Eyes on Africa

Originally published: 
June, 2017

Author: Denise Spranger

"China is barely seen as a developing country because they have brought so many people out of poverty, while Latin America and Southeast Asia are just behind. Africa has always been the laggard. But now it's seeing a boost in investment and new attention coming from the recognition that Africa has resources that the rest of the world wants" - Professor Dan Brown

For many of us in the global north, our vision of Africa remains blurred with misconceptions. We often fail to recognize it as the world’s second largest continent—home to 54 nations, one “self-governing territory,” and an estimated 3,000 tribes. It is also a land of contrasts. While Africa may be the world’s poorest and least industrialized continent, it is rich in cultural-, racial-, and bio-diversity, and abundant in natural resources.

Holding 30 percent of Earth’s remaining minerals and the largest reserves of precious metals within its soil, Africa poses the question of not whether it will undergo, but how.

Efforts to make that development a sustainable one, says Interim Dean and Professor Dan Brown, begins with seeing the continent more clearly.

“In the context of Africa,” Brown said, “we must bring together our understanding of the colonial legacies, economic development, trade, urbanization, agricultural technology, and cultural diversity that is present on the continent. That makes it a really interesting place for environmental problem solving.”

Solving those problems, he said, requires interdisciplinary approaches and collaboration. “There is a synergy,” Brown said, “in the complex interaction of challenges in a developing continent like Africa that requires sensitivity to culture, economy, politics, environment, agriculture, forests, and fisheries. All of these things converge because so many African communities are living in closer contact with the environment.”

“The problems of sustainability and environment in Africa, as anywhere, defy simple solutions,” Brown added. “But there are little pieces of the puzzle that we’re all working on. For students interested in sustainable development, Africa presents diverse opportunities to gain experience while making a real impact.”

We asked a few of the many SEAS engineers, anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists involved in sustainable development in Africa to speak about their work and share their perspectives.

ETHIOPIA: Land Grabs

"There has been a very widespread perspective, which looks at poor countries as being 'developing'. Or the changes in countries that achieve higher levels of economic well-being as 'progress'. But not all forms of economic progress are positive. How sustainable is what we are calling 'progress' in the forms in which it's taking place-- either in the rich countries, or in the poor countries that are getting richer?" - Arun Agrawal

Brown and Professor Arun Agrawal, in collaboration with Professor Jane Southworth, chair of the Department of Geography at the University of Florida, are leading a project to study the impacts of land transactions and investments on agricultural production, ecosystem services, and food-energy security in Ethiopia. The region has witnessed thousands of land transactions, or “land grabs,” which allow foreign investors, including those from the United States, to develop large-scale agricultural operations.

“Some of the investments we’re seeing are from India and Saudi Arabia—places that need land for food production,” said Brown. “But some is from internal investors. You can’t look at agricultural intensification in Ethiopia absent the cultural overlay that the country’s ruling ethnic group is willing to sell the land of other ethnic groups, and thereby create ethnic conflicts.”

Brown noted that the ruling ethnic group, the Tigrayans, make up only 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population of more than 100 million, but have benefitted from disproportionate influence and representation in government for the past 25 years.

Agrawal pointed out that while the majority of research on land acquisitions in Africa has focused primarily on social equity outcomes, the SNRE collaborative project will add greater emphasis on the ecological and economic impacts of those land grabs on a broader base of people.

“What excites me are the long-term impacts,” said Agrawal. “People have not looked at how these land transactions—in five, ten, twenty years—might impact nutrition, health, and the growing epidemic of noncommunicable diseases.”

“The immediate impacts are so negative, particularly in agricultural communities,” Agrawal added, “that the negatives have dominated scholarly work, as well as the news.”

Brown noted that the team works with faculty in other disciplines across campus.

“We’re not the only ones looking at land-tenure issues,” he said. “We’re talking with Professors Kelly Askew and Howard Stein in anthropology, who are looking at how these foreign investments are affecting rural livelihoods. We’re learning how their work can inform ours and how ours may help them.”

KENYA: Creating a New Narrative

"When I was first away at university, I tried to quell my homesickness for Kenya by reading the accounts of early-19th-century explorers to the region. But these were the perspectives of white elites who had no understanding of the landscape. Eventually I learned to push back with critical inquiry. 'Why did they frame things the way they did? Who benefits, and who loses out? What is the narrative of the local people? Where was their voice? - Bilal Butt

Assistant Professor Bilal Butt is a native of Kenya and a faculty affiliate of the U-M African Studies Center. As a people-environment geographer with regional specialization in sub-Saharan Africa, he engages both SNRE and Kenyan students, as well as locals, in his research.

“We’re really interested in figuring out whether the presence of wildlife and livestock on the same landscape results in competition or cooperation,” said Butt. “Many people think that when you see domestic livestock living side-by-side with wildlife, that the livestock take away from the resources available for wildlife. That’s the dominant perspective, and we’re trying to dig a bit deeper and see whether there might be alternatives to that perspective using scientific tools such as geospatial technologies and ecological monitoring.”

The belief that the livestock of pastoralists competed with wildlife contributed to a 60 percent reduction of the Maasai tribe’s lands in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as European colonialists sought to keep the region rich with wild game. For much the same reason, Maasai lands were further restricted with the establishment of national parks and wildlife reserves in the 1940s and 1950s.

It has only been in the past 10 years, Butt related, that due to the work of a handful of scholars, a rapid shift has occurred in how the role of pastoralists is perceived.

“You can start with a basic question,” said Butt. “Which came first, the national parks or local people and their livestock? The answer is obvious. Nairobi National Park was established in 1946, just 70 years ago. That’s very, very new compared to how local people managed landscapes for thousands of years prior.”

“So with new science, with more attention to community and local institutions,” Butt added, “we’re starting to understand that local people use and modify the landscape in ways that are not necessarily damaging or deleterious to the environment. That’s extremely important, because it provides a counter narrative to existing scientific discourses.”

Butt noted that during precolonial times, the governing of resources by people such as the Maasai was quite sophisticated.

In the traditional practice of pastoralists, they moved their livestock from wet-season to dry-season lands in annual cycles, and consequently did not degrade any particular area through over foraging.

“It is a great relief to us,” added Butt, “that the UN and the conservation movement are now acknowledging that the pastoralists are an important part of this land.”


"I remember what a Maasai man once told me. He said, 'When you come to see us, think of us like the Native Americans before their way of life disappeared. My people are being swallowed up by the world around us-- our way of life, who we were. Everything is changing. So where do we take our cattle today? Tell me, where do we go with our cattle?" - Mayank Vikas

The Maasai are a seminomadic people in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. For centuries, they lived under a communal land management system, and herded their livestock between wet and dry landscapes in seasonal rotation. Traditionally, the Maasai relied on the cattle for nutrition, and on their byproducts for shelter. Formidable warriors, the Massai offered fierce resistance to the slave trade, defending themselves as well as members of neighboring tribes. 

Maasai lands were dramatically reduced by British colonization and further diminished by the establishment of national parks and wildlife reserves. No longer able fully to sustain their pastorial way of life, today's Maasai--with an estimated population of one million--face growing poverty, disease, and famine, exacerbated by a lack of access to healthcare, education, and safe drinking water. 

Despite these hardships, the Maasai are a resilient people, and struggle to adapt to the sociopolitical realities imposted upon them. Many are now involved with agriculture, previously a taboo among the Maasai, and some have relocated to urban centers for employment. 

There are several NGOs working with the Maasai, including the community-based Maasai Association, which supports education, sustainable economic development, healthcare, and cultural preservation. 


International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) researcher and recent graduate Mayank Vikas (MS ’16) is also interested in broadening the Kenyan narrative.

An Indian national, Vikas focused his master’s thesis on urban protected areas in and around the capital cities of Delhi and Nairobi. As part of his research, he conducted surveys of 400 villagers to gauge patterns of land ownership and use, issues of wildlife conflict, and the viability of securing contiguous multi use landscapes outside these cities for both people and wildlife.

Vikas explained that before colonization of Kenya, large swaths of land, including present day Amboseli, Mount Kenya, and Nairobi National Parks, were shared by both people and wildlife, and provided a corridor for the seasonal migration of wildebeest and other ungulates—along with the lions and cheetahs that followed them. With the establishment and growth of the capital city of Nairobi, however, the northern migratory route became largely blocked. The area that remained open in the south, Vikas added, is now riddled with fences as land privatization increases, further preventing migration.

Along with the impacts on wildlife, the fragmentation of formerly communal lands has direct consequences for the Maasai tribe.

“In precolonial times, private property was not a concept,” said Vikas. “Everyone shared common resources according to customs.”

That all changed with the privatization of Maasai lands, Vikas said.

“There may have been 30 families that originally owned a common property of 1,000 acres,” he said. “When the government parceled the acres equally between those families, everyone got their own block of land. 1,000 divided by 30.”

The resulting acreage proves insufficient for the seasonal movement of the herds, and as other tribes move in, they are often at odds with Maasai traditions.

“The Maasai don’t kill herbivores,” said Vikas. “For example, they will never kill an ungulate such as an antelope. This is because they ask themselves, ‘Has God not given you enough goats, sheep, and cattle—that you must kill an antelope to eat it?’”

Other tribes, however, hunt ungulates for bush meat. “And so,” Vikas said, “conflict is beginning.”

As the population burgeons in Nairobi, land parcels bordering the capital city have also become attractive to the affluent and emerging middle class.

“When the Maasai sell their land, it’s not to buy a new home, new clothes, or a car,” he said. “It’s to pay school fees. They recognize that the world is changing faster than they can change, and like all parents, don’t want their children to be left behind.”

Vikas noted that Kenya is slowly adopting the factory farming of cattle employed by many industrialized nations.

“It’s sad that while America is beginning to embrace the idea of grass-fed cattle, we see the slow demise of the pastoral system in Kenya,” he said. “But that’s why I’m doing this kind of comparative research between places. Everyone doesn’t have to make the same mistakes.

“There is an Urdu saying,” Vikas added. “‘History has been forced to witness this travesty: that moments make mistakes, and centuries pay the price.’”

LIBERIA: Infrastructure

Assistant Professor of Practice Jose Alfaro focuses on a different set of issues: how to bring renewable energy—with the complementary goals of electrification and sustainable development—to the rural Liberian population.

Alfaro’s work propels him into two very different spheres.

The first is a high-level approach to determine how the government, or other policy makers, can integrate renewable resources. He also works on a grassroots level with Sustainability Without Borders (SWB), the student organization that he founded in 2011 while still a doctoral student at SNRE. Most recently in summer 2016, the SWB team worked with their primary partner in Liberia, the Christian Revival Church Association (CRCA), to repair the aquaponics system installed by the team two years earlier.

SWB also built a biodigester in one of CRCA’s farms. Asked whether he feels optimistic about the trajectory of sustainable development in Africa, he answered, “It depends on the day. From the bottom up, on the grass roots level, I feel very optimistic. I work with some incredible NGOs that are doing excellent work. From the top down, in the area of changing policy, it’s harder to remain optimistic. We have to get this bureaucracy— this 800-pound gorilla—moving.”

As an engineer, Alfaro noted that he targets specific paths for development by using technology to provide sanitation, electrification, and infrastructure for water distribution. But one of the problems Alfaro sees is the tendency of industrialized countries to encourage Africa to follow the historical path that they have taken.

“In the case of energy infrastructure,” Alfaro said, “the World Bank says, ‘Hey, we’re going to put in diesel generators, and then eventually we’ll move into hydro and then eventually…’ And it goes on and on. They don’t consider the fact that we did that in the West—and look at where it’s gotten us.”

Alfaro also questions the motivation behind various sustainability projects implemented by industrialized nations on the African continent.

“I think we tend to be a little hypocritical about why we want African resources to be sustainable,” he said. “It’s no secret that there are a lot of resources there that we need access to. So how is it that we have that access, but those people and those communities are not benefiting? On a grassroots level, that’s a huge question.”

Perhaps that is why Alfaro, who is committed to ethical international engagement, especially values his work with Sustainability Without Borders students on projects that benefit communities in direct ways— such as building a biodigester that provides fuel for cooking, or installing a solar-powered pump that brings safe drinking water into local homes. “I enjoy our work with communities, and figuring things out on a grassroots level,” said Alfaro. “That’s where my passion is.”


As we try to see Africa more clearly, new questions arise, along with new challenges. SNRE faculty and students meet those challenges through groundbreaking research and community-based projects. “Our commitment,” said Dan Brown, “is to ensure that our contributions impact the people, environment, and development of Africa in ways that are not only beneficial, but also sustainable. That is our vision, and the inspiration that drives our work."