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Transdisciplinary research for sustainability solutions in urban Africa

Water sustainability, electricity, and resource savings, along with improved urban management – through its commitment to fostering transdisciplinary research on sustainability issues, the LIRA 2030 program has cultivated a community of researchers dedicated to enhancing the quality of life in urban Africa. These impacts extend far beyond the project's lifespan.

On 12 October, join us at 4:00 pm (CEST) | 5:00 pm EAT for the presentation of the LIRA 2030 programme final evaluation and its findings to promote transdisciplinary research. Join the presentation directly via this link.

The Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA) programme wrapped up in 2021, but teams across Africa are continuing to publish and build on research beyond the programme’s six-year lifespan. 

LIRA funded research from young African scientists focusing on science solutions to immediate urban sustainability problems. Launched after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, LIRA included scientists in 22 countries. 

Each project connected scientists in at least two African cities, bringing together scholars with a wide range of specialties so that teams could investigate problems from a variety of angles. 

The transdisciplinary teams looked at issues from improving air quality to cleaning up urban waterways and implementing clean energy in informal settlements – creating a growing body of research that has filled in data gaps, informed policy changes and formed a community of young researchers working on urgent problems.

Water sustainability

A team led by Anita Etale at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa focused on water access. Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are growing rapidly, but access to water inside the home declined across the region between 1990 and 2015, with existing infrastructure unable to keep up with expanding urban populations. 

This has been a particular problem in Ghana and South Africa, the research team notes. In Ghana, just 24% of urban households have access to water inside their homes – a number that increases to only 36% in the capital, Accra. With the city’s rapid growth expected to continue, authorities are under mounting pressure to find solutions. 

Treating and reusing wastewater could be a practical solution to this problem. It cuts water use and shortens the cycle, and it’s cheaper and easier on the environment than desalination, which is already used in Ghana. Reuse is already a key part of water infrastructure in Namibia, which has been a pioneer in the field, along with Singapore. 

But it has a persistent problem: what researchers call “the disgust factor.” Many people find the idea of recycled water gross, and worry it’s unsafe to drink. “It is just disgusting and unimaginable for me to drink water that previously contained urine and toilet,” one respondent told the researchers. 

That “emotional displeasure” is hard to overcome, even for those who know the water is safe – like an engineer and official at a wastewater treatment plant who told researchers: “There is no way I will drink it.” 

Using surveys, focus groups and interviews, the team gathered extensive data to understand the barriers to water reuse, and how they might be overcome. What they found was encouraging: with the right information and context, the team found, people who had been skeptical of the idea of reusing water could be convinced to give it a try. Their results offer guidance to urban authorities on how to build residents’ trust and implement water reuse – which may turn out to be a key tool in improving health and development. 

Community engagement encourages electricity saving

A LIRA team led by Gladman Thondhlana at Rhodes University in South Africa looked at another pressing sustainability challenge: household energy efficiency. 

The problem itself is straightforward, the researchers note: inefficient energy use hurts the environment – a big concern in South Africa, where 70% of electricity comes from coal, and where demand outstripping supply can cause rolling blackouts – and it slows development by saddling lower-income households with unnecessarily large bills. 

Part of the solution is changing electricity use patterns to reduce usage and bills. But often when authorities try to design programs to do that, they don’t consult the people who will be affected – a key misstep that makes those efforts less effective, the researchers argue. 

The team used a range of methods to figure out how to target interventions more effectively. They arranged workshops, surveyed hundreds of households and set up meetings in communities in South Africa and Ghana to gather perspectives. After gathering initial data, they convened follow-up dialogues for individuals and community groups to talk about energy use. 

Informed by their research, the team drew up a list of electricity-saving techniques, and put them to the test in several South African communities over 11 months. By the end of the research period, households using the team’s full suite of energy-saving techniques saved six times more electricity than the control

Beyond the immediate environmental and financial benefits, the researchers argue, the study highlights the importance of involving individual people in energy-saving projects and emphasizing their own agency and social responsibility. 

Ongoing learning

Findings from Thondhlana and Etale’s teams are part of a growing body of research produced by LIRA teams, which includes more than 60 papers, as well as policy briefs, books and other media – and which has formed the basis of master’s and postgraduate degrees for the next generation of African scientists. 

That research includes unique data on urban sustainability challenges, which is being used to target work toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “The future of African urbanism is not singular but rather differentiated according to local contexts,” a recent ISC report notes. 

The project’s most important achievement, a recent ISC report suggests, is encouraging the creation of a continent-spanning community of early-career scholars who are taking on urban sustainability challenges. 

The hundreds of scientists associated with the project have “done more than any other group on the continent to substantially advance volume, quantity and the relevance of urban research on the continent,” writes Susan Parnell, Chair of the LIRA Scientific Advisory Committee.

Final Evaluation of the LIRA 2030 Programme

The ‘Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA 2030)’ transdisciplinary programme, implemented by the International Science Council (ISC) and NASAC between 2016 and 2021, has been a real learning journey for many of its stakeholders.

To capture the programme insights and findings at its completion, a final evaluation was conducted by an international team of evaluators of the Responsive Research Collective, composed of experts from Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Australia. In the spirit of the LIRA programme, the evaluation team opted for a dialogical and formative approach to continue learning from the experiences of academic researchers, research partners from diverse sectors and communities, and program implementers. 

According to the evaluation, LIRA 2030 made a significant difference to enhancing the capacity for transdisciplinary sustainability research in Africa and in improving unsustainable situations in urban Africa. Furthermore, the programme environment of LIRA 2030 provided a particular learning opportunity in decolonizing research and international collaboration and valuing different ways of knowing, acting and being. 

To learn more about the impact of the LIRA 2030 programme, join us for the online presentation on 12 October at 4:00 pm CEST directly via this Zoom link.

Read the two LIRA 2030 Africa reports:

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