HomeStandard StyleHow African universities can lead climate-friendly development

How African universities can lead climate-friendly development

In southern Africa, where populations are among the most vulnerable in the world, climate change threatens to slow down, and even reverse development, unless there are concerted efforts to make development climate-resilient.

By Piyushi Kotecha


In 2017, selected universities in southern Africa will start to roll out the region’s first open-access, interdisciplinary master’s curriculum and courseware on climate change. This has been developed by Southern African Development Community (Sadc) stakeholders for the benefit of Sadc universities and countries.

The product of six years of preparatory work on the part of the Southern African Regional Universities Association (Sarua), with support from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), the new curriculum marks a pioneering step towards regional academic collaboration, but also a new approach to knowledge production and research.

The curriculum is part of a broader framework for transdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge co-production across research, teaching and learning and community engagement. It also highlights the gaps that policy makers across the region need to address, and enables universities to have a material effect on the region’s future development path while taking a leading role in confronting the region’s climate change knowledge and policy challenges.

Climate change is inherently complex in scope and scale. The need to work on multiple fronts has opened up new opportunities for interdisciplinary and “transdisciplinary” research, teaching and engagement with communities, policy-makers and practitioners.

The new climate change curriculum embodies “knowledge co-production” between sectors and academic disciplines. This calls for social scientists to collaborate with colleagues from the natural, human and engineering sciences. It also calls upon all researchers to work more closely with decision-makers, practitioners and other users of their research.

Traditionally, research has been based on a single discipline. While this kind of focus remains important for in-depth and high-quality knowledge, climate change has highlighted a growing need to expand and adapt research approaches towards new, institutionally more complex forms of knowledge production that have a greater chance of meeting societal needs.

Transdisciplinary research builds on multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to developing new theoretical understandings and praxis, which can respond to complex contexts.


This approach is increasingly being seen as a real opportunity for innovation. Climate compatible development (CCD) is a social-ecological science with many intractable and complex dimensions that arise at the interface of environment and societal relations and social practices. Engaging in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary knowledge production requires new ways of relating, thinking and doing because of its interest in new synthesis and creative deployment of knowledge in contexts of practice across scales and sectors
In sustainability circles the concept of a “food-energy-water nexus” is now gaining significant traction. According to UN Water, the global community is well aware of food, energy and water challenges, but has so far addressed them within sectoral boundaries.

Like CCD, the nexus concept recognises the interdependence of sectors such as agriculture, energy and water, as well as the futility of dealing with any sector in isolation — either in terms of research or policy formulation. Such interdependence becomes particularly acute in the context of climate change and increased resource demands which are expected to cause frequent and severe strains on these systems.

Against this backdrop, new partnerships are needed between researchers and a much wider range of societal actors. These can include practitioners and members of civil society. The partnerships themselves recognise that there are different kinds of knowledge and ways of producing it, such as learning by doing, also called social learning.


Importantly, these shifts in the way knowledge is produced, inform and give rise to a cross-sectoral approach, which moves away from the idea of policy making in silos.

The Programme for Climate Change Capacity Development comprises three other envisaged networks in addition to the curriculum innovation network already established to oversee the creation of the master’s curriculum. These are a capacity development network and a meta-research network, and, on the policy front, the policy and institutional development network is aimed at strengthening institutional leadership and networks in order to better inform and influence regional climate change policy.

Henceforth, southern African researchers will need to integrate a strong focus on community and policy engagement into their research programming from the start of their research activities. They will need to share insights regularly with communities and policy makers, and obtain feedback on the research in progress. They will also need to avail opportunities for community members and policy makers to articulate research questions and needs, through a two-way process.

We believe that the Sarua master’s curriculum will help southern African researchers develop greater capacity in transdisciplinary research and knowledge co-production. With its unique approach to regional academic collaboration, it presents a blueprint for regional academic cross-sectoral curricula in critical “nexus” areas such as water, energy and agriculture, which will be useful in building capacity, and informing the kinds of policies the continent will need in order to cope with growing pressure for sustainable development in a changing climate.

Piyushi Kotecha is CEO of the Southern African Regional Universities Association.

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