied across the globe.
This is a podcast of the International Finance Corporation.
Makhtar Diop (MD): Hello and welcome to the podcast Creative Development with IFC. I'm your host Makhtar Diop, and today I have the great privilege to welcome Alex Rendell, an actor, singer, and activist in the area of environment. Alex was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, and raised in Bangkok, Thailand. He started his career at the age of four, and when not on the big or little screen, Alex aims to foster environmental conservation in kids and tackles environmental crises from the ground up. He co-founded the Environmental Education Center (EEC), an organization that raises environmental awareness among kids by using nature as a classroom. He is a passionate advocate for the planet. Alex was named Goodwill Ambassador for Thailand by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP). Alex also is very active in Thailand in many other areas, which are related to social development.
So Alex, welcome to our podcast. I'm very delighted to have you today as a guest. The first thing I would like to ask you: you started at a very early age. I truly understand that you started your career when you were four with a toothpaste commercial. Tell us about that journey.
Alex Rendell (AR): Okay, I started acting at a very young age. So at four, we just moved from Jakarta and I wasn't in school yet. So my mom wanted me [to have] more experience. And thankfully, someone saw me and invited me to go for a casting session, and I landed the job. And when I was like 10 years old, I managed to be a part of this small show, which was actually a pilot tape. But the show was to conserve wild elephants and be on a rescue mission for wild elephants in Thailand. And at the time, that was like my very first memory of being in the wild, but I didn't really see it as conservation or sustainability or anything like that, because I was so young, it was more of like, being able to be outdoors, every child loves animals and seeing wild elephants seeing how the rangers work. And that was a very inspiring event for me. And I also went down south within those years, and we have very, very beautiful, as we know, Phi Phi Islands of Thailand, that was actually the first time I ever experienced the Andaman Sea of Thailand. Those memories kind of stuck with me, and ever since then, I kind of knew, at the back of my head, that one day, I wanted to work with something that was related to nature. But I was also an actor throughout. I'm still an actor today. So it was more of a hobby, but then a hobby slowly changed into a job, we co-founded the Environmental Education Center. So everything just kind of led on. And I guess, here I am today. It's happened a lot faster than I thought. So that's how it all started. But there's a lot of little events along the way that that kind of led onto another.
MD: Sometimes some event in our life just stick us to something that we didn't expect to do. It is very clear that working in a country, like Thailand, there is a connection to nature, which is very, very strong. You had a very successful acting career. But also at the same time, you took a Master’s [degree]. So how were you able to manage this life as an actor–a very successful actor–to go back to school to put an NGO together? So, tell us a little bit: how is one of your days?
AR: So, I think, first of all, you have to sacrifice a lot of sleep. It's been quite tough to be completely honest. Like when I started EEC, I felt like if I wanted to take this organization further and really educate and really make an impact in the way that I thought I could, I could make a difference, I felt that I had to have the knowledge. Because before that, I actually thought I was going to become a movie director. I started directing, started writing scripts, and then all of a sudden the environmental side came into me and I felt like I needed more knowledge. So that's why I made that decision. But every week is pretty much three days on a film set and four days working for EEC or any other environmental related projects, whether it's as an actor appearing there or being part of environmental projects from the private and public sector. So I've been very fortunate to be able to move around and see how people work in many different areas.
And yourself, like how did you start in development? You grew up in Senegal. What was the journey from there all the way to being part of the World Bank Group?
MD: Like you, it is a story that has been shaped by a lot of things in my personal life. I grew up in a household where human rights, equity values [were important]. My late father was a lawyer. It was the early time of independence in our countries. He dedicated a lot of his life actually to supporting social emancipation. My late mother also was an activist. She was a feminist. She was leading one of the women organizations in my country. So living in that environment, taught the siblings in our family the science of doing something for the good of people and to go beyond your own privileges that you have in society. And that's what led me to look at issues at large. I studied economics and I studied finance, and that led me to say: How can I apply these skills to really reach these goals of doing better for people who are in need and people who are suffering around us. And that led me to economic policies in my own countries. And from there, the ambition of doing more, and looking at other environments where people are facing the same type of issues are gonna have a larger impact than the one I had in my own country.
AR: Wow. So it really comes from your inner self [and] your upbringing and I see that you have your family as a key influencer for what you're doing today. Is that correct?
MD: Absolutely. I think that it's the fundamental values which are instilled in you when you are younger, are shaping you a little bit in the way you see the world. Actually, when people are telling you: Oh, you had the career you did? Well, you are maybe different.” I said: No, I am not different from anybody else. If other people had the same opportunity as the one I had, and maybe had the luck in life to have those opportunities, they would have done as much as I do or better. Other people have contributed much more than what I am doing in my area in the world. Realize that you have to give much more back to people who are surrounding you. But also, it's not about you. It's about people.
AR: Yeah, I completely agree. Because acting actually allowed me to see the world a little bit more. I went to a great school, great family, great brothers, great sisters. But acting allowed me to go into places that I would never go and experience and see what life is really about. And I really liked what you said: it's not really about you, once you see and you know, you're blessed, you know, you're lucky, now it's about how we can pretty much share that luck to the people that may not be as fortunate for the opportunities that we have had. And I think that is also a key motivator for doing what we’re doing today.
MD: But you're doing something, Alex, you're doing something quite exceptional. A lot of people are working in that space, but you are one of the few people who decided to say, I will work with people at the age of three, or four or five, to shape their view of the world. And you know, without even thinking about you and I, we all refer to our youth, somewhere, somehow, how it helps us change our vision of the world. And what you are doing for me is extremely powerful to be able to influence people from a younger age. How is it to work with younger people and for them to understand, you know, you have to protect elephants, you don't have to kill the elephant for ivory? How is the dialogue with the kids? I'm just very curious to hear from you about it.
AR: So our main idea is letting nature be our classroom. So whatever we do, we try to turn nature into a classroom. So we do educational camps for three days, two nights, five days, depending. We could go up to two or three weeks. But all of our camps or all of our education programs are all designed to connect humans with nature one way or another. So, right now, I feel that, especially as I've grown older, and I do a lot of public awareness campaigns, and I feel that I'm in a position where you have to convince adults all the time why it is important to make a change and how you can contribute. But when it comes to children, it's more like their learning abilities or learning habits are much better. It's easier for them to absorb new information. And we just have to make it fun for them. Like we really believe in the idea of “edutainment,” which is education and entertainment. And a lot of the campaigns that we see are very educational based, but we try to make it more entertaining. And when they are entertained, that's when we educate them. And like an example would be like for scuba diving, we use scuba diving as a tool for them to see the underwater world. We never let them come as tourist divers, we always try to put it in their mindset that they're going down to identify the fishes, they have to know where the fishes live, they have to know the fishes and the corals, how they live off one another. And I think that whole process is pretty much trying to get them to care more about nature without them really realizing it, or kind of like changing their mindsets as they grow old, and it just becomes stuck with them for the rest of their lives. We really believe that by putting this into them at such a young age, it really shapes who they are as they grow older. We've had students who have been with us since they were eight. And now they're going to university, they're becoming marine biologists, they want to work for the United Nations, they have all these new jobs that are linked to sustainability. And I really think that it's because we managed to plant that seed in them since they were young, shaped them in becoming socially responsible human beings, not necessarily they have to become environmentalist, but whatever they do in their lives, whatever their dreams are, whatever they want to do, they have that environmental consciousness in them. And they could apply it like as we could see with the 17 SDG goals right now, all 17 goals can be connected with almost every profession out there, every job out there. We're trying to tell them that you don't have to be an environmentalist, but you have to make a difference in the way that you are most happy. So that's the idea of EEC.
MD: You mentioned oceans a lot. I grew up also in a coastal country, and I woke up every day seeing water and part of my DNA is the smell of seawater. But you know, we are facing a big problem, which is marine plastic in Asia, and it’s starting to be a big problem in Africa. What do you think about marine plastic and what you can do to fight that problem?
AR: Well, I personally think that it all comes back to education. We have a lot of projects, a lot of cleanup projects, beach cleanings, but I think that a lot of the plastic that is there is there not on purpose. People aren't realizing what they're doing and don't realize that just small little decisions they're making are actually harming the ocean in so many different ways. So I think that it all comes back to the education process. If we could find a way to educate people, especially the local people within the area, to let them know that their lives are quite dependent on the health of the ocean, so if they're polluting it, it will one day bounce back to them. So it's a very big issue here in Thailand. And I think a lot more emphasis here is now on the rivers, because a lot of the debris is actually coming from the rivers and going into the oceans. So if we were to go back five, six years ago, when I just first started, compared to today, I think that a lot more people are taking action, whether it's on an individual basis, public or private. It's becoming a trend, which is great. And when the trends come in, other companies want to implement that into their campaigns, whether it's their marketing campaigns, and then that's where we get to work with them.
MD: It is very important. Because currently at IFC, we are working on biodiversity. And we see also a lot of interest in ocean pollution and marine pollution. We actually issue bonds for the first time to companies, which are really using these resources to fight ocean pollution. And part of it for me is education also. So the work that you're doing with the children, to educate them not to throw plastic bags in a river, not to use all these plastic bags, which are in emerging countries, largely used by the poorest, is something that we need to think of. But I think we cannot ask people not to use plastic bags and to throw them [out] if they don't have an alternative. So I think that thinking about the circular economy around local products, which could be a substitute to it, is something I'm particularly interested in. I would love, when I go to Thailand, if you have any initiative in that area. So if I wanted to ask you a last question, Alex, what more do you think that institutions like IFC, which are financing private companies in the developing world, emerging economies, can do to support the environmental agenda?
AR: First of all, I think the IFC has been doing such great work. I was just speaking to one of my colleagues, who is actually a professor in environmental conservation. And once I mentioned IFC, the first thing that he said was like, wow, they do a lot of funding in helping the environment. So I don't know if I'm the right person to give advice, because you guys are doing such big, big things around the world. And I'm very honored to be talking to you today. But just one point, personally, that I feel is something that organizations or policies or anything in general can put more emphasis on is the fact of introducing the whole education process into schools at a very young age. I just really believe that if we could find a way to educate people, and make environmental management or environmental education as important as math as science for it to be there for them in kindergarten, and then they could slowly go from there. And I think that if it's implemented in schools, we're building a next generation of people that are more aware about the environment. We're starting to see changes. Now, most of the people that come to our camps are international schools. But now we see that the Thai schools are slowly shifting, and seeing the importance of the environment as well. We go to conferences around the world, we see a lot of investment on innovations, on infrastructure, on all these great great things, but very little is put into educating people. And it's actually a process that needs a lot of funding.. There are a lot more things involved. There are a lot more details. And I wish that something like EEC is something that could easily be replicated in other countries. And I would really hope that someone would come and see and believe in what we do, and they would take it and maybe do it in their own way in their own country.
MD: I think that, first of all, connecting people who are doing the same thing across the world, particularly in emerging economies, is very important. That people understand that there are some solutions, which have been developed in some areas, and that could be implemented in their own countries and something that I think we could do to help facilitate. Another thing also is that you as we were talking, I was thinking about how is the social responsibility programs that all these large companies are developing now can be also targeting education in the area of environment, and I think that if we can direct a bit more resources coming from the private sector to support these education efforts, we can we can make a big step.
Alex, it's a great pleasure talking to you. So I look forward to visiting Thailand and to meeting with you face-to-face hopefully, so we can have this chat again, and see in practice what we can do. We are pushing on a creative industry. I will love to be able to discuss more about creative industries with you and see if in your business of cinema art, we can do something together.
AR: That would be great. If there's anything I could contribute in helping any of the projects you guys are doing, it would be such an honor. Thank you so much.
MD: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.