Strathmore University in Kenya has emerged as one of the ‘greenest’ universities in Africa, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Among its many sustainability initiatives are recycling, ‘green buildings’ and efforts to reduce its environmental impact by installing a 600 kilowatt photovoltaic grid tie system.
During an interview with University World News, Professor Izael Da Silva, who has played a leading role in some of the institution’s ground-breaking sustainability initiatives, shared his insights on the driving forces behind Strathmore University’s work around sustainability and the inclusion of faculty members and students.
Da Silva is deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Strathmore University and also UNESCO chair on climate change, resilience and sustainability.
UWN: Strathmore University adopted sustainability as its key theme for 2023. What progress has been made in this field from an institutional standpoint and how has it been incorporated into research, educational programmes and other operations?
IDS: Strathmore University’s journey towards sustainability started over a decade ago and we have continued to grow its different spheres, from developing sustainable buildings and waste management projects to production of gas using food leftovers.
Our theme for 2023 is called ‘Sustainability – Caring for our common home – A reflection on building a sustainable future’, which can be a positive thing on our email signature, but is it mainstream, and is it going to be there for the future? That is the main question.
The Strathmore family, from students to staff and faculty leaders, have worked towards sustainability throughout the year. Our environmental club has, through a number of projects, encouraged staff and students to adopt sustainable ideals to ensure that we reduce our environmental impact.
The club has planted 1,000 trees around our campus. They ran the ‘Bring Your Own Bottle’ campaign on social media to discourage the use of plastics, and also organised a ‘single use’ sustainable awareness week to inform students and staff of the negative impacts of using plastics on health and on the environment.
The university implemented a comprehensive energy conservation programme reducing energy consumption by 20%. Our solar project, which is connected to the national grid, was installed [in 2016] to subsidise the energy demands of our kitchen, student centre and other departments.
Our research and innovation department has spearheaded several projects for sustainable impact, for example the Geothermal Atlas for Africa, a training [initiative] on geothermal systems, their applications, thermodynamic modelling and project finance.
Recently, our undergraduate students from the school of computing and engineering were able to visit the Olkaria plant in Naivasha to learn about geothermal systems.
Under the AMBITION project, we developed a joint honours programme as a sustainability course, which seeks to enhance the education of young professionals and talented PhD students from Europe and Africa and equip them with the tools to become sustainable development ambassadors and promote a culture of sustainability in their research.
UWN:What has been the overall institutional vision, practices and policies in line with sustainability?
IDS: Our environmental sustainability policy at Strathmore University emphasises that the principles of sustainability will be embedded in our academic curriculum, research activities and extracurricular activities to promote environmental awareness and develop learners’ skills, values and knowledge on sustainable development.
Strathmore University currently has the UNESCO chair for climate change, resilience and sustainability, which guides our vision and the university’s work to mainstream policy and research for a positive impact on society. Researchers within the UNESCO chair have carried out cross-cutting research on energy efficiency, water and waste management and sustainable buildings.
We envision that the impact of our activities around sustainability has to be continuous and long term and, for this to happen, we have to combine three stakeholders – government, the private sector and academia.
Government is important because they foster national laws, policies and regulations. Kenya for instance has a law for dissemination of solar systems, which includes limiting of taxes, therefore making it cheaper and more viable. This supports our vision to expand our energy systems. Likewise, collaboration with private players has led Strathmore University to reach milestones in our sustainability work.
UWN: How important is leadership in driving and advancing sustainable development education at African universities? As the deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation, how have you strived to achieve this and what are some of the challenges encountered?
IDS: Leadership is an important component in achieving the overall vision and institutional goals on sustainability. An inter-disciplinary approach is equally important when designing the learning, teaching, research and operations that build towards sustainable practice.
As leaders, we create better platforms for students to engage with the concept of sustainability and establish pathways for participation in sustainable development activities. Most importantly, sustainability has to be incorporated in the practical areas where our students and faculty members have worked to gear the university towards net zero.
One of the challenges we have encountered at regional level is that the culture of doing research is not there within institutions of learning. Only a few African academics publish; therefore as leaders of research and innovation we need to change the mentality. In some cases, financial resources are limited.
For example, our lecturers get overwhelmed by teaching, and are unable to use provisioned time and resources for research. It is the expectation of the research department that they use one day of the week for this purpose. However, for the past three years, most of the lecturers have failed to publish any reports or research papers. This is something that, as the heads of department, we must address.
We recently set up a system of training on how to write proposals, apply for research grants, do literature reviews, methodology and so on. Moving forward, we intend to place more effort and input into developing our research management system to encourage early career researchers in the fields of climate change and sustainable development.
UWN: How can leadership be developed around this theme at all university levels? In what ways are student-led projects helping to promote sustainable development and do the activities include collaborative work with other institutions and community engagement?
IDS: What is important to us is to change the mindset of the students, and to introduce a culture of sustainability in their learning, research and engagement with communities.
We have aimed to impart knowledge and skills on sustainable development across faculties and departments. Some of our student-led activities include work-based learning, community-based learning and challenge-based learning, which involves solving critical societal challenges such as developing sustainable cooking models.
In the university, we count as success the things we incorporate into our day-to-day lives. For example, our environmental sustainability policy covers creating awareness on energy efficiency, reforestation and conservation activities.
In our tree planting projects, we involved first-year students to guarantee that for the next four years they are fully immersed in sustainable activities that help to reduce carbon footprint. Our computer sciences and engineering students have been leading in key initiatives.
We also allocated resources to build laboratories in order to provide adequate training to our students on energy efficiency models and systems such as designing and installation of energy grids and utilities.
Due to these efforts, we have been able to generate enough energy to provide a power source for campus lighting, charging of electronics, water cooling systems, laboratories and other activities within the institution.
Our students and faculty members have also been instrumental in building and designing energy models and systems. For example, the Kenya Carbon Emission Reduction Tool 2050 is an open-source modelling tool designed through the data science and analytics department to assess energy supply and demand scenarios within the context of climate and energy systems.
The carbon calculator’s primary goal is to facilitate the transition towards a low-carbon society by looking ahead to 2050 and beyond.
This analytical tool is tailored to model Kenya’s energy system comprehensively, including the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions. It provides a means to explore pathways leading to decarbonisation, including achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and extending this vision to 2100.
UWN: At COP28, what will be Strathmore University’s focus areas and how does this feed into climate change and sustainable development conversation?
IDS: My desire for COP28 is to see some actionable input from global leaders. We will be looking to team up and collaborate with other stakeholders in terms of our energy initiatives. Our programme at the ‘African universities race to net zero’, which brings together different fields from engineering, actuarial, business and social sciences, will also feed into our focus at the events.
We have to commit ourselves and look for people who are willing to invest in energy in Africa. Africa has 54 countries and more than 1.3 billion people, and yet our economies are much smaller compared to some single European countries.
Africa has a number of challenges that need to be addressed, such as lack of safe drinking water, sanitation and energy, including sustainable cooking systems. We will be looking at getting investments and collaborations that will help to spearhead more training around these critical areas.
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