Why Africa urgently needs a paradigm shift in conservation

Michael O'Brien-Onyeka, Senior Vice President of Conservation International, Africa Field Division, Nairobi.
Africa's natural wealth underpins the continent’s development potential. However, the current economic model places low premium on Africa’s vast natural capital and requires people to exploit their natural wealth for short-term gains, in ways that create a recurring pattern of scarcity, depletion, and poverty.

In the face an unprecedented scale of potentially cataclysmic human-induced environmental challenges in Africa and their far-reaching economic, social and political impacts, there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift in conservation (or natural capital management) in the continent.

The “triple whammy” of accelerated climate change, deforestation and acidification of the oceans, coupled with the projected doubling of the population in Africa in just a few decades, pose an unparalleled existential threat to the continent’s future.

That is why states, private sector, and organized civil society in Africa need to broaden and deepen their working relationships like never before, to co-create innovative lasting solutions to the challenges, hinged on science and technology, and sustained through innovative long-term financing models, with people and local communities at the center.

SEE ALSO :World warned: change now or endanger food and climate


Global warming as a result of heightened emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities is fueling climate change and unleashing a devastating cycle of extreme weather events in Africa — storms, flooding and droughts — and delivering terrible shocks on key economic and political pillars of countries in Africa.

Scientists note that the fundamental climatic shifts being witnessed currently in Africa and globally are linked to warming of the planet by only 0.8 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution. They caution that without the drastic curbs on carbon dioxide emissions, the planet may be rapidly warming its way towards an irreversible tipping point of 3 to 4 degrees by the turn of the century — making it possibly uninhabitable for human life.

In that context, the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which has a goal of capping global warming to between 1.5 to 2 degrees, is quite a low ambition, but the best the world could get at the time.

And even then, the Paris Agreement is running into headwinds. Major nations are balking at the requirement to formulate and strictly implement ambitious and meaningful emissions-reduction targets for fear of harming their economies. Also, the much-needed funds required to help countries shift to green or at least carbon-neutral economies, are not forthcoming at the scale required.

To make things worse, the ongoing massive deforestation globally —estimated at a rate of one football pitch per second — is not only stripping the planet of its natural stores or sinks for the rising concentrations of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, but also releasing the carbon that was safely stored away in the forests, thus accelerating global warming.

Also, the acidification of the oceans is speeding up as the waters absorb increasing levels of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, resulting in increasing degradation of coral reefs which are the nurseries for fish and other vital marine creatures.

This trend in the ocean is setting up the complex and sensitive marine food chain system for a possible fatal crash in the near future as fish numbers plunge — with disastrous consequences for global nutrition and economy. At the same time, if current levels of plastic pollution of the oceans is not urgently curbed, it is projected that there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish within only 30 years!

Meanwhile population growth in Africa is expected to double by 2050 even as natural resources and economic opportunities dwindle as a result of the unaddressed drivers and impacts of climate change. 

Overall, this ‘Hobbesian scenario’ increases risks for violent conflicts and political and social turmoil in many parts of Africa that might make the “Arab Spring” look like a picnic!


With the gargantuan scale of environmental challenges in our midst, there is an urgent imperative for key stakeholders — the state, the private sector, and organized civil society, (and local communities) — to forge unprecedented levels of partnerships to co-create effective solutions before the window of opportunity shuts.

I want to be clear that no single sector is capable of meeting the challenges alone, but each must leverage on their comparative and unique advantages and integrate their efforts, knowledge and funds to generate solutions at the massive scale that is required ‘to move the needle’.

 It is in the enlightened self-interest of all stakeholders to have healthy and sustainable landscapes and seascapes that support thriving livelihoods to stave off the envisaged social, political and economic turmoil being unleashed by human-induced climate change.

There is no doubt that conservation in Africa is at a defining moment and needs new solutions and new allies to save ourselves from ourselves, and those allies would need to include those from outside core conservation sectors.

Since Africa is replete with natural resources, and since nature-based solutions can provide at least 30% of climate change mitigation, there is need to fully research, understand and sustainably utilize the role that nature can play in tackling climate change.

We will need to move to a new economic development model that properly values our natural capital and the critical ecosystem services they provide. We will need to pursue development and growth pathways that are in consonance with nature (and not against it). In other words, Africa’s future growth and resilience in the current climate change context will need to have our vast natural capital and their ecosystem services at the epicenter.

In addition, taking conservation solutions to scale would be crucial for Africa from now on if we are to make a tangible, long-lasting difference. We should strongly resist the urge in our individual sectors or organizations to keep doing our own little things in our own little corners of the continent. The scale of the challenge requires that we pull together our various human and financial resources, for real impact on the ground. Imagine what can be achieved in a landscape or seascape where conservation NGOs are working truly together with UN Agencies, communities, State and Private Sector actors.

Conservation work in Africa should also be strongly underpinned by science to provide solutions to the pressing issues facing countries in the continent. For instance, Conservation International’s comprehensive soil maps of 4 countries in East Africa are helping governments and investors understand how best to channel and target scarce resources to enhance food security and Returns on Investment.

Using science also helps conservation to move away from sentimentalism and idealism and to realize pragmatic and sustainable solutions that best mitigate climate change and improve livelihoods and wellbeing. Natural resources and biodiversity should not be protected due to sentimental reasons alone, but for their proven value in supporting human wellbeing — providing fresh water, clean air, food security, climate protection and ecotourism revenues for communities and countries.

In addition, there is need to intensify deployment and leveraging of the latest technologies such as drones, camera traps, satellite imaging, artificial intelligence, remote sensing, face-recognition and block chains among others, to have a multiplier effect on conservation work.

Africa should also mobilize and apply significant and sustainable long-term financing to support conservation work at scale across the continent, using innovative financial mechanisms – such as Trust Funds, Endowment Funds, Green Bonds, Payment for Ecosystem Services, Environmental Tax - without which all would come to naught.

Examples of partnerships

Good examples of fruitful partnerships do exist in the continent and need to be scaled up.  They include the 'Sustainable Coffee Challenge', an initiative bringing together governments, private businesses and civil society across the world, in a bid to make production and consumption of coffee environmentally and economically sustainable amid threats from climate change. There is also a similar movement in the Palm Oil sector, focused on zero net deforestation and sustainable palm oil production.

Similarly, African countries are strengthening continent-wide initiatives to address emerging conservation challenges in partnership with civil society and the private sector through the 12-nation Gaborone Declaration for Sustainability in Africa (GDSA) initiative.

There is also the 18-nation Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) focused on operationalizing the Africa Elephant Action Plan through country-level National Elephant Action Plans aimed at tackling wildlife crimes and shutting down ivory markets.

There are many other great multi-sectoral initiatives at various levels of evolvement. It would be important to consolidate and scale up such partnerships, to position Africa to better respond to the emerging challenges and make conservation work more meaningful to Africa’s people and the environment.

Michael O’Brien-Onyeka is the Senior Vice President of Conservation International, Africa Field Division based in Nairobi. Email: [email protected]

We are undertaking a survey to help us improve our content for you. This will only take 1 minute of your time, please give us your feedback by clicking HERE. All responses will be confidential.

Global warmingEnvironmental conservationClimate change