Ideas & Debate

Nature as a launch pad for just, green recovery in Africa


A farmer harvests vegetables at Perkera Irrigation Scheme in Baringo. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NMG


  • Given that between 30 and 50 percent of total wealth in most African countries comes from its natural capital, Africa can do more than just “recover”. Africa can build a more resilient and sustainable future centred on healthy people and a healthy planet.

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed local and national landscapes across Africa, threatening the continent’s already fragile development trajectory.

A mounting debt burden of $583 billion, the increasingly destructive impacts of climate change, weak health care systems, the disruption of global supply chains, and the collapse of key economic sectors like tourism, have combined to create a triple health, economic and environmental challenge.

However, the pandemic has also created an opportunity for Africa to take a critical look at our food systems, health systems, economic systems and financial systems and build forward better.

Given that between 30 and 50 percent of total wealth in most African countries comes from its natural capital, Africa can do more than just “recover”. Africa can build a more resilient and sustainable future centred on healthy people and a healthy planet.

A new policy brief by WWF highlights some critical areas of intervention, and provides recommendations for policy makers.


The economic and social disruptions associated with Covid-19 such as lockdowns and market closures have highlighted the need to invest in food systems that ensure food security for the growing urban populations.

One less talked about resource is Africa’s traditional vegetables grown on family farms that have nourished communities for hundreds of years. These vegetables provide people with the micronutrients, ascorbic acid, vitamins and dietary fiber and are a core part of the culture and cuisine of many communities.

Similarly, Africa’s orphan crops such as finger millet and groundnut, teff, yam, cassava, millet, cowpea (black eyed peas), pigeon pea, cassava, and yams tend to be high in magnesium, protein and fibre and are a good source of antioxidants.

Orphan crops provide income for the poorest farmers and serve as staples in the local diet and are uniquely adapted to the environment in which they are grown.

Shifting diets towards local traditional foods and investing in ecosystem services will reduce habitat conversion, decrease dependency on polluting fertilisers and pesticides, decrease waste, reduced food-related greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately increase nutritional, health, and environmental outcomes.


The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in Africa’s health sector such as limited hospital bed capacity (1.8 beds per 1,000 people), low access to household handwashing facilities (34 percent for those with soap and water), and a heavy dependency on imports for pharmaceutical products ($3.6 billion net imports of pharmaceutical products in 2018).

The pandemic has also had serious impacts on the physical and mental health of millions of people that may continue over the long term.

As Africa emerges from this pandemic and seeks to prevent future ones, nature, and nature-based design, should be critical components of the continent’s future health care systems.

The pandemic provides an opportunity for Africa to embrace innovative new approaches to designing rural and urban open spaces that integrate green spaces that are critical for both mental and physical health. An excellent example is the innovative hospital in Rwanda, with “Architecture that is Built to Heal”.


The pandemic has resulted in the most severe global economic crisis in years, leading to widespread job losses, spiralling debt, increased poverty and exacerbating inequality. According to IMF estimates, Africa’s GDP will decline between 1.7 and 3.4 percent.

The pandemic is also having a disproportionately negative impact on the poorest and most vulnerable. These disruptions have inspired many of the urban unemployed to reconsider life in cities and return to rural areas.

This unprecedented urban-rural migration could be an opportunity for Africa to invest in stimulus packagesto transform rural areas into vibrant and productive landscapes with mobile technology and distributed renewable energy systems, for example.

In addition to the fact that three times as many jobs are created per $1 million invested in renewable energy versus fossil fuels, this redistribution and investment in human capital could reduce pressures in unsustainable and unhealthy mega cities, and reconnect people and place, reducing climate emissions and enhancing an appreciation of nature.


Even before Covid-19, many African governments were struggling with long-term debt and high interest payments. While many governments have put in place programmes to help cushion their economies and people from the impacts of Covid-19, the reduced fiscal space means that there is a need to think of new approaches. Investments in nature provide considerable returns.

For example, investments in rehabilitating watersheds would ensure access to clean water and reduce the need for borrowing to build dams and water reservoirs.


A “green and just recovery” must benefit all strata of society, from household to local community, to national and regional levels. It is vital that any measures taken by Governments and partners do not undermine the rights of women, youth, indigenous peoples and local communities.

This is a defining moment for Africa. We are at a crossroads: we can either go back to the old way of doing things and follow a path that leads to ever increasing destruction of nature and human life, or we can take a new path and make courageous, responsible, and innovative decisions for a green and just future.