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Celebrating Diversity on Africa Day: What Green Building Means for African Communities

Today, May 25th, Africans across the world will be celebrating Africa Day – a day that marks the moment when 32 countries formed what is now the African Union with its 55-member states. It is a day when we celebrate both our commonality and our diversity; what brings us together and what makes us different.

In that context, it is timely to be thinking about communities and green building, and what that means for our continent – a topic that was debated at the recent 4th African Green Building Summit by Green Building Councils from six African countries: Zambia, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mauritius as well as key stakeholders from the public, private sector and academia from across the continent. Our shared task was to build a narrative around green building that truly represents the richness and diversity of our continent.

In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, there are six different climatic zones and myriad communities with different needs. Therefore, the approach to green building needs to be nuanced and relevant to the varying cultural, political and economic landscapes.

Africa’s growing cities present an opportunity for not only economic growth but also for sustainable construction amidst the effects of climate change and energy demands.

Africa has had a long history with green building. The Djenne mosque in Mali built in the 13th century stands out as a stellar example of green building both in terms of design and energy efficiency. In advancing the conversation around green building in 21st century Africa, we must be cognizant of our history and apply it accordingly to the unique challenges and opportunities that present themselves in the continent.

A key consideration for Africa, but which has global resonance, is how to advance the conversation about green building while taking into account other development issues that are equally, if not more, important for donors, governments and communities.

We often focus on global, seemingly abstract goals like energy and greenhouse gas emissions in the green building movement – yet in our enthusiasm for the big picture, we must not lose sight of the human-sized one. In seeking to address environmental issues, we cannot forget that building is about homes not houses; about places that people live, learn, heal and play. African communities are places where people share, so building must support, rather than disrupt them. This must be reflected in the narrative around green building. We must enable communities to develop sustainably, on their own terms; together.

That is why we are using the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to anchor our work; to be the connective tissue for individuals, the environment and society. The SDGs make clear that the world’s most pressing issues are interrelated – we cannot tackle climate change if we ignore poverty; we cannot assure access to affordable energy if we do not strive for peace. Green buildings are an opportunity to save energy, water and carbon, but also to provide jobs, to improve health and to strengthen communities.

While climate change is a global problem, African countries are likely to feel the effects most acutely and women are the most vulnerable of all, as a result of their dependence on the natural resources that are threatened by climate change. Yet women are also some of the best people to develop solutions.

Because of their responsibilities in households and communities, they are well placed to contribute to strategies that respond to the changing climatic realities. The ripple effects of putting resources in the hands of women can be incredibly powerful. Research shows that for every dollar a woman gets she puts 90 percent of it back into her family and community, so investing in a woman is investing in everyone else. In Africa, many of the people who are championing green building and driving the agenda are women – our future is in safe hands.

Working collaboratively is crucial if we are to develop sustainably, not only across communities, but across countries and across continents.

Our strategy is to develop mentoring relationships between countries with more established Green Building Councils with those that are just starting on their journey – to share experiences, to learn from each other and to develop best practice.

Africa is a community-based continent and our narrative needs to be centered around that. We must recognize difference, but end inequality; develop in a way that benefits both communities and the environment; to use green building as a catalyst to address our most critical issues and work towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. If we succeed in doing that we can, quite literally, build a greener tomorrow.

Jane Afrane is Regional Head of WorldGBC’s Africa Network.

This blog was first published by Women’s eNews.