In 2019, I was presented with the opportunity to lead an academic study into the lives of one of the most emblematic tribes in the world, the Maasai. Accompanied by a videographer, Gus Cross, and a Professor of Anthropology from the University of Nairobi, Dr Tom Ondicho, we set out to produce an ethnographic baseline report and documentary film on a Maasai community in Kenya.
Equipped with a camera, drone, clipboards, pens and a voice recorder – nothing could prepare us for the 2 weeks that lay ahead and the learning that would follow. Nestled under the majestic, yet imposing Mt Kilimanjaro, straddled like a horseshoe around Amboseli National Park, lies an area the size of London, circa 1,500 km². With its tongue-twisting name, Olgulului Ololarashi Group Ranch, swiftly shortened to OOGR, we braised ourselves for a bumpy 4x4 excursion into the interior of this conservancy with a facilitative & non-prescriptive lens.
Upon arrival we were met with our local guide and partner who led us to the first boma, a Maasai village built in circles, fortified by cow dung and acacia branches. What immediately struck me was our hosts' ease towards visitors, and almost altruistic hospitality. Within a few minutes, we had settled into a traditional feast and local delicacy, goat, attended by the village elders. After a gluttonous episode, we were led to an ornate display of handcrafted beaded jewellery created by local women.
These particular settlements, named ‘cultural bomas’ are strategically positioned to pick up tourist traffic from 5* star hotels and safaris exploring Amboseli National Park. Here was a tribe, long heralded for their survival instinct, adapting their livelihoods from traditional pastoralism to tourism
The weeks that followed were spent working our way towards the heart of this ancient land. Stopping in villages to interview women, morans (young warriors), children, teachers and chiefs, we started to build a picture of the rich Maasai history. As a fearless nomadic tribe, widely known for hunting East Africa’s plains, the Maasai would travel vast distances in search of fresh pastures, once a renewable resource. Their livestock, thread in a delicate balance with wildlife and nature, conserved and replenished the ecosystem. As a symbol of wealth and serving as a critical insurance policy, large families were carefully curated leaving a rich tapestry of human life across the savannahs. Now, with land subdivided and cut off by parcels of privately-owned land, increasing population, livestock numbers and climate shocks, life is becoming more difficult.
The untold story is that we have been hunter-gathers for 99% of our genetic history. A specie co-existing with the natural world and whose survival was based on the ability to read weather, the stars and species around us. This human connection to nature was coined ‘biophilia’ by Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson. It is rooted in our evolution and by spending time with this tribe, it came alive and immediately made me crave for it again.
Shuffle forward to present day. My Amboseli trip has opened a floodgate of learning and in particular, an exciting new appointment as a Trustee of CHASE Africa. As a charity, their development approach supports and promotes community-led family planning, sexual health education and natural resource management in rural communities. Growing from very humble beginnings, starting as a tree-planting initiative in the Rift Valley, they have reached new heights with their smart outreach programmes. Realising that positive impact is best achieved by local organisations who are embedded within and trusted by the local community, they are able to unlock huge potential. Currently, CHASE Africa provides funding and services to 9 local NGOs across Kenya and Uganda working towards a shared vision.
Communities like the Maasai are on the frontline of what the West has only recently understood as ‘our civilisation’s greatest challenge’: climate change. We watch as ancient societies, dependent on scarce natural resources, are stripped of their livelihoods with the absence of seasonal rains, rivers and rich forests. Coupled with Covid-19 and the pressure of modernisation, these tribes have very few tools left at their disposal. Navigating this alone has repeatedly proven fatal, as the world has shown little mercy.
Analysing this deeper, it seems that the yardstick for successful and sustainable NGO interventions is their ability to preserve, or (re)instate community rights and culture. By equipping and empowering the most vulnerable in society we can create permanent change. This model of development is a step away from creating a dependency culture, towards greater autonomy. Enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution are the rights to free education, information sharing and basic health services – yet so often, we see examples where these are threatened.
In an age of disinformation, local communities and NGOs are at the vanguard. A common misconception CHASE Africa face is the idea of women becoming ‘barren’, ‘cancerous’ and ‘sterilised’ through forms of contraception. Even though it is the right of women to decide when they want to have children and more, how many. Sadly, a young mother is invariably stripped of her formal education, often leading to a life of destitution. These false beliefs are often shared among men, who see family planning as a cultural barrier. However, time and again we see that with the right stewardship and support, opinions can change.
As I read through CHASE Africa's Partner Reports, I was overwhelmed with positivity. Here are real-life examples of marginalised communities overcoming life-changing issues, in the backdrop of a pandemic that brings developed nations and their societies to a halt. It is a clear testament to the strategy and hard work of CHASE Africa and their partners. Operating through the outreach of Community Health Workers (CHWs), locally appointed and trained by the Ministry of Health, we have seen mobile and even motorbike clinics continue to provide locals with primary healthcare services, family planning services and information about environmental conservation and natural resource management.
For example, Big Life Foundation, an organisation I know well from their operations in Amboseli, have managed to reach over 13,000 people each quarter with crucial information on health and sexual reproductive health. This is up from 7,000 per quarter in 2019. What’s more, they have seen a 92% increase in the number of women under 19 years of age taking up family planning from Q2 to Q3 2020. These are not just numbers; this is a community adapting and overcoming challenges.
As I reflect on my time with the Maasai, it is their readiness and capacity to make change that has a lasting impression. Adopting this predisposition is our only chance for survival in these uncertain times. We have has a lot to learn here, in particular how to live within our means and take care of nature around us. The clock is ticking, we need to act fast if we want to continue co-inhabiting our planet with fellow species. The question is, are we ready to make necessary changes to our behaviour? Greed and self-interest govern too much space. I thank CHASE Africa for presenting me with the prospect of continued learning and helping make positive change.
Edward Pycraft, Keystone Legacy
Photo: Gus Cross
I want to share a story with you that emanates from what’s brewing in my cup on this cold, rainy October evening in London: a warm, comforting tea. Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, after water. In India alone, the annual production of tea is approximately 857,000 tons, generating 190,000 tons of tea factory waste before the tea has even been packaged. As I discreetly place my tea down on its coaster, I feel a sense of anxiety coming over me, knowing that 90% of what is left behind is waste. With the world’s estimated daily consumption at a colossal 18 to 20 billion cups, the wider question begs. How do we tackle the challenge of post-consumption waste? Is there a way of capitalising on this resource?
Anthropogenic activities such as conventional farming, non-renewable energy production, mining, factory run-offs and the construction industry, adversely affects wildlife and negatively impacts human health. The speed of technological development coupled with humans’ insatiable demand for consumer goods, places a mounting pressure on our natural resources and the environment.
Take the example of metal pollutants; when heavy metal-contaminated soils and water bodies enter into our food production and human life support systems, they pose a serious human health risk.
While some metals such as cobalt, copper, iron, molybdenum, manganese and zinc, classified as essential micronutrients, are critical for plant growth. Other metals, commonly found in soil and water, like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, nickel, lead, selenium, uranium, vanadium and wolfram are contaminants, and non-essential for plants. These metals, even at low concentrations get absorbed into plants and cascade up through our food chain. Through a process known as biomagnification, toxins are amplified as they move up the trophic levels towards our mouths.
Adsorption of heavy metals by upcycling a material like waste tea
Existing physio-chemical methods of heavy metal extraction are often expensive and complicated, demanding high-tech solutions. Yet, the world community is in great need of low-tech, easily applicable and affordable solutions to mitigate the growing problems with pollution. With increasing research into alternative, cost-effective adsorption materials, we see a plethora of options available to us. Take peanut hulls, neem leaf powder, straw, peat, pomegranate peel, and now, finally, tea waste.
The impactful urban potential of waste management
The extraordinary and rather unexplored potential for extracting waste materials, leads us to the next part in the chain. How can we integrate waste management solutions in urban environments in an interactive way, closing the loop between production, consumption, and the waste we produce? A step further, how can we harness this methodology to create a new architectural style? One that does not shield the “ugly” backside of our societies, but instead engages our citizens through active experiences moving towards a more circular economy and healthier lifestyle?
Waste, energy & recreation
Having studied in Copenhagen, close to the industrial waterfront, I had a rather peculiar view from my bedroom window: a powerplant that creates clean energy from 440,000 tons of annual waste. It is the cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in the world, raising the bar for resource optimisation with an energy efficiency of 107%. The incineration process recycles material through a recovery of resources that would otherwise not feasibly be recycled. With the help of very efficient modern techniques, the segregation process from bottom ash reaches more than 90% of the potential for most ferrous and non-ferrous metals. The bottom ash, a by-product of the energy production, following strict procedures, is then used for road construction and similar construction purposes, replacing natural resources such as sand and gravel.
Sounds good? There is more to come. The mountain-shaped waste management plant has a tree-lined hiking trail and ski slope on the roof, as well the tallest artificial climbing wall in the world. At its peak, your welcomed by an après ski cafe with a 360 view of Copenhagen. This new model of architecture and waste management offers the city a whole new level of urban fabric that contributes positively to public health, wellbeing and people’s economy, through reduced energy bills. Following this model of success, the Chinese metropolis, Shenzhen are building the world’s biggest waste-to-energy plant set to open later this year.
Upcycling of waste materials in architectural design
A good way of avoiding contaminants entering the food chain is by creating less waste in the first place - failing that, we need to find purpose for otherwise wasted materials. The recent innovation, by the sustainable Danish architectural firm GXN designed and built a competitive “OSB” building board by upcycling tomato plant waste. Their visionary product not only demonstrates a circular economy, but also outperforms conventional materials on durability. Who knew that agricultural waste could replace the current single-use construction philosophy in architecture?
With COVID-19 delaying, pausing and even cancelling many big construction projects worldwide, the time to analyse, improve and rethink our industry’s model of operation has never been more pressing. While buildings are historically long-lived, our cities are perennial: citizens are counting on their survival to enable future generations to thrive. Our current ‘short-term win’ economic model manifests itself in new buildings prioritising profit. The way we build today is damaging the environment rather than healing it. Discouragingly, the construction industry is responsible for 50% of landfill waste and 40% of drinking water pollution worldwide. It is now common practice for big building projects to clear vegetation and excavate, destroying biodiversity and reducing, if not eliminating the potential of much needed CO2-storage in our trees and soil.
Previously, the role of an architect was a ‘Chief Builder’, having the sufficient expertise on design and construction to oversee a project from inception all the way to completion. With the innovation of design and technology, architectural projects have become increasingly complex. Presently an architect is an irresolute role that varies remarkably from country to country, blurring the lines between what our responsibilities are and what they should be. With fast growing challenges arising from man-made climate change, we will have to start looking at ways of reclaiming our lost responsibilities, exploring new alternative services, and promoting a higher level of collaboration within the build team. Consequently, we ask ourselves whether 2020 could be the year where we change the rudiments of architecture?
The cataclysmic pandemic has changed the world in profound ways. Businesses are re-inventing themselves, integrating new ambitious sustainability strategies. Countries are stepping up to the Net Zero 2030 and 2050 challenge. As architects, we are the first frontier of the build environment, we serve as gatekeepers and should hold our industry accountable for its emissions and detrimental impact on our natural world. We know the solutions exist and although we have only touched on a few of them here, their potential is unlimited. Today, we see beautiful examples of economically viable, sustainable buildings and green urban planning strategies, so I pose the question: what is holding us back? As a young architect, I’m excited by what the next 10 years hold and encourage an organised, sustainable industry approach.
Emilie Jaspers, Sustainability Advisor (Keystone Legacy)
The pandemic has revealed our fractured and vulnerable financial model that has long been centred around short-term “wins” at the cost of our society & environment. The economy is now set to contract sharply, by at least 5.2% in 2020 according to the World Bank, accelerating the need to create real change.
In front of us is undoubtedly our greatest innovation challenge to date. How do we halve global emissions to stay under 1.5c and create an equitable world for future generations, all within a decade (2030)? To achieve this crucial target set by climate scientists, our countries, industries and communities need to come together to transform towards ‘net-zero’ as the minimum.
With the ‘climate tech’ solutions out there and many more being conceptualised; we ask the question, how can each of us our play our role?
At Keystone Legacy, an international agroecology initiative, we recognise the importance of building back greener through sustainable, regenerative precision practices. However, what seems more apparent than ever is the absence of a coordinated approach between all actors. Governments, although fundamental in setting policies for climate action, have to this point proven to be behind the curve and self-serving.
The opportunity now lies in the business community and the public sphere. Here, purpose-driven partnerships can be forged that demonstrate to our politicians where our interests and priorities are. In particular, the onus is on us, the younger generation. We need to raise awareness around climate change and implement the world’s mission. In short, it’s an anthropogenic crisis; humans have caused it, we can reverse it. And it all starts in the mind.
Man-made climate change is a symptom of our superpower. Our ability to believe in shared, imagined realities – nations, media & corporations – has led us to the top of the food chain and given us unparalleled influence over our planet. Like all superpowers though, they can fall into the wrong hands and threaten our very existence. Today, we live in a world built on stories and beliefs of the past that are failing us.
Social media, long heralded for optimising biological connection across the world, is showing its true face. We, the people, are products sold to the highest bidder, advertisers, many with a nefarious agenda of populism and disinformation. Why do we have climate change deniers? It seems that as homo sapiens, we are ill-equipped to face this wall of carefully programmed Artificial Intelligence (AI) praying on our weakness, with high rates of addiction, alienation and extremism among its ‘users.’
Understanding this, presents each one of us with a heroic duty. How can we harness our shared superpower to save the planet, other species and ultimately, ourselves? More than ever before, we need to enter into a new, enlightened collective consciousness. One that rejects speciesism and recognises that we are all part of the same biosphere that is contingent on the health of all species and ecosystems to function.
Once we’ve reached this paradigm shift in our minds, the narratives that have long served fictitious entities which sever our ties with nature, can be replaced by belief systems that actually do serve the people. And the answers are in front of us. If we respect nature, we can better understand its principles and the functioning of its ecosystem. As David Attenborough expresses in his latest call to arms, ‘A Life on Our Planet’ documentary: “We need to rediscover how to be sustainable, to move from being apart from nature to being a part of nature once again.”
Tribal communities are our testament that we can co-exist with nature again. Yet, it is deeply concerning that today, we live in a time where a tree is more valuable dead than alive. Even more alarming is the latest PNAS report, which shows that only 4% of mammals are ‘wild’, with humans and our livestock accounting for 36% and 60% respectively. We have pushed wildlife to the brink of extinction, and humans are not far behind.
This pandemic has created a social, political & economic vacuum. We, as citizens and businesses have a real chance to reimagine our stories and realign our values. Social media can be reengineered to demonstrate truth. In doing so, we can broadcast a counter-narrative, one that is climate positive and compassionate with a long-term, sustainable impact.
Our time for collaboration and co-creation is ripe: we can all be conscious consumers and demand responsible value chains from our businesses. Likewise, businesses can deliver purpose and substitute shareholder, for stakeholder capitalism. We have already witnessed the psychological and material benefits from localising food systems and stewarding biodiversity during what the fortunate few call “The Great Pause.” These lessons now exist in our social network. With the right collective will, they can guide us towards permanent, positive change.
Edward Pycraft, Keystone Legacy