Revitalizing African Universities

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Nairobi University in Kenya Nairobi University in Kenya By Wing, Wikimedia Commons

Africa has over 300 public and private universities. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Africa’s youth pass through the gates of these universities in search of higher education that will hopefully usher them through the gates of well paying careers.

Once inside the gates of higher learning, African students embark on three of four year long odysseys of education. Day in day out, the students seek out and amass knowledge that will ultimately catapult them to graduation with honors. Speaking about this accumulation of knowledge, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Harvard University’s President from 1909 to 1933 said that, ‘of course there's a lot of knowledge in universities: the freshmen bring a little in; the seniors don't take much away, so knowledge sort of accumulates.’

UNEP’s Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability into African Universities (MESA) sought to transform such purely academic accumulation of knowledge into pragmatic and strategic utilization of knowledge. MESA began realizing this transformation by setting up a vast continental partnership of universities.

From 2006 to 2009, the MESA Universities Partnership mainstreamed sustainability into the curriculum and practices of 75 universities from all across Africa. In varying degrees, styles and timeframes, these universities integrated sustainability into their teaching, research, administrative operations, student communities and host communities. This integration made the universities socially, environmentally and economically relevant.

Since 1904, when Rhodes University became one of Africa’s pioneer universities, African universities have attempted to embrace the triple mission of research, teaching and community engagement. While this mission has found relative success in research and teaching, it has been generally unsuccessful in community engagement.

MESA specifically targeted this third tier of the mission - to enhance mutually beneficial interaction between universities and communities. In order to equip universities to succeed in this venture, MESA prepared a sustainability innovations course toolkit that brought on board diverse pedagogic skills. In this regard, the toolkit was an ensemble of rich experiences and expertise.

Apart from the toolkit, MESA also organised training workshops for 85 university professors and lecturers from 29 African countries. Together with sustainability experts, they shared experiences and strategized for a common future where higher education powered sustainability.

Armed with the toolkit and the sustainability training, several universities in the MESA partnership developed curriculum frameworks that oriented towards social transformation and community-based knowledge, in the context of sustainability practices.   

In South Africa, Rhodes University initiated a research programme on indigenous knowledge in education. The 106-year old university also introduced new assignments that encouraged students to integrate theory with community engagement. In addition, the university developed strong links between the Education Faculty, Science Faculty and Business School. 

The University of Swaziland also developed strategic Education for Sustainable Development links between the Geography Department and the Education Department.  Similarly, Botswana University prepared a strategic networking framework between the Education Faculty and the Environmental Science Faculties.  Such reorganization has enabled universities in the MESA Partnership to address sustainability education in a holistic fashion.

Uganda too, has not been left behind. Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) developed a strategy for reorienting teaching in secondary school and making it more community relevant. The 21-year old university researched on the factors that limit interaction between schools and their neighboring communities. Consequently, MUST introduced new modules and materials with a stronger focus on indigenous knowledge and local experiences.

Almost one thousand kilometers away from MUST, Kenya’s Nairobi University incorporated environmental education for sustainable development into the ‘Contemporary Legal Problems Course’. The course now has an environment and development component in which students are required to understand the practical application of sustainability laws. Nairobi University Students responded positively to the new course content.

These curriculum changes did not come easy. Reorienting university courses is a lengthy process that can easily get caught up in bureaucracy. However, the MESA Universities Partnership provided positive peer pressure and a highly credible continental framework that made it easier for universities in the partnership to embark on the sustainability mainstreaming process.


MESA encouraged and demanded responsibility from both the teaching staff and students. As teaching staff mainstream ESD into curricula, students were expected to study it creatively. As teaching staff mentored students on subjects such as consumption patterns, students had a corresponding duty to adjust not just their academic revisions, but their lifestyles too. This way, students don’t just accumulate knowledge – they apply it and take it back to their communities.

Environmental Africa

Environmental Africa uses creative writing to share Africa's Sustainability Promise and Plight

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