Are Kenyan Universities Empowering Youth Towards Sustainable Development?

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Article by: Susan Njoroge

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Give me a fish and I will eat today, teach me how to fish, and I will eat for a lifetime.

Today’s world is fraught with numerous challenges ranging from poverty, climate change, pandemics, unemployment, poor housing and health services, hunger and food insecurity; among many more. The challenges can seem endless, but let us not forget that never has the world not been fraught with challenges, and probably never will it be.

Every generation, every decade or century, has been faced with its challenges; and humanity has always figured out a way to address or resolve them.

The challenges we are dealing with today are, potentially, greater than before, and climate change is the perfect example of that. Climate change is the change in the state of the climate (global and regional weather patterns) largely due to increased levels of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. The United Nations gives a detailed definition here.

Working in and learning about sustainability over the past decades of my life, I always wondered why people (myself included) and organisations struggled to understand why sustainable development is of paramount importance.

Sustainable Development is defined as ‘development that meets the needs of current generations, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ When you read it, it seems pretty obvious and makes complete sense. However, actually doing it right was not obvious at all.

Today, the world (governments, businesses, NGOs, citizens) have  Sustainable Development Goals. These are 17 goals for people and for the planet. These Global Goals define how we must move forward if future generations are to have the ability to meet their own needs. So back to my ‘wondering’, I began to ask myself, why hadn’t I learned about sustainable development in school or in university, given what’s at stake?

Education for sustainable development

In 2021, I decided to dig deeper into this, by focusing my master’s degree research on mainstreaming education for sustainable development into Kenyan universities. According to UNESCO, education for sustainable development ‘empowers learners of all ages with the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes to address the interconnected global challenges we are facing including climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, poverty, and inequality. Education is the foundation of a competent citizenry and workforce. Education shapes how we, as people, citizens and residents, think and act in our lives; and, as a result, education determines a country’s trajectory.

The number of universities in Kenya has grown exponentially. In the 1990s Kenya had only four universities, in 2007 there were seven universities.  Today, the 2019 national census disclosed that the country has 30 public universities, 30 chartered private universities, and 30 universities with Letter of Interim Authority (LIA).

The same census showed that 3.5% of the country’s population (approx.1.7million) has attained an undergraduate degree. From these statistics alone, universities have a key role and responsibility in equipping youth – their students – with the knowledge, skills, and values to drive Kenya’s development. Effective nation-building is the responsibility of both citizens and the state.

(A small diversion: the state is created by and composed of people, who are themselves citizens and/or residents. The state is not just a thing, a building, lifeless entity – despite legal definitions. In reality, it is a very large group of people/citizens, a.k.a civil servants, whose responsibilities and mandate are to build their country for the better. Now back to the main road.)

My research focused on one of Kenya’s leading universities, Strathmore University, and specifically on their business school’s undergraduate programmes. This focus was born from my career in business and sustainability. As such, this research was a case study.

In late 2019, Kenya’s Ministry of Education published A Guide to Mainstreaming Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Global Citizenship Education (GCED) into Kenyan Universities.’ I used this guide to appraise how the University’s business school was mainstreaming the Education for Sustainable Development only; intentionally leaving out the Global Citizenship Education component due to research constraints.

The guideline encouraged universities to mainstream ESD into:

  • planning and decision-making processes of the university
  • undergraduate courses in-class/taught and out of class/extra-curricular activities
  • strengthening capacity of university managers, educators, and staff

The Ministry’s guideline presented seven ESD concepts for this: 1) Energy Conservation, 2) Climate Change and environmental sustainability, 3) Disaster awareness, preparedness, and management, 4) Food and nutrition, 5) Sustainable production and utilization of resources, 6) Poverty eradication, and 7) Water and sanitation.

The current state of play in universities*

From a broader and global context, the research evidenced that:

  • Education transforms in all contexts when the curriculum includes sustainability. ESD is becoming the new normal globally allowing learners to address arising problems and leverage systems thinking (i.e. the means to understand complexity). However, it is important that ESD is made relevant to local contexts, as one size does not fit all.
  • Sustainability is now a business competitive advantage. The world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, released a report in mid-2020 showing that companies that were strong in their environmental, social, and governance profiles outperformed in the market.
  • Despite government and international commitments towards education sustainable development, ESD adoption faces numerous challenges and universities receive little support with resources and capacity to implement it.

(Watch a video on Kenyan perspectives on ESD and universities)

The research analysis on Strathmore University’s Business School showed that:

  • Half of the undergrad business students understood the concept of sustainable development, while the other half did not. Although some ESD concepts were being taught in class, all students interviewed want sustainable development mainstreamed into their in-class course content e.g. as a common unit.
  • Nearly all faculty understood sustainable development. Additionally, all faculty had received training on some of the ESD concepts, and at least half of the faculty integrated some ESD concepts into their taught programmes. However, capacity, resources, and support are lacking to integrate ESD curricular and extra-curricular activities.
  • Most university managers interviewed understood sustainable development. Sustainability is not new to the University and is integrated into the university’s strategy, operations e.g. its Business School’s green buildings. However, managers also highlighted the need for resources and support to effectively mainstream ESD, the need to localise ESD for Kenya and Africa, and the value of partnership and cooperation in moving forward.

*This is based on the research conducted on mainstreaming education for sustainable development into Kenyan universities: A case study.

Charting the way forward

Taking the research’s insights into consideration, Strathmore University proactively convened a university educators stakeholder session engaging with their peers on how local universities and business schools can take a greater role in embedding sustainable development thinking and practice for Kenya’s future.

At this session, university leaders acknowledged that universities must prepare students for the complexities of the future, and for contemporary life in Kenya. The educators also acknowledged that they would face challenges: adapting existing learning and pedagogy, with resources, capacity building, and curriculum change; to mention a few. And, perhaps, the most hopeful of all, university educators committed to working together to mainstream education for sustainable development and global citizenship into their universities. As the saying goes: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

With only eight years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030, Kenyan universities are taking up the baton to do their part in shaping Kenya’s and our world’s sustainable future. I, for one, will definitely be watching this space! May the spirit of Ubuntu light the way…


*If you are in university, college—actually any student; please ask your institution e.g. a faculty, teacher, a manager, dean of students, student leader; etc. if the education you are receiving is empowering you with the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes to address the interconnected global challenges we are facing now and in the future. Who knows, you may just start something (more) about education for sustainable development for all students. Come to think of it, perhaps, you might also want to ‘call yourself to a meeting’ and ask yourself the same question…

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Also read: The Importance of Sustainable Development Can No Longer Be Denied Or Ignored

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