Sustainable practices in the developing world

As the developed nation pay more and more attention to sustainable living practices, it surprises me when I many times hear comments noting developing nations also need to be taught sustainable ways of living. Having grown up in a developing nation, I have always found those comments rather amusing. In my opinion, it appears from my recollections of how and where I grew up, the developed world might be able to learn a thing or two from the sustainable practices of the developing nations.

In developing nations, the saying necessity is the mother of invention is apt.

The main ingredient missing from the developing nations already established sustainable practices is planning and organization to several aspects of their existing way of life. They can be far better organized and track how these practices benefit the environment. I will concede, when it comes to the industrial sector, there is much to learn in the developing world, especially as regards pollution, but I believe on the personal level, not by choice but again by necessity, and also by culture, many people in developing nations are already practicing various sustainable means of living. A few examples are listed below.

Public Transit:

In most developing nations, of course owning a car is a luxury. Hence most people use public transportation for their daily commutes to the max. Buses and trains are terribly overloaded on a daily basis. Carpooling is very common, I was recently reminded of this when I got back in touch with an old friend, and I couldn't remember how we met, finally I remembered it was during our carpooling days to secondary school! For a few years of my secondary education, I got to school by carpooling with one of my teachers, four of us would walk from our homes to a specific junction, had to be there at a specific time to catch a ride with our dear Mrs. Balogun. We would jump into her green Volkswagen Jetta, (I think it was) and off to school, and after school, that was the same way we got home. We were by no means alone in getting around that way!

And let us not forget in most of the rural areas of developing nations, the bicycle remains the transportation means of choice. Zero emissions to the environment.

Re-use and Re-cycle:
Old Tires...

Africans have for so long recycled so many of the items that are used on a daily basis. Some of the most popular and durable slippers in several parts of Africa are made from recycled vehicle tires. Not so comfortable, but last for ever and are as strong ever! Now modern fashion has taken the idea and is elevating it to higher levels!! Now will the Africans or developing nations get the credit?

...Recycled to become footwear
In most of Africa, very few items are completely thrown away. They are typically re-used via some process of recycling. You will (unfortunately due as I noted earlier to a lack of organization) find several kids and young men rummaging through piles of rubbish looking for metal items to salvage and re-sell for reuse. This is an example of an area where the various nations systems needs planning and organization to create a proper and better sanitary working environment for those who scavenge those trash hills. Searching the trash is not bad, it is how it is being done that is a terrible crime. The BBC covered the remarkable story of a young man, Vocal Slender who went literally from rags to riches from the trash hills of Ajegunle, Nigeria to the streets of "gold" in London.

Food a million ways...

Sun drying cassava in the DR Congo
Several developing nations have several ways to consume food items. You don't catch a fish exclusively for the caviar, or take the choice parts of a chicken and send the rest of it to be used for dog food as "chicken meal". A plant like the Cassava root (Yucca root) produces so many food items as well as starch used for clothing! When a cow or goat is killed in many African counties, 100% of that cow is consumed even the horns are used to make a product. The skins are used to make leather. Now here is an irony, Africans do not kill its cows to make leather, Africans make leather from the cows that were killed for food. So the leather products become a byproducts of the sustainable practices to make all of the cow be of value to the people.

I should note that an added bonus to how the developing nations practice sustainability has nothing to do with poverty, but maximizing the use of the natural resources that are available in the various societies. These are practices that have been passed down in the various cultures form generation to generation I note this as several of the examples given above have been practiced in several nations in the good economic times as well as the bad.

Consider the Palm tree, it is used of course for shade, but Palm wine (a natural alcoholic drink) is tapped from the tree its kernels are used to make edible Palm oil and also its oil is a main and vital ingredient in cosmetic products. Another example would be the banana tree, the bananas are of course eaten, the leaves used as covers for shade and also as covers when cooking and the leaves used in cooking. So essentially, plants are NOT simply harvested for ONE use only and then thrown away, many are used for as many purposes as possible thereby maximizing the use of their natural resources.

A sustainable lesson from a local farmer

Years ago while in Architecture school, I have never forgotten what I consider one of my best experiences in school on a  design task. Our lecturer took us to a village deep in rural Ile-Ife. The village had a high producing cottage cassava industry. Our assigned task, was to study their means of production, identify their issues and problems and proffer design solutions to enhance the production capabilities of the of the cottage cassava industry.

The trip occurred during the rainy season. I came across a number of mud homes whose rain soaked homes had walls in various stages of collapse due to the excessive rain. I recall a discussion with one of the farmers on how much of a pain it must be to have to fix the walls constantly due to the heavy rains and how great it would be for us to rebuild the village with the new wonderful invented item called the CMU block with cement! I should mention the farmer was not impressed with me at all!

We concluded our conversation and I kept thinking about that conversation going back to campus. How the heck could he be unhappy with getting nice modern structures?  Fast forward to my class presentation (jury). As I presented my design in class, they were stunned to see my designs maintained the use of their existing mud housing building systems, with some modified enhancements based on some research I hand done, (like using ground down termite hill dust mixed with the red soil to give the soil more strength and stability).

What was I thinking, I was asked, keeping them in the stone age? I explained the full conversation with the farmer. I had noted when I asked him about the difficulty in maintaining the homes as they failed due to the rains, he smiled and said, yes, that might be true, but it was no problem as far as they were concerned. But you see, he said, the mud is right there, it is always there and it is there in abundance. Once things dry out, we simply put it right back up again! Our mud never goes anywhere and nobody needs to bring mud to us. They were more or less, self sustaining in that area of their lives.

A mud hut basking in the sun!
Coutesy www.
I had kept thinking about that and how "invasive" so called modern developments can be. Most of my classmates had proposed to build nice CMU brick and mortar buildings, this is a village that was almost a 2 hours muddy wrestling match drive from the nearest paved road. (mind you, not the nearest town where CMU blocks would be found). Imagine the effort and the expense of trucking cement, rebar and more to that village and more importantly when repairs where needed or a building expanded, what would happen? There was a farmer perfectly content with his simple and sustainable way of living which sounded quite absurd to my dear "enlightened" college classmates.

Consider the contrast in costs if the village residents were simply taught how to introduce a few additional (natural) materials to their already existing mud homes. They would not need a "foreign" non resident building "expert" to come and repair their homes when needed and they would find most items needed for repairs within walking distances of their abodes. And they would save time which would translate to more productive time available to process cassava. A simple enhancement of their existing ways of living might potentially be more beneficial to them than some radical modern development. And then allow their village to evolve at its own pace. I might be right or I might be wrong on that.

There is no doubt that developing nations require a lot of assistance to solve a host of issues, including sustainability as indeed, the need for sustainable living practices grow, but this needs to be done working in close conjunction with the existing practices and cultures in the various developing nations, and who knows, we might just learn a thing or two...

This is just a commentary on a segment of an issue on which several books have and can be written. I plan to revisit this topic frequently in the future.


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