Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr - the tree-planting mayor of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr has made a name for herself as a tree-planting mayor of a West African city on the brink of a climate emergency.

The 56-year-old is also the first directly elected female mayor of Freetown - and the first person to be re-elected since it became a position voted for by the residents of Sierra Leone’s capital city two decades ago.

BBC Africa Eye had unique access to her and her family last year in the run-up to the elections - an insight into the highs and lows of Sierra Leonean politics and also the personal cost of living in the political limelight.

But after several decades working in finance in London, what has shocked her more than anything about her return home has been the obsession about her capabilities as a woman.

"There was no interview I had when I wasn’t asked: ‘So do you think you can do this job as a woman?’" says Ms Aki-Sawyerr with a smile on her face.

"And I used to say: ‘Why are you asking me this?’ I am first and foremost a professional… I happen to be a woman.

"You get things like: ‘Oh, she’s so stubborn. She’s difficult.’ If [those behaviours] were being displayed by a man, [they] would be encouraged and celebrated: ‘Oh he’s strong. He knows his mind.’"

She credits a lot of her success to her father.

"I’ve realised that I took a lot for granted in my upbringing. I’m one of four girls and people would say to [my dad]: ‘Hey, so sorry, you know, no boys.’

"He’s like: ‘There’s nothing my girls can’t do that a boy could do.’

"So we grew up just full of confidence and never thinking of our gender as being in any way an inhibitor."

Ms Aki-Sawyerr was born in Freetown. After graduating from the city’s Fourah Bay College with an economics degree in 1988, she moved to the UK.

Not long afterwards, Sierra Leone was rocked by an 11-year civil war, characterised by widespread atrocities against civilians, thousands of whom had their arms or legs hacked off with machetes.

She was one of seven Sierra Leoneans living in the UK who set up a charity to help children, especially orphans, affected by the conflict.

When the Ebola outbreak reached Sierra Leone in 2014, Ms Aki-Sawyerr decided to travel back for a three-month stint as a volunteer - for which she was appointed an OBE by the late Queen Elizabeth II. Ten years later she is still there.

"The journey to this seat, the journey to where our family’s found itself, it’s not been easy," she admits.

The moment that galvanised her entry into politics came in August 2017, when Sierra Leone suffered the worst natural disaster in its history.

A colossal mudslide, caused by days of torrential rain, engulfed the streets on the edge of Freetown, killing 1,141 people.

A general view of the mudslide at the mountain town of Regent, Sierra Leone August 16, 2017. IMAGE SOURCE,REUTERS
Image caption,
The red gash visible on the mountain near Freetown after the devastating mudslide in 2017

Ms Aki-Sawyerr decided to make the environment her focus after her election in 2018. Like many cities along the West African coast, Freetown is vulnerable to flooding, coastal erosion and extreme heat.

As the authorities got to grips with the coronavirus pandemic, she launched the #FreetownTheTreeTown campaign in January 2020.

Funded by tokens sold on private and carbon markets, city residents are paid to plant and monitor trees and mangroves.

The aim was to plant one million trees over two years. Although the goal has been missed, more than 600,000 seedlings have been planted.

The project was a finalist for last year’s Earthshot Prize, which is backed by Prince William to support those working to provide innovative solutions for environmental issues.

It notes the target is now to reach the one million mark by this year - adding that "they have seen an excellent tree survival rate of over 80%".

Ms Aki-Sawyerr has won plenty of international plaudits for her climate work. In 2021, she was named in Time magazine’s TIME100 Next list of "emerging leaders who are shaping the future" for her efforts to clean up Freetown’s streets, fix its drainage systems and plant trees.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr pictured by a seedling - January 2024 IMAGE SOURCE,FREETOWN CITY COUNCIL
Image caption,
Seedlings planted by the #FreetownTheTreeTown iniative are reported to have a survival rate of more than 80%

She is on several boards and commissioning groups and spoke at COP28 in Dubai, the UN’s Climate Change Conference in 2023.

Success when it comes to tackling climate change is not easy to measure and critics closer to home say she has not done enough.

"She said she would clean Freetown. Freetown is still filthy. There are a lot of things she said she would do that she hasn’t done," said Mohamed Gento Kamara, who ran against her in the 2023 mayoral elections for the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) - the party of the current president.

Ms Aki-Sawyerr defends herself by saying she spent "five years with my hands tied behind my back" as she is in the opposition party, the All People’s Congress (APC).

"In my first term as mayor, I tried to work with the government but they rejected me."

President Julius Maada Bio has also put climate on his agenda. He spoke at COP26 in Glasgow, as well as last year’s Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi. He also launched the Presidential Initiative on Climate Change, Renewable Energy and Food Security a month after his re-election.

The inter-party rivalry also has darker undertones as shown in the BBC documentary, when Ms Aki-Sawyerr, her daughter and campaign team were filmed huddled on the ground in the APC headquarters on the day of the election while shots and tear gas were fired at the building. A woman died in the violence.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr and her daughter (R) at the APC headquarters in Freetown when tear gas was shot during political unrest in June 2023
Image caption,
It was a frightening experience being caught up in electoral turmoil when tear gas was fired at the APC’s HQ

Challenged on whether she is now focusing more on politics rather than people, she replied: "I reject that.

"But… you have to have wisdom. You have to be able to work within a context that’s different and dynamic whilst holding on to your life."

Although she won office again in Freetown last June, she was not sworn in until October as the APC, alleging fraud in the national polls, was refusing to engage in any official activities. The impasse was only overcome with the help of regional negotiators and the African Union.

The climate is still on Ms Aki-Sawyerr’s agenda for her final term in office. But one thing she admits she "totally underestimated" was "the extent to which having a female mayor has been an inspiration to so many women and girls".

"It wasn’t really in my calculations, it wasn’t even in my thought process when I was running for this role, but it’s been such a significant part of who I’ve been and what impact I’ve had it’s really moved me."

Sierra Leone is seeing more women in politics than ever before, many say because of President Maada Bio’s 2022 Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act, which sets a 30% quota of women in parliament, the cabinet and other institutions.

Parliament has met that target, meaning Sierra Leone now has double the number of female MPs it had previously, and way above the average for West Africa.

Quotas are helpful, says Ms Aki-Sawyerr, but they are not enough. She says she fears they "may be more about window dressing" and that "women empowerment needs to come from the heart".

Being the mayor of Freetown has made her realise many other women did not grow up with the confidence she enjoyed as a girl.

"Seeing me… sort of helps a lot of women to realise that there’s nothing they can’t do."

You can watch the full BBC Africa Eye documentary Mayor on the Front Line on the BBC Africa YouTube channel.