Promoting Sustainable Development: The Role of Higher Education Institutions in Africa



Arguably, the greatest challenges to sustainable development are environmental issues. In a region like Africa, few issues are more important than environment-related problems of food security, poverty, disease, land degradation, water security, climate change, conflicts, deforestation, natural disasters, and urbanization. There is ever growing concern among African leaders about the danger of global warming, the loss of biodiversity and the potential for conflict growing out of competition over dwindling natural resources and other environmental-related issues.

Cognisant of the importance of sustainable development to Africa, the AAU dedicated both the 2006 and 2008 editions of its African Universities Day celebrations to the theme “Role of Higher Education in Promoting Sustainable Development in Africa”. This was also the theme of its 12th General Conference held in Abuja, Nigeria in May 2009. Achieving sustainable development in Africa has therefore been included as one of the new programmes in the Core Programme (2013-2017).

The AAU’s programme on “Achieving Sustainable Development” aims at ensuring that the continent’s higher education institutions continues to remain relevant to the continent’s developmental needs by developing innovative local strategies to entrench values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future and for positive societal transformation.

Africa’s stock of human resources is enormous and the potential to tap into this for accelerated development has been emphasized over the decades. The continent’s higher education institutions should not only mainstream education for sustainable development in their activities but should also ensure that the review of the learning materials reflect the latest scientific understanding of sustainable development. They also need to set examples by, for example, introducing energy saving measures, recycling waste and generally helping to create a clean, healthy and safe campus environment conducive to teaching and learning.

The key activities under the Programme were under four sub-themes, namely: Agriculture and Food Security; Water Resources Management; Climate Change; and Energy.

Agriculture and Food Security

It was estimated that Africa is home to two-thirds of all countries suffering food insecurity and present trends would mean that the number of chronically undernourished in Sub-Saharan Africa would rise from the current 180 to 300 million by the year 2010. In spite of the presence of higher education and research institutions with strong programmes in agriculture, in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, farming is still at subsistence level and in most cases it is lagging behind population growth. Hence supporting agriculture, especially in rural areas, by mounting appropriate courses, undertaking research and engaging the community, would ensure food security while improving the incomes of the farmers and thereby contribute to poverty reduction.

One of the ways through which higher education institutions in Africa can promote food security is in the area of capacity building – enhancing the ability of individuals, groups, organisations and communities to address their food and nutrition security challenges. This will require promoting appropriate technologies, devising curricula and creating research networks in the African higher education system.

Water Resources Management

Between 1960 and 1980, water resources on the continent declined from 16.5 million cubic metres per capita to 9.4. Although some African countries, particularly in West and Central Africa, have more than enough water on a per capita basis, population growth and economic development are creating excess demand over supply. With Africa’s population expected to exceed 1 billion by 2025, access to clean water is increasingly a challenge, mostly in the rural and peri-urban areas. This compounds the risk of recurrent and localised drought, decreased food security, water-borne and water-related diseases that cause millions of deaths each year, and environmental degradation. In view of all these, water resources management becomes critically essential.

Climate Change

Accelerated development is having an increasingly negative impact on the physical environment, thereby interfering with the global climate system. General observations give a collective picture of a warming world and mathematical models of global climate patterns suggest that there may be long-term temperature increase, leading to adverse changes in world climate patterns. Africa remains highly vulnerable to global climatic changes, compounding the already known threats to food and water security, disease, land degradation, poverty, deforestation, natural disasters and urbanization.


Rural Africa continues to remain outside energy assessment and planning, which are normal practices for industry, commerce and transport. This is due, in part, to the inadequate attention paid to rural energy a country has on the national energy balance sheet as well as the dispersed and often non-monetised nature of rural energy. Breaking the current energy bottleneck to sustainable energy systems requires environmentally sound, socially acceptable and economically viable systems characterised by a move from the present levels of subsistence energy usage based on human labour and fuel wood resources, to a situation where household, services and farming activities use a range of sustainable and diversified energy sources. Likewise, the implications of a shift to biofuels as alternative energies responding to the present energy crisis on a global level appear challenging in maintaining a balance between food and energy security.

Very important to note, the oil and gas boom in Africa is a recent phenomenon, and in countries like Nigeria which is an OPEC member, the inefficient management of this resource has become more of a curse to the local communities than a blessing for the whole country at large. African universities need to equip their faculty and students with the skills needed to explore the emerging market in the petroleum industry to the benefit of the oil exporting countries.




Contact Person: Project Officer:

Ransford O. Bekoe: