Academic institutions look for local solutions to climate change

As the effects of shifting weather patterns continue to be felt across various sectors of the Kenyan economy, institutions of higher learning in the country are preparing people to adapt. The University of Nairobi, for example, has opened an Institute of Climate Change and Adaptation for masters and post-graduate studies, which is getting interested applicants from all sectors of the economy.

“We had initially considered starting short courses to cater to different sectors and needs but we later realised there was need to have an extensive curriculum because climate change is so broad,” says Professor Shem Wandiga, the Institute’s acting director.

“We therefore felt we needed to craft a syllabus that touched on every single aspect of climate change, because very many of our people still need awareness. They still treat it as an alien concept,” he adds. Notable subjects in the two year programme include climate change mitigation, which entails understanding of the greenhouse gas concept, sources of emissions and emissions reduction. Other units include the impact of climate variability, and climate change policies, legislation and treaties.

The Institute is also spearheading an aggressive discussion on what should be included in the Climate Change Authority Bill 2012 that is to be debated by parliament. This follows a rejection of the earlier bill by the Kenyan President for, among other reasons, lack of consultation with major players like the academic and research institutions.

"We want to spend our energy and efforts on creating resilience for our people, who are grappling with understanding why there has been a dramatic shift in rainfall and sunshine patterns," says Wandiga. "Our research and activities will be trying to help such people to develop survival and adaptation systems. We are going to look at adaptation as well as mitigation. As a university, we also have to look at the science."

The first two semesters are spent helping students acquaint themselves with the basics of the climate change sector. For the rest of the course, students are free to choose from a range of subjects, including agriculture, water management, energy and pastoralism. “If we are to get serious about providing lasting adaptation and mitigation solutions we need climate change specialists who are adequately trained on specific areas,” says Prof. Manuel Wendo. “We have those who focus specifically on issues that touch on climate change and food security, and the same case with energy and the rest,” he adds.

Kenyatta University, another leading academic institution in the country has also established a department at the School of Environment to offer a Masters of Environmental Studies in Climate Change and Sustainability. Courses offered here include ‘Emissions Trading in Climate Change Studies’ and ‘Climate and the Global Warming Phenomenon’, among others.

Caleb Aiyabei, a banker, has gone back to school for a masters degree in climate change. For Aiyabei, the growing number who have abandoned farming in his rural area because of delayed rains and planting seasons, is worrying. “I come from Rift Valley area, which is regarded as the breadbasket of the country.

But the farmers in our area who rely on rainfed agriculture have recorded repeated yield losses, as the traditional planting seasons become altered due to delayed rains.” says Aiyabei. “They believe they have been cursed by the gods. I felt it was important to arm myself with information to explain to them in the simplest way possible what is happening and how they can actually benefit from the change in climate,” he adds.

With other students from the Institute, Aiyabei goes for field trips to talk to farmers and identify what has been happening since weather patterns changed, while offering them practical methods to protect themselves. For example, they have shown the farmers the benefits of intercropping coffee with bananas, which serve as fertiliser for the coffee, while the leaves shade the coffee from the bright sun, and the bananas feed their families while they wait for the coffee to be harvested. The banana and coffee canopy and root systems strongly reduce erosion in hilly regions and store carbon, according to Aiyabei.

While innovations to counter the effects of climate change continue to be developed by the academic institutions, the ability to scale them to reach critical mass is still the institutions’ biggest challenge. “Students are doing research and coming up with impressive ideas. These local solutions however are stuck at the research stage because the students and these institutions are not adequately equipped financially to roll them out to the public. So these ideas, some which are spectacular in terms of mitigation and adaptation, gather dust in university shelves, “says Prof Mary Ang’ore, who lectures on climate change.

A solution to this however seems to have finally been found through the recent launch of a climate innovation centre that is turning ideas into reality. Dubbed the Kenya Climate Innovation Center (CIC), it aims to accelerate locally owned, locally developed solutions to climate change and is supported by the World Bank's infoDev programme in partnership with the government of Denmark and UKAid.

The facility offers financing, training and mentorship to a growing network of climate innovators and entrepreneurs and hopes to support up to 70 sustainable climate technology ventures in the first five years while mitigating 65 million tons of greenhouse gases. It has already sponsored 32 projects less than a year since it was established.

The CIC also aims to help new entrepreneurs and small businesses commercialise their technologies and create more jobs for local people. It focuses on agribusiness, renewable energy and water management, which it says require serious intervention, especially for the sake of the rural poor. Entrepreneurs interested in joining the innovation hub submit proposals. If accepted, they have access to financing that is often difficult or impossible to secure in the developing world.

The CIC provides them office facilities, technical support, assistance with company and tax registration, and even how to write an effective business plan. The idea pitched however must be ‘not business as usual’, having a positive impact on the environment while producing profits and reducing vulnerability among rural communities.

Successful entrepreneurs receive funding of up to US $100,000, with the majority of those who have successfully applied coming straight from institutions of higher learning, and having ambitious ideas but no means to execute them. “These ideas range from how to use renewable and affordable energy, how to earn more carbon credits or how to create mechanisms of ensuring clean and safe water for rural poor at a time when drought has put a strain on water availability and access,” says Ernest Chitechi, the Partnership and Outreach Manager at CIC.

Keneth Ndua, a young entrepreneur who has benefitted from the programme, is developing a high-efficiency stove that simultaneously cooks and purifies water through boiling. “I want to provide clean water and cooking to 24,000 households, and create 550 jobs, 400 of which will be for women,” he says. “The support of the CIC is enabling me to commercialise and roll-out my products at the national level.”
The CIC is working to encourage more institutions of higher learning to have specific climate change courses, and to tap into ideas which they can then seek to commercialise through the funding.

The centre is also building an electronic library, working with universities and other research institutions to develop a repository for local climate change information, which is currently limited. The library is to be accessed by scholars, media and members of the public. “It’s creating as much awareness as possible on all sectors affected by climate change and the mitigation factors for our local people,” says Ernest Chitechi. “We are working closely with institutions of higher learning, who are giving us their findings and surveys,” he adds.

The heightened interest in the climate change debate comes as scientists indicate that although climate change is a global challenge, its effects are felt most strongly in Africa which relies hugely on agriculture for survival. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) estimates that temperature increases will be, on average, 50 percent greater in Africa. Scientists predict that a global rise of 4°C would cause temperatures to increase by up to 7°C in Southern and East Africa, a climactic change that would drastically threaten livelihoods in the region.


This article was written with the support of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN)