Education for Sustainable Development is Vital for Africa

On a thought-provoking trip, I recently visited one of the world’s largest slums — Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya — with other participants of a workshop I had come to attend.

The sprawling shantytown of 1.2 million inhabitants, with its mazes of tin sheet shacks, overwhelmed most of us with its sheer size as we struggled through the mud mixed with decomposed rubbish.

We were heading towards community bio-centres, an initiative of a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Umande Trust, that tackle the slum’s dire sanitary conditions caused by the lack of latrines and garbage collecting services, as well as open sewage. The NGO has introduced a technology to generate bio-gas from body waste and organic feedstock, and the residents around the bio-centres are able to use the gas for cooking. The technology also produces fertilizer as a by-product, which can be used for urban agriculture.

Photo by Kei Otsuki ©

Photo: © Kei Otsuki.

The sprawling shantytown of 1.2 million inhabitants overwhelmed most of us with its sheer size as we struggled through the mud mixed with decomposed rubbish.

A number of NGOs and international organizations have been introducing this kind of innovative technology to Kibera since the 1980s. However, it has so far had little impact over the long term. A staff member from Umande Trust explained that the problem was not the lack of machines or facilities or even money, but qualified professionals who can closely accompany such innovative experiments on the ground and train residents to fully participate in using and managing them.

In a recent report about the state of the world’s slums, United Nations Habitat Program also asserts that any slum improvement projects need to be participatory and community-based if they are to be successful.

Professionals wanted

Professor Dorcas Otieno of School of Environmental Studies at Kenyatta University — who coordinated the Education for Sustainable Development in Africa (ESDA) Project Workshop of which the visit was part — explained how crucial it is for Kenya’s sustainable urban development that we produce more professionals engaged in slum communities. Particularly at a time when, for various reasons, no continent is urbanizing faster than Africa.

Photo by UNU-ISP ESDA Project ©

Photo: © UNU-ISP ESDA Project.

Umande Trust has introduced a technology to generate bio-gas from body waste and organic feedstock, and the residents around the bio-centres are able to use the gas for cooking.

It is thus urgently necessary to train students to appreciate existing (largely informal) institutional arrangements, local knowledge, understand the essence of scientific innovation, and mount community-based projects together with various actors (including NGOs, the private sector, researchers and other local community organizations). These students can already be NGO workers and officials who are active in slum communities and willing to refine and develop their ongoing activities, and help projects become economically viable.

In short, the desired training program needs to be multi-disciplinary and ultimately problem-solving.

Education for Sustainable Development in Africa

With the goal of building a platform for African universities to establish such training programs, United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) officially launched the ESDA Project in October 2008. Within the ESDA framework, Kenyatta University has been preparing a Masters of Science program in sustainable urban development, which aims to produce students who are willing to work with the community-based projects in slums together with actors such as Umande Trust.

The Nairobi workshop discussed how to improve curriculums for this program, as well as for two other proposed Masters programs — one in integrated rural development, based at the University of Ghana, and another in managing mining and mineral resources, based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Photo © Kei Otsuki.

Photo © Kei Otsuki.

Future professionals need to be equipped to build their work on field realities — the realities of the slums, impoverished rural areas, degraded forests, and polluting and dangerous mines.

The ESDA Project is timely, as we are in the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) — a major international effort to mainstream sustainable development in the education sector. In line with this effort, the ESDA Project has two important focuses. One focus is post-graduate education that recognizes the needs of highly qualified professionals. These future professionals are not only theoretically equipped but also sensible enough to build their work on field realities — the realities of the slums, impoverished rural areas, degraded forests, and polluting and dangerous mines.

This means that, as Prof. Otieno insists, the Project must recognize the importance of field-oriented research that should be linked to specialized programs, so as to strengthen students’ problem-solving skills. The graduates of the ESDA Project are then expected to eventually train and educate new generations of students.

The other focus is of the Project is Africa. According to the Project’s coordinator, Professor Masafumi Nagao of the UNU-ISP, the participating countries — Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa — are experiencing a great deal of brain drain and the biggest challenge for the ESDA Project will be to create a new mass of skilled professionals who will be engaged and enabled to develop their work on the continent.

To that end, the Project’s steering committee is designing textbooks that cover the historical background and international context of the significance of African development, as well as the methodology of tackling actual problems in African countries through the ESDA Project.

At the same time, the Project is attempting to expand its international intellectual and financial partnerships — ultimately to promote joint research projects among scholars so that the stimulated students and graduates will have incentives to stay or return from abroad to conduct research within Africa.

So far, leading Japanese universities such as the University of Tokyo, Nagoya University and Kyusyu University, as well as the United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (Ghana), Ibadan University (Nigeria), Stellenbosch University (South Africa), and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), UNESCO, and UN-Habitat are taking part in the ESDA Project and discussing future projects.

Sustainable development is a ‘learning and acting’ process

Initially, ESDA students will have to ponder what ‘sustainable development’ actually means to Africa. UNEP has a similar project called Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in African Universities Partnership (MESA), and they state that sustainable development is essentially a continuous learning process. Throughout the process, professionals are expected to act together with the stakeholders and keep exploring ‘how to learn’ about sustainability and development.

For example, in order to make change in a slum like Kibera, such trial and error needs to be allowed to repeat, until the slum generates its own metamorphosis. Trial and error is the source of real innovation. According to scholars studying relations between local knowledge and sustainable development, innovation comes from a wide range of encounters between different bodies of knowledge and experience. These encounters generate new properties and resources, which can feed new experiments and cycles of learning and collective and individual actions. The education and research projects designed within the framework of ESDA thus ideally involve students and teachers in the cycles of learning and sharing the knowledge and experience with others — locally, nationally, and internationally.

Wither ‘sustainable slum development’?

In Kibera, I kept wondering what ‘sustainable development’ actually meant to the slum dwellers. From the top of one of the bio-centres, I could see rows of new apartment blocks (seen in the distance in the photo below) — built by the government on the periphery of the slum — to which the current slum dwellers are being relocated, officially by 2030. The governmental version of sustainable development thus seems to be ‘cleaning up’ the slum completely by relocating the residents.

Photo © Kei Otsuki.

Photo © Kei Otsuki.

The governmental version of sustainable development seems to be ‘cleaning up’ the slum completely by relocating the residents.

Umande Trust and the researchers from Kenyatta University do not believe in this approach but rather that it is innovative technologies such as bio-centres that can realize sustainable development within the slum.

I have the impression that neither version quite adequately reflects what individuals crammed in tin shacks, reached via mucky paths, would urgently need for their sustainable development, especially if by that we mean ‘the ability to sustain family and develop life projects’ for the social well-being.

In reality, the question of what slum residents need and what professionals and policy-makers should be doing will likely always remain, as long as slums continue to exist. Hopefully, field-oriented and problem-solving higher education can prepare professionals to work with locals to come up with a wide range of alternatives and options in answering this question.

After all, the entire process of searching for the answer is what drives sustainable development — so it is not only about clearing the mess or improving technology but about producing people who believe in new possibilities.

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Education For Sustainable Development Is Vital For Africa by Kei Otsuki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Kei Otsuki is Research Associate at the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace. Her article “Sustainable partnerships for a green economy: A case study of public procurement for home-grown school feeding” appeared in Natural Resources Forum (Vol. 35: 213-222, August, 2011); and a related short article titled “Emerging Governance in the Transition to a Green Economy: A Case Study of Public Sector Food Procurement in Brazil” published in the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development’s Green Economy Think Piece Series. She can be contacted at: