Volume 89 Issue 26 | pp. 41-45
Issue Date: June 27, 2011

Cover Stories: International Year of Chemistry

Chemistry Boosts Global Sustainable Development

Food, environmental, green, and industrial chemistry sectors promote development and education in Africa, worldwide
Department: ACS News, Science & Technology | Collection: Sustainability, Green Chemistry, IYC 2011
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: IYC, Africa, education, sustainability, environment
Development in Africa
A women’s cooperative in eastern Ghana prepares palm oil fruits for processing into organic, fair-trade palm oil.
Credit: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps
Development in Africa
A women’s cooperative in eastern Ghana prepares palm oil fruits for processing into organic, fair-trade palm oil.
Credit: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps

Chemistry, as a central science, deals with many areas of human activity. It touches everyone. As such, I believe that chemistry is one of the cornerstones for sustainable development, not only in Africa but also worldwide.

Sustainable development has been conceptualized in different ways, but the most widely used definition, as articulated by the World Commission on Environment & Development, is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Meeting the needs of the future depends on how well we balance social, economic, and environmental objectives when making decisions today. In other words, sustainable development refers to some form of modern technological society, with business taking responsibility for its impact on society and the environment. According to the European Chemical Industry Council, sustainable development involves prudent use of resources, protection of the environment, and economic growth and social progress, with the target being a better quality of life for everyone now and in generations to come.

In this regard, chemistry can play a very positive role. For instance, chemists are well placed to appreciate the scientific issues underlying sustainable development. Chemistry also contributes to sustainable development via economic growth and improved social well-being. Some of the obvious contributions include better pharmaceuticals, high-purity materials for use in the electronics industry, and jobs for a large number of people. However, since human-made chemicals can have enormous negative impacts, there is a need for enlightened management of the chemical sciences to ensure that as the field advances, the effects are beneficial to humanity as a whole.

Chemists working in diverse applied fields such as food chemistry, environmental chemistry, green chemistry, and industrial chemistry can all play a part in sustainable development.

Food chemistry, which contributes mainly to the economic objective of sustainable development, is particularly important for Africa. The continent possesses abundant natural resources, and the majority of its population lives in agriculture-based economies. Yet it is not self-sufficient in food production. Worse, most of the people who die from hunger are in Africa.

Perhaps in response, many African universities have opened units or departments devoted to food science, in which chemistry is an essential ingredient. These universities can highlight chemistry’s involvement through public events. For example, CHEMRAWN XII included a workshop titled “Chemistry, Sustainable Agriculture & Human Well-Being in Sub-Saharan Africa,” which South Africa’s Stellenbosch University hosted in December 2007. Major topics covered in the workshop were the role of green chemistry in agricultural production in Africa, chemical and microbiological analyses to ensure safe and wholesome food for Africa, and biofuel technologies and their applications.

I believe such efforts should be amplified so that African policymakers and the private sector can see the practical value of chemistry in solving real problems and can promote chemists’ efforts at the national and continental level. I also believe that chemistry in Africa should establish itself more as a practical enterprise than a theoretical one. International Year of Chemistry 2011 would be a good opportunity to kick off this endeavor.

Like food chemistry, environmental chemistry makes major contributions to sustainable development, in this case primarily through understanding and monitoring our impact on the environment. Unfortunately, I suspect that many standard chemistry textbooks used in Africa do not directly deal with the science of environmental issues including climate change, water pollution, and renewable energy.

In fact, not much has changed since 1996, when I represented the Chemical Society of Ethiopia (CSE) at a National Workshop on Environmental Education. At that workshop, I came to realize that scholarly societies in biology, geography, geology, and other fields were conducting several activities devoted to the environment, whereas I could not mention a single activity from CSE. I was surprised that these issues were sidelined in chemistry despite the fact that chemistry is the key to understanding and solving issues associated with climate change, energy efficiency, waste management, recycling, and so on.

This is partly why I invited Peter G. Mahaffy, a chemistry professor at King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta, to give plenary lectures and conduct a training workshop on “Visualization & Climate Change” for chemists and chemistry educators during Ethiopia’s IYC 2011 celebration this past February. I hope the trainees will increase their students’ and the public’s awareness of chemistry’s relation to the environment, as this is one of the aims of IYC.

Although food and environmental chemistry each primarily addresses one objective of sustainable development, green chemistry can achieve the triple-bottom-line benefits of economic, environmental, and social improvement. In recognition of this potential, Ethiopia has conducted a half-dozen workshops on green chemistry in the past six years in collaboration with the University of Nottingham, the Pan African Chemistry Network, and the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry.

However, Ethiopia’s recently developed secondary school chemistry curriculum and harmonized undergraduate chemistry curriculum do not seem to have been influenced by developments in green chemistry. Neither the objectives nor the content areas of the curricula make any reference to green chemistry issues. Assuming that these chemistry curricula stay in place for at least the next five years, green chemistry workshops will have limited impact on sustainable development in Ethiopia unless chemistry teachers and academicians transform the research findings into learnable content for students.

Another sector that’s crucial to sustainable development is industrial chemistry, which serves as the backbone of economic growth and improved social well-being as well as a major source of employment.

The industrial sector in Africa is now in its infancy, but more and more African governments plan to evolve their economies so that they rely increasingly on the industrial sector. For instance, in late 2010 Ethiopia launched the Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP), which aims to transform the economy from the agricultural sector to the industrial sector in the coming five years.

To this effect, the country hopes to enroll 70% of university students in science and technology majors. That means more students will be studying chemistry, not only in college but also in secondary school.

This is a huge opportunity to promote the multifaceted role of chemistry in the development of science and technology; however, it poses a challenge as well. I believe that the principles and applications of chemistry as presented to chemistry majors should be substantially different from those presented to, say, chemistry minors or to premed or pretechnology majors. This requires an understanding of the roles of chemistry in each of these fields and properly planning the corresponding chemistry curricula. The “one chemistry fits all” approach does not work here. Rather, this approach may backfire because a substantial number of the educated population may simply memorize the content of a chemistry class for the sake of passing immediate course requirements and develop less of an appetite for chemistry.

My intent in the previous paragraphs was to show that chemistry education is a key to enhancing the contributions of the chemical sciences to sustainable development. Sustainable development is about people and for people. As such, I believe, chemistry education is the vehicle through which chemistry reaches the people who are in need of sustainable development. In addition, chemical education addresses the social objective of sustainable development, as education is one of the primary means for empowerment, participation, cultural preservation, social mobility, and equity.

It is for these reasons that I say the planning and implementation of chemical education has to be taken seriously. It is good to expand the number of universities and colleges in a country, as is happening in Ethiopia now, because that is one of the major ways to achieve the goal of access to education for all. But at the same time we need to seriously consider the quality issues associated with expansion. Chemistry, as a practical science, requires the engagement of students in certain chemical laboratory activities. Because of insufficient funding, mainly in the form of foreign currency, it is unlikely that these new universities will be equipped with the minimum facilities needed for chemistry to be taught as a major subject. The situation will be even worse when these new institutions engage themselves in postgraduate programs for chemistry.

I also believe that the current practice in which there is one harmonized undergraduate chemistry curriculum for all universities in the country could be revisited. Ethiopia is a diverse nation, with many languages and geographical variations. The universities and colleges are spread across the country, mostly in-line with ethnic regionalization. But the social, economic, environmental, and technological contexts surrounding the universities are quite different.

As such, I think that contextualizing and specializing the chemistry programs offered by universities located in substantially different settings would benefit the country in the long run. For instance, the chemistry department at Haramaya University is situated in an institution whose major specialization is agriculture. Wouldn’t it be better if the chemistry department there specialized in food and agricultural sciences rather than offering the same kind of programs as Addis Ababa University, which is better known in the area of the basic sciences? The same holds true for the other universities—some are known for their strengths in medicine, others in public health, still others in forestry studies. Some universities are located in mineral-rich areas, others are in desert areas, still others are in areas where water is abundant. I am not sure that the chemistry departments in all such diverse contexts should offer identical chemistry programs.

I also believe that for chemistry to contribute significantly and meaningfully to sustainable development in Africa, chemistry education should include science and technology of the traditional indigenous knowledge that is part and parcel of African culture. African chemists have studied many natural products that Africans have traditionally used in day-to-day life. However, there is no corresponding development in the undergraduate education of chemists, let alone at the secondary school level. As such, the knowledge produced in scientific laboratories will remain only as journal articles that have little impact on the lives of the people at the grassroots level.

The best solution to these problems, I believe, is to devise a system in which such knowledge is systemically incorporated in chemistry curricula. One solution could be to recognize and support chemistry education as an essential subfield of chemistry and to encourage educators to keep pace with the developments in mainstream chemistry subfields. Such an approach could accelerate the contribution of chemistry to sustainable development in Africa.

On the basis of these arguments I conclude that chemistry has a direct relation with and impact on sustainable development. Nevertheless, it is clear that Africa is behind the rest of the world in many respects. There is no way out for Africans other than by striving to establish sustainable development strategies and to implement them as much as possible. Chemistry and chemists can be the cornerstones of the sustainable development schemes. It is mandatory for African chemists to give priority to this agenda as much as they can.

I would not thus be considered overambitious if I state the main objectives of IYC 2011 in Africa as follows: The International Year of Chemistry is expected to serve as a springboard for assessing the state of the chemical sciences and education in Africa in terms of their contributions to sustainable development on the continent and engaging African chemists in the sustainable development efforts of regional, national, and international organizations working in Africa.

I expect every chemical society in Africa, and the members of the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry in particular, to organize chemistry events throughout 2011 and beyond to achieve the above objectives. That is why I recently argued in the African Journal of Chemical Education (2011,1, 1) that IYC 2011 is an opportunity and a challenge for African chemists and educators.

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