Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

Inaugural winners of Natural Capital Young Leaders Prize share their journeys to championing nature

The new prize from the Natural Capital Project honors three leaders who are expanding recognition of how nature supports human well-being and are integrating this into policy.
Voskehat Grigoryan receiving her prize
Winners of the inaugural Natural Capital Young Leaders Prize traveled from Armenia, Chile, and Zambia to receive their prizes and join the symposium. Photo credit: Mark Costa/Cyperus Media.

As a child in rural Zambia, Ngao Mubanga would walk through the forests on her way to and from school, harvesting fruits from the bountiful trees. Whatever her needs were, the forest seemed to provide. When she got older, it was a shock to learn her country was considered poor. 

“Zambia was valued only on one asset: copper,” said Mubanga. “That is a very narrow definition of the wealth of a country.”

Mubanga’s understanding of her own country’s assets inspired her to look at the world through a different lens. “If only we were valued by our rich forests, by the tourism we have, we would not be considered a poor nation.” Paraphrasing Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, she added, “If you measure the wrong thing, you’re not going to do the right thing.”

Mubanga, an environmental specialist with the World Bank, is one of three winners of the new “Natural Capital Young Leaders” prize, presented last week at the Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford University. The goal of the prize is to elevate young leaders advancing a world in which people – in government, the private sector, development banks, NGOs, and communities – recognize how nature supports human well-being, and routinely incorporate its value into decision-making. 

Ngao Mubanga presenting at the 2024 Natural Capital Symposium. Photo credit: Mark Costa/Cyperus Media.
Ngao Mubanga presenting at the 2024 Natural Capital Symposium. Photo credit: Mark Costa/Cyperus Media.

The World Bank nominated Mubanga for the prize for her leadership of the Africa Natural Capital Accounting Community of Practice, a regional learning and knowledge platform financed by the World Bank’s Global Program on Sustainability, but led by the countries themselves – it now has over 500 members from 48 African countries. The group has effectively catalyzed adoption of natural capital accounting – a standardized approach to tracking stocks of natural capital over time in order to help design and evaluate policies and investments. To date, 17 African countries have created pilot accounts or fully-formed natural capital accounting systems. 

“Imagine a world where Africa’s natural resources are not just seen as commodities to be exploited, but as avenues for innovation, job creation, and sustainable development,” Mubanga urged in her acceptance speech. “Natural capital accounting has opened that door, to actually define a nation as much more. And this aligns with my own values that I hold dear to my heart... This recognition is not just a personal milestone, but a testament to the collective spirit and dedication of the Natural Capital Accounting Community of Practice in Africa.”

Dean Arun Majumdar of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability presided over the award ceremony, along with Gretchen Daily, faculty director of the Stanford-based Natural Capital Project. In his opening remarks, Dean Majumdar recalled that when the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability launched, he “made a promise to use all their resources to restore Mother Earth. NatCap, and this community, are helping us keep that promise,” he said. 

These first three awardees were selected through the multilateral development banks the Natural Capital Project is collaborating with in its People, Planet, Prosperity project. 

Sofia Aroca receiving her award from NatCap’s Gretchen Daily and Dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Arun Majumdar. Photo credit: Mark Costa/Cyperus Media.
Sofia Aroca receiving her award from NatCap’s Gretchen Daily and Dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Arun Majumdar. Photo credit: Mark Costa/Cyperus Media.

Sofía Aroca was nominated for the prize by the Inter-American Development Bank for her leadership role in the groundbreaking Chilean Natural Capital Committee, which serves as a model for other countries in Latin America and across the world. 

In accepting her award, Aroca said that with two economists as parents, she had always been interested in that field. Yet even early on, she knew something was missing. “How could a shirt cost only $5?” she found herself asking. The cotton is grown and harvested in the field, transported to a factory; the shirt is designed and sewn, and shipped back around the world to be sold in stores. “When natural capital approaches were first introduced to me years ago, I was mesmerized,” Aroca said. “This is what was missing. Nature was being weighted as zero.”

She later spent four years working in Patagonia, where she could be in the mountains on her lunch breaks and weekends, and experience nature more fully. She returned to Santiago with a greater passion for “replicating the balance and abundance that is found in nature.” As managing advisor of the Green Finance Division within the Chile Ministry of Finance, Aroca has played a key role in supporting the Chile Natural Capital Committee since it was launched by President Gabriel Boric in 2022. The committee is an innovative, inter-ministerial initiative, including the country’s central bank, that advises the President on measuring, valuing, conserving, and restoring the country's natural capital, and incorporating the value of nature and its ecosystem services into public and private decision-making processes. 

“This Symposium fills me with hope,” said Aroca. “All of you here working in the same direction, and the willingness of countries and multilaterals to allocate resources for this.”

Voskehat Grigoryan, head of the Specially Protected Areas of Nature and Biodiversity Policy Department within the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Armenia, was nominated for the award by the Asian Development Bank, having established herself as a pivotal figure in the field of biodiversity conservation in Armenia.

“I am deeply honored by the trust and confidence placed in me,” she said at the ceremony, and shared her love for her country’s people and natural beauty as inspiration for her work. 

Voskehat Grigoryan receiving her prize at the award ceremony during the Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford University on June 5. Photo credit: Mark Costa/Cyperus Media.
Voskehat Grigoryan receiving her prize at the award ceremony during the Natural Capital Symposium at Stanford University on June 5. Photo credit: Mark Costa/Cyperus Media. 

Grigoryan has led the development of comprehensive environmental programs, legislation, and strategies in Armenia, including establishing management plans for key protected areas across the country as well as a biodiversity monitoring system. She has also been a strong advocate for environmental education, and leads Armenia's obligations under international treaties related to the management of specially protected areas. She is working toward creating eco-compensation programs, ecotourism, and regulation of land leases based on ecosystem services. 

“My vision for the future of leadership in biodiversity protection in Armenia is one of integrated, science-driven, and community-focused strategies, supported by strong international cooperation and adaptive management. Through dedicated leadership and collective action, I believe we can secure a thriving and resilient natural environment for future generations,” said Grigoryan in her remarks to the symposium audience. 

The Natural Capital Young Leaders Prize is given in collaboration with different organizations in the Natural Capital Project’s global network. The prize winners receive a stipend to cover travel, lodging, and other expenses of attending the Natural Capital Symposium; they also present their work in a special session, gain visibility and recognition for their leadership, and become part of a growing community of prize winners. The inspiration and initial funding for this new prize was provided by Charles and Roberta Katz.


For more information about the prize, please contact us at naturalcapitalproject@stanford.edu

Media contact: Elana Kimbrell, elanak@stanford.edu 

The Natural Capital Project is a global partnership based out of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and its Woods Institute for the Environment, as well as the Stanford School of Humanities & Sciences.  

More News Topics