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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

A growing population will increase demand for food, electricity, infrastructure, products and services. If we are to meet their needs and aspirations in the context of sustainable development, Africa must do things differently.

In SA, and for most parts of the continent, confronting challenges of poverty and unemployment remain front and centre of development plans. At the same time we need urgent and determined action towards the 2030 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). The strides we achieve in unemployment and poverty reduction will increasingly be defined by the action or inaction we take towards climate change.

As witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic and reiterated by the climate crisis, our ability to enable development that leaves no-one behind is increasingly under threat. Women and girls were disproportionately affected by the floods in KwaZulu-Natal in 2022. As the primary caregivers for their children and other family members, women were tasked with the immediate work of cleaning the debris, preparing food, ensuring hygiene and maintaining the general wellbeing of others without access to water or electricity.

During this crisis we learnt that SA lacks resilient infrastructure, as access to water and electricity was interrupted, and we learnt that the effects of climate change can reverse gains made in other SDGs such as healthcare and gender equality. The good news is that improving standards of living and an effective response to climate change are not mutually exclusive.

For example, after the fire of the Jagger Library at University of Cape Town in 2021 the reconstruction will include strict environmental sustainability criteria. The university has pursued environmentally friendly design and has already certified four buildings through the Green Building Council SA, a member organisation of the World Green Building Council.

Such win-win scenarios can be realised for the continent, but this will require a strong sense of collective responsibility and a cohesive effort to grow the green economy. The Motsepe Foundation has initiated the first step towards developing an enabling ecosystem for green entrepreneurs and innovators. This involves investing in the early stage, high risk start-ups and social entrepreneurs who are solving for the intersections of wicked problems and climate change.

By taking on the risk of identifying a pool of bankable ideas our medium-term goal is to attract private investment into African climate efforts. We do this through the global, multiyear and multimillion-dollar Milken-Motsepe Prize for SDG innovators; through our support of social entrepreneurs in the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; and through investment support for early stage science innovators in Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

For example, there are now about 600-million people in Africa without access to electricity. We must meet their right to reliable energy without compromising commitments to net-zero. With Africa’s abundant sunlight and other renewables such as wind and hydro, we must invest in untapped opportunity. 

We also support this start-up ecosystem with research through the Harvard Presidential Research Accelerator, which incorporates the work of African scholars and local contexts into international research. Tailoring meaningful solutions cannot happen without the voices and insight of those affected. Through all programmes we recognise the importance of cross-continental exchange.

While we are able to nurture and support talent development, holding back the green economy is a lack of market forces to propel its growth. High-emitting industries and organisations are not adequately incentivised, or regulated, to disrupt their supply chains towards sustainability. Insufficient demand for green technologies is preventing the scaled adoption of innovation that can improve the lives of the most vulnerable.   

Advocacy and education can drive this necessary market shift. Africa’s youth will become the climate champions of the future and we must ensure their skills and education are aligned. As Africa is expected to experience the worst of climate change, Africa’s youth must be informed and supported in their leadership of climate and social justice. As we have seen with the software and digital economy, the ideas of youth can influence change even within the most established and traditional industries. 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), where COP28 is now being held, offers us a tangible representation of transformative and intentional progress. For the UAE it took only one generation to shift from fishing villages and a tent-based nomadic culture to an innovation-driven hi-tech economy. With courageous and forward-looking leadership it can be done. 

One cannot attend COP28 without a sense of urgency at what is involved. The stakes are high, even existential. But I am also experiencing a strong sense of commitment and dedication, and I have a strong belief that our continent can harness its energies and, acting with others, move decisively forward in the needed ways. 

Dr Moloi-Motsepe is CEO of the Motsepe Foundation and chancellor of the University of Cape Town. 

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