Fulani and Jihad in West Africa: a complex relationship

With Islamist extremism on the rise in several regions of West Africa, Fulani communities are purported to be front and center. In Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, Fulani groups have been accused of waging jihad, supporting terrorists, and committing genocide of Christians. Security forces attempting to root out terrorists have reportedly targeted Fulani communities based on their perceived support for jihadists.

Fulani are associated with modern Islamist movements in part because they are perceived to have strong historical ties to jihad. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, several prominent Fulani individuals and groups waged jihadist revolutions across West Africa, including in Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria. These revolutions shaped the region and continue to exert strong historical and cultural influence today.

In Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, Fulani groups have been accused of waging jihad, supporting terrorists, and committing genocide of Christians.

In the chapter I contributed to Extremisms in Africa Vol 3, I attempted to set the record straight regarding perceived links between Fulani and jihad in West Africa. By exploring case studies from both the 18th and 19th centuries and from modern day movements, it aimed to identify the role that Fulani individuals and groups have played and continue to play in jihadist movements in West Africa. Ultimately, I wanted to explore the strength of the foundation on which perceived equivalencies between Fulani and jihad are based.

Starting with a historical review, I discovered that Fulani individuals and groups were instrumental players in most of the successful jihadist movements in West Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With Fulani elites triggering the jihadist revolutions that brought about the Fuuta Djallon Imamate, the Sokoto Caliphate, and the Macina Empire, jihad in the region had become fully associated with the Fulani by the end of the 18th century.

However, a closer look revealed that jihadist leaders catered to an ethnically diverse group of supporters, and that narratives at this time were often based on a broader ideology rather than ethnic affiliation and loyalty. As a result, many of the fighters in these movements were not Fulani. Additionally, there are examples of jihadist leaders antagonizing and attacking Fulani communities that disagreed with them, and there are several incidents of Fulani communities and subclans refusing to participate in the jihads – for example, Mbororo groups.

Starting with a historical review, I discovered that Fulani individuals and groups were instrumental players in most of the successful jihadist movements in West Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Moreover, modern jihadist movements in these regions differ from their historical counterparts in several important ways. Contemporary movements advocate for a strict and literal Salafi interpretation of Islam, while historic movements were waged under the more inclusive Sufi tradition practiced by the majority of Fulani Muslims. Twenty-first century jihadist leaders also demonstrate more ethnic diversity than their 18th and 19th century counterparts, with group leaders coming from Arab-Berber, Tuareg, and Kanuri ethnic groups in addition to Fulani. Contemporary jihadist campaigns also cater more to lower- and working-class individuals, while historic jihadist movements were predominantly waged by elite groups and clans.

Some analysis of modern jihadist movements in West Africa points to outsized Fulani participation. Fulani are reported to be disproportionately represented amongst some jihadist groups in the central Sahel, and there is evidence of both Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliated armed groups specifically targeting Fulani communities to recruit fighters.

Yet other evidence challenges this picture. Analysts note that jihadist groups in West Africa today lack popular support, even in Fulani-majority areas, and that they represent only a “tiny fraction” of the population. Contemporary jihadist groups often cater to non-Fulani populations and have even attacked and preyed upon Fulani communities. In addition, there are several areas of the region where Fulani are a prominent minority that have not experienced jihadist movements or violent extremism. For example, Guinea, the country with the largest Fulani minority in West Africa, is not affected by jihadism and Fulani groups there are not and have not been particularly involved in violent conflicts.

There is evidence of both Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliated armed groups specifically targeting Fulani communities to recruit fighters.

The aim of my chapter was to set the record straight regarding alleged links between Fulani and jihad, but as it turns out, the record is not straight at all. Allegations of robust links between Fulani groups and jihadist movements are difficult to substantiate due to the dynamic, complex nature of the regional context. The social, economic and geographic diversity within Fulani groups, the ethnic diversity among contemporary jihadist leaders in the region, and the predominantly socio-economic drivers of jihad in West Africa (both in the past and in the present) all complicate attempts to draw direct links between Fulani communities and modern jihadist movements. In this context, the value that highlighting such links can bring to efforts to fight terrorism in the region is extremely limited.

Conversely, the risk that such narratives will yield false equivalencies between Fulani communities and jihadist movements presents significant threats to efforts to combat the spread of Islamist extremism in West Africa. False equivalencies between Fulani and jihad, which are already common, have fueled and will continue to fuel actions against innocent civilians based on ethnic identity, which in turn breeds resentment and grievance on which jihadists can draw in their attempts to recruit new fighters for their causes. The deliberate ethnic targeting of Fulani by security and counterterrorism forces, which is taking place across the region, will breed resentment and grievance among Fulani communities, including among those who originally stood opposed to jihad.

The aim of my chapter was to set the record straight regarding alleged links between Fulani and jihad, but as it turns out, the record is not straight at all.

The relationship between Fulani groups and jihadist movements in West Africa is, and has always been, extremely complex. Narratives implying a simple relationship are harmful, both to efforts to combat the spread of violent extremism, and to broader policies and programmes aimed at stabilising and developing the region. Scholars, policymakers and practitioners interested in reducing violence in the region should avoid ethnic narratives and focus instead on understanding and addressing the political and economic drivers of the phenomenon.


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MADELINE VELLTURO is a research analyst with Stimson’s Protecting Civilians in Conflict programme. Her portfolio includes United Nations peacekeeping and multilateral institutions, as well as African geopolitics, with a focus on the Sahel region and an emphasis on pastoralism and herder-farmer conflict. She received a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, focusing on international security policy and conflict resolution. Madeline lived for several years in Accra, where she founded a series of creative writing workshops for at-risk urban youth. She has also lived and worked in Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda with local non-profit organisations in the fields of peacebuilding, literacy, entrepreneurship and public health. Madeline holds a Bachelor’s from Bryn Mawr College.

Between a rock and a hard place

The Sahel: Africa’s Great Green Wall

The African Union’s ambitious plans to revitalise the Sahel region face daunting challenges, including financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic

Acacia trees planted in Senegal’s Louga region, as part of the Great Green Wall Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP

It is a project that doesn’t lack ambition. The African Union’s Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI) aims to create a new living world wonder, an 8,000 km tree line across the 21 countries in the Sahel region of Africa. A project this size needs the funding to match and so far, more than $8 billion has been pledged. But conflicts, capacity, direction and ensuring capital remain huge challenges standing in the way of the GGWI. This has led the initiative to refocus away from merely planting trees to developing climate-resilient communities that will be protected from droughts, famine, conflict and migration, restoring degraded land to provide food, jobs and other products that people can use to make a living.

“Planting trees just to restore the land is not the right methodology and this is why we’re looking at income generation as a key aspect,” said Camilla Nordheim-Larsen, programme coordinator at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “The communities need to have a reason to take care of these trees, whether it’s to use or sell products coming from  the trees or an agro-forestry project, or being able to sell carbon credits, for example,” she says, explaining the GGWI’s new direction.

The project’s aims, however, are vast in terms of land restoration, carbon offsetting, beneficiaries, and the number of trees planted by the end of this decade, with progress on many targets stalled and hovering around the 15 to 18% mark. Completion within the decade is ambitious, but Nordheim-Larsen remains confident the initiative can achieve its  goals  on time, which under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is 2030.

Nordheim-Larsen’s optimism is based on her belief that a significant increase in investment, from a variety of different sources, both public and private, could make a drastic difference to the funding gap and help to upscale projects. However, Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the GGWI at the African Union Commission, is less optimistic about that date, which he sees as a UN rather than African Union (AU) target.

“Most of the programmes of the UN are based on the SDGs [for 2030], but for the African Union we have Agenda 2063,” Tangem says. “As far as achieving it by 2030, it’s very, very unlikely. We did an extrapolation and we looked at the possibility of attaining that objective by 2030, but we had to be restoring almost 2.5 million hectares of land a year, which is not possible… with the financial and resources situation [as it is] we cannot say it can be achieved in the next 10 years. When you look at Agenda 2063 it’s more realistic, as we’re talking about restoring less than one million hectares of land a year.”

The GGWI is led by the AU, with the World Bank, UN, European Union and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) as its main funders. Another revenue stream UNCCD is trying to tap is private funders and it supports projects that make the GGWI self-funding by producing products that can be sold on international markets such as oil from the moringa tree, baobab and superfoods type of products, and shea butter. Tangem claims there are as many as 27 products and commodities that could be sold on international markets in the GGWI to benefit communities, in addition to eco-tourism.

Although exploitation of such commodities and eco-tourism, along with addressing climate change, are all issues that may seem to be more of a focus of the western or developed world rather than the countries of the Sahel, Nordheim-Larsen is keen to emphasise the initiative is not being donor-led but was started in the region; the project ultimately builds on the vision of late Burkina Faso President Tomas Sankara.

A 3D movie about the Great Green Wall at the Chad stand at the COP21 UN conference on climate change in Paris, 2015 Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP

“It started with African leaders and was adopted by African leaders in 2007 [after the idea was conceived in 2005] with no push from donors. We’ve come much later to try and support the initiative,” she says. Now, though, the main concern facing the GGWI is funding and searching for different revenue streams, the most significant of which would be carbon offsetting. “The potential carbon sequestration that this project could generate would have global benefits,” adds Nordheim-Larsen.

“There’s been interest from many companies in terms of offsetting projects in the region. At the moment there’s not a lot, but there’s some with the potential to be upscaled, both agroforestry and in the renewable energy sector.” Those companies include carbon polluting giants such as BP and Shell, who are believed to be very interested in offsetting through the GGWI, which could offset up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, says Tangem. But private financial interest is not limited to the globe’s big polluters.

“During UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ climate change summit in September [2019], we had serious engagement with companies like Timberland, who were ready to invest a good chunk of their corporate social responsibility funds in the Great Green Wall,” he adds. The recent coronavirus pandemic, though, has already begun to have an impact on this funding of the GGWI, as Tangem explains: “We successfully raised €1 million for the locust issue in the Horn of Africa, but because of Covid that money was diverted into supporting these countries to buy facemasks and sanitisers.”

This has not been a one-off issue as following last September’s UN Climate Summit in New York, the Great Green Wall has made engagements with both the public and private sector in the pursuit of additional funding that Tangem claims were successful. “We had many other pledges from private-sector partners, big and small, but many of them have withdrawn because they need to take care of their workers and help their investors during this Covid time when everything is shut down. But we are very confident that between 12 and 15 months down the line we will come back and have the support because these engagements are there,” he says.

Besides the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the GGWI has faced several other problems, as can be expected with a project of this size, the most serious of which is security. Extremists, traffickers and terrorist organisations are all operating in various countries of the Sahel where the GGWI has been working, forcing them to retreat. “Burkina Faso, for instance, was one of our best and most successful practices, but we had to abandon about 60% [of our work] because of the security issues. We abandoned most of the areas that were being intervened in Mali, such as Timbuktu.

These are key areas but we had to abandon [them] because of security issues. In Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad as well,” says Tangem. These are all issues that simply weren’t there, certainly on this scale, in 2005 when the programme started. In addition, Somalia forms a large part  of the initiative’s strategy, but the GGWI is unable to operate there because of extremist organisation Al-Shabaab. Not only are these groups having a disastrous impact on the ground on the GGWI’s ability to carry out its programmes, but they have also discouraged funders, says Tangem, although he also points out that countries that are more secure have demonstrated more long-lasting results.

Ethiopia, for instance, has managed to restore 15 million hectares of degraded land. One other challenge facing the GGWI is a need to upscale domestic investment and unlock further finances from the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDFC), as it cannot rely solely on development aid, something about which both Tangem and Nordheim-Larsen agree. But, as Tangem points out, he accepts there is a domestic shortfall in funding, while many of the fund’s beneficiary countries are dealing with more pressing short-term issues than land restoration. The security issues detailed are the most pressing of these, though as Covid-19 continues to eat into the budgets of GGWI’s biggest funders, such as the World Bank and EU, it may well, at least in the short-term, fall to second behind financing.

Workers water the Widu tree nursery in Senegal’s Louga region, 2011 Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP


Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He primarily writes about the environment, energy and the green economy, as well as politics and society for British publications including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.


Threatened to extinction

Cameroon: culture clash

Urbanisation and acculturation in Cameroon are eroding traditional conservation practices that helped maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem

Aerial view of the Mount Cameroon National Park in the south west region of Cameroon, 2019. The forest at the foot of the mountain plays host to African elephants traditionally conserved by the Bakweri people but are now under threat Photo: Muleng Timngum

Armand Boui has a problem. The 57-year-old native of Mongonam in the Kadey Division of Cameroon – part of the species-rich Congo Basin – is jobless. He wasn’t always unemployed, and he is not at peace with himself. Boui is an herbalist and intercessor between the community’s people and their ancestors. But about 10 years ago, he watched helplessly as wildlife poaching and a gold rush led to the desecration of a sacred forest – the source of his spiritual powers. “The forest was invaded by strangers, and even our own [people]. The traditional authorities of the village couldn’t help.

Subsequently, my potions and incarnations gradually became ineffective,” Boui said. People stopped patronising him and, suddenly, he was left without his social role – or a job. “The spirits were no longer finding favour in me. I guess they moved away due to the invasion. It is an unfortunate situation,” Boui told Africa in Fact. He sometimes wonders what his late father would think. His father, from whom he inherited the therapeutic and sacral role, had asked him to hand over the “special gift” to the next generation.

In Cameroon, many natural  sites and biodiversity hotspots play host to totems, especially in the form of animals, which are revered for their traditional sacredness. The totem animals, such as elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, were formerly protected by traditional belief systems, but are now endangered species. In recent times a cocktail of factors, including acculturation and rapid urbanisation, has disrupted traditional conservation practices that helped maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem.

Boui’s predicament is not unique. Studies carried out  in  different  parts  of Cameroon show that fast-eroding cultural norms and taboos are playing negatively against wildlife conservation. Fewer than 10 Bakweri (people of the Sawa ethnic group who speak the Mokpwe language) villages out of about 100 located near the Mount Cameroon National Park still have functional secret societies, according to a 2004 report by researcher Lyombe Eko. In general, the aim of traditional secret societies is to safeguard their communities from evil.

The secret societies he identified as still active in these villages were the Maale, whose totem is the African elephant, and the Nganya, with the warthog as their totem. Members of both groups claimed that their respective totem animals were present in the forest; they were protected and could not be killed for merely economic reasons. These traditional belief systems played an important role in wildlife conservation in the past, according to Chief Dr Ndome Samuel, traditional ruler of Kake II Bokoko in the South West region of Cameroon, in a pronouncement.

But European missionaries – including Baptists, Catholics and Presbyterians – dissuaded the locals from the practices, promising hell for adherents who didn’t repent. Many abandoned the culture. Religion and colonisation – related factors of acculturation – have had a devastating impact on traditional ecological governance systems, says Nnah Ndobe Samuel, a Yaounde-based socio- economist. He argues that irreversible damage to Cameroon’s rich and abundant ecosystems, related biodiversity, cultures and traditions could occur if their influence is not checked.

Skinned porcupines at a local game market in Bertoua, 2016. Photo: Amindeh Blaise Atabong

“Approaches by corporate conservation organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London, the African Wildlife Foundation, etc,  are too scientific and colonial. They do not take into consideration the specificities of local people,” Ndobe told Africa in Fact. He noted that most of their approach often results in a hunting market, to the advantage of hunters from the West.

Colonialism turned many things upside down, according to Ndobe. Its influence touched everything. French colonialists in Cameroon, for example, forced traditional rulers to wear uniforms, abandoning their rainforest design attire and amulets. Urbanisation has also taken its toll on traditional best practices related to conservation. Cameroon has an urbanisation rate of 56% per cent, according to United Nations (UN) data; making it one of the most urbanised countries on the continent by sub- Saharan standards.

In absolute terms, more than half of the country’s 25 million people now live in urban areas, with the UN forecasting 70% by 2050. This rising rate of urbanisation involves significant challenges for humans. But the future for animals is bleak. As pressure increases on land for construction, agriculture and other economics activities, their natural habitats are destroyed. Also, over the years, state legislation intended to protect and manage wildlife has often failed to recognise and provide for local communities.

These influences are difficult to counter, says Ndobe, who does much of his work in the Kupe Muanenguba area. As an example, he cites the efforts of the Baka pygmies in the east of Cameroon to resist acculturation through voluntary isolation. “The modern conservation system doesn’t consider them. [The] pygmies are chased out of their natural habitats when government creates reserves or grants logging concessions,” Ndobe says. About 20 years ago, the government started  granting  logging concessions to mostly Chinese and European companies.

Many of Cameroon’s 75,000 hunter-gatherer pygmies were forced to leave the forests and found themselves living sedentary lifestyles by roadsides. The Baka pygmies in particular have protested against their eviction from ancestral forests, where they traditionally harvested wild fruits and hunted game for subsistence. Their survival, and the destruction of their culture, are at stake. In 2017, Survival International, a group campaigning for the rights of indigenous people, accused the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of violating international guidelines in Cameroon by backing the creation of three national parks on Baka land without their consent.

The group said that the WWF had funded eco-guards who allegedly tortured and killed Baka pygmies with impunity in anti-poaching operations. The WWF, which has its headquarters in Switzerland, has denied the accusations, but the Swiss government has said it will look into the issue. Experts highlight other factors that hamper the survival of traditional conservation systems. These include paradigm shifts in lifestyles and attitudes, poor transmission of cultural knowledge to younger generations, the decline of traditional institutions and the rise of individualism, among others.

Dead pythons on display at a local game market in Bertoua, 2016. The snakes are harvested from protected areas across the forest east region of Cameroon, part of the species-rich Congo Basin Photo: Amindeh Blaise Atabong

Yet experts and civil society activists agree that integrating cultural norms and taboo – which are rooted in traditional belief systems – into forestry and wildlife laws and conservation programmes could help to galvanise locals into conserving natural resources, thereby contributing to resourceful nation building. With regard to conservation, traditional belief systems ought to be incorporated into law enforcement mechanisms, they say.

“If this is done, it will encourage the spirit of stakeholders (local people), recognise and promote a sense of ownership and belonging,” says Dr Nkwatoh A Fuashi, Senior Environment and Natural   Management Adviser for the Environment and Community Development Association (ECoDAs) and a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science, University of Buea, an advocate of incorporating traditional belief systems in conservation laws in Africa. “This has been neglected by the international conventions that are the genesis of our present national laws on the conservation of resources.”

This may be particularly true of the Congo Basin, where some traditional practices do survive. In Nigeria’s Gashaka-Gunti National Park, primates are “naturally protected”, Fuashi says, because members of the local community view them as part of the human species, so that killing them would be similar to killing a human. Practices such as this should be incorporated into conservation mechanisms, he argues.

Though efforts have previously been made to get local communities involved in conservation programmes, they have largely been informed by economic motives, frequently under outsider direction. Moreover, Asian demand for certain species, such as pangolins and rhinoceros, facilitated by widespread corruption, has fuelled poaching. Communities take steps to prevent such species extinctions when they attach cultural significance to them, according to Dr Marius Talla, an expert in governance and anti-corruption at consultancy firm Cabinet Mamy Raboana.

“If [wildlife extinction] happened, their customs, and therefore their lives, would be over. We saw it with the pygmies of east Cameroon,” Talla says. Talla believes there will be better conservation results if traditional conservation best practices are made law and there is effective reduction of corruption in the chain of suppression of wildlife offences. “All other measures will only be complementary,” he says.

In 2015, custodians of traditions from six African countries, including Cameroon, jointly petitioned the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to give legal recognition to  sacred natural sites and territories and their associated customary governance systems. In their joint statement, they asked the Commission to encourage member countries to observe the ideals of  its  charter  –  “giving   precedence  to indigenous African culture and customary governance systems over the colonial systems that dominated the continent for so long.”

In practice, however, these processes must be negotiated at regional and country levels, and  can  therefore  take a long time, says Ndobe. Hope, and continued advocacy of the approach, are essential.


Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian print and multimedia journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism (local category). He works for independent regional and international outlets, including for Quartz, Thompson Reuters Foundation News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times.

Diverse situations requiring unique solutions

African conservation: a wake-up call

Fixed and polarised attitudes to African conservation remain a major impediment to robust, solution-seeking debate

Park rangers in Zimbabwe
Photo: Richard Maasdorp

A lifetime of wild experiences in the Zambezi Valley and a decade at the helm of The Zambezi Society – which practises a no-nonsense, hands on, practical approach to protecting this magnificent wilderness area – has given me many opportunities to reflect on the realities of conservation in Africa.

We are in danger of becoming bogged down in conventional and conservative thought. The current COVID-19 crisis brings this into sharp focus. Our worlds may have shrunk temporarily, and our activities, too, but we must not lose sight of the broader vision that gave birth to our commitment in the first place. I think it’s time we opened our eyes to reality. We need to stop thinking about Africa’s conservation problems in generic terms. Many opinion leaders, international conservation organisations and media tend to see Africa’s conservation challenges as generic.

This leads them to suggest  “one-size-fits-all” solutions that lack relevant local context. The results may produce inappropriate interventions, ill- advised lobbying and funding channelled into initiatives that, while they might work in one place, may be totally ineffective, even destructive, in others. From a platform of research, professionalism and transparency, Africa needs to continue to challenge the idea that international organisations or donors have solutions to the continent’s conservation problems that are in some way superior to our own.

That these internationals have political clout and financial resources does not mean they can solve our problems. Take elephants, for example: some African countries have either lost or are losing their elephant populations at an alarming rate. Others have stable populations. But the individual circumstances that led to the latter are not discussed. Botswana and Zimbabwe together are custodians of more than half the population of African elephant.

In East Africa, over decades, elephant populations declined dramatically due to illegal activity, habitat loss and human encroachment. The conservation voices of these countries demonised traditional elephant management techniques such as hunting (even in marginalised habitats), or wildlife population control and preached that photographic tourism, conservation outfits and government could provide all the solutions. Their generic message has become “gospel” for elephant conservation models across the world.

But in southern African countries – notably Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia – hunting and wildlife population control measures have, for decades, been incorporated into a range of conservation policies aimed at discouraging illegal activity, human encroachment and habitat loss. The elephant populations of these countries remain relatively healthy – a story not often told. Yet, international pressure for southern Africa to adopt the all- purpose “East African” conservation model is great.

Even within a country, the contexts are varied. In Zimbabwe, for instance, there are four distinct elephant sub-populations – each with a different problem requiring a customised management solution. With such varying situations, a buffet of management solutions is required. Each of these four separate areas in Zimbabwe now has their own customised Elephant Management Plan devised by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and a group of stakeholders and is subject to regular review and update.

When I first entered the conservation arena in Zimbabwe, I was shocked by the bloodletting between the players, driven by egos and the perception that funding is a scarce resource. Even in my former life in the construction industry, we had a collaborative umbrella organisation to take care of the industry as a whole. This allowed for robust debate, and gave us a platform from which to  lobby for enlightened policies on which we could stand together against unfair or inappropriate practices emanating from new international players.

But Zimbabwe’s conservation “industry” has no such platform at a national level. A newly-developing collaborative effort in the Lower Zambezi Valley area is making some progress. But the future of the wildlife spaces that conservation bodies purport to protect is most often at the mercy of the loudest, most influential, monied or most connected voices. These are not necessarily the most constructive or sensible. My participation at the African Conservation Lab in 2017 in South Africa did little to reassure me that this problem is confined to my own country.

Fragmentation and rivalry in the conservation arena appears to be a common problem across other elephant range states. National conservation vision and strategy is not crafted by a collective of informed and pragmatic stakeholders (Zimbabwe’s Elephant Management Plans are laudable exceptions – with the Lower Zambezi Valley’s collaborative and dynamic one often now acknowledged as a game changer that works).

Individual activities that support wildlife spaces and are having a positive impact most often lack synergies and are missing out on optimisation possibilities. The embryonic Lower Zambezi Valley collaboration model is an exception (although even this has its mavericks), and has demonstrated that significant results can be achieved with effective collaboration. Donor organisations, with a few exceptions, also do not often collaborate with each other. Funds are committed to fragmented initiatives. Donors, often driven by their own priorities or their reading of country politics, tend to withhold funding or are skewed towards activities that may be inappropriate.

Elephants cannot vote. Local conservation organisations are often “muscled out” by international and regional entities or tourism operations that have the money and connections. In this way, a country becomes vulnerable to economic “recolonisation”. However, a collaborative approach that seeks genuine engagement with local stakeholders can harness latent potential that exists amongst a country’s citizens and its own biodiversity resources.

Similarly, without engaging local stakeholders to provide carefully channelled funding mechanisms, opportunities to build strong, long-term, impactful partnerships with the local regulatory authorities and other sectors (e.g. tourism, agriculture/tobacco-growing, hunting, communities, schools, etc) and to improve their effectiveness, are missed. Local conservation organisations are forced to march to the tune of international regulatory outfits such as CITES and larger international funders such as USFWS and GEF. These entities often have their own internationally-based lead managers who would do better if they collaborated with local stakeholders.

There are several “community myths” that are problematic, too. The first is that “Unless the buffer zone community is persuaded into conservation by reaping the benefits of it, we will lose the battle to protect these areas”. But we do not say… “Unless the neighbours to this bank/service station/commercial farm receive direct benefits from this business, it will fail”. Another myth is that tourism can help communities surrounding protected areas. The reality is that the margins in tourism are not great enough to save a community from poverty. It is also claimed that job creation in the buffer zones around wildlife spaces will alleviate the poaching problem.

In fact, young people in the main want jobs in the cities, not handouts or meagre pickings on offer in a marginal area. The reality is that we need an alternative means of tackling the “communities versus wildlife” issue; piecemeal inducements for conservation or handouts from a fickle tourism industry aren’t enough. Rural farmers will always see wild animals as a threat to their crops. Tourism revenue is unreliable and can cease altogether as a result of political unrest, natural disaster or pandemic. Meaningful jobs for rural people can be created. An example is the My Trees Project in the Zambezi Valley, which seeks to become a major employer of women in buffer- zone areas to replant and become guardians of indigenous forests by harnessing green climate funds or carbon credits.

But, frankly, this won’t satisfy the young. What the conservation industry really needs to do is pressure governments to put the cities to rights so that they can create and provide the jobs the rural young need. Better still, this industry should contribute to fixing the cities themselves (a 10 to 20 year journey if professional, public-private sector boards/ commissions collaborate to run them, not party-political councillors, as they often are in Africa).

Conservation is still tainted by a “greenie” image. It needs to become an industry in its own right (and be recognised as such), albeit with some philanthropic support towards not-for-profit outcomes, and become a tangible contributor to the economy, the service sector, and the manufacturing sector. It needs to become known for its job creation at a national level, as is the case in Kenya. I have been in the unique position of “working” between the bush and the boardroom. I spend days out on deployment with rangers and  understand their intrinsic value beyond their technical roles.

My most powerful insight has been that the conservation quest has been led, over the generations, by qualified conservationists (often pockets of ego-driven passion) and bureaucrats (regulatory personnel). What is lacking is holistic visioning, trans-sector thinking and commercial aptitude. A top-down management approach is out of place in the modern world. A level-one park ranger has valuable opinion! We need to move towards an enlightened leadership, vision-and-execution approach, so we can forge the links between the global desire to protect wilderness, the rangers on the ground and the wildlife under their stewardship.

Governments need to ensure that they place the value of wild land and its wildlife on their balance sheets – a value on par with the national power utility may result. This is particularly true in Zimbabwe, where a commendable 13% of

the country is legislated as wildlife estate (and a similar percentage under private custodianship), and would reinforce the bid for it to be managed accordingly.

In an increasingly developed world, the value of wilderness areas as places for spiritual and physical healing (for those who can afford it) is underestimated. But to expect African governments to fully fund these global wilderness gems shows a poverty of thought and understanding. Africa’s governments may never be able to prioritise conservation above health, education or military expenditure. Hence, there will always be a funding gap, which if not met (transparently) will result in globally important wild spaces eroded rapidly and irrevocably.

It is also risky to rely on tourism income to save wild places. Not all wildernesses are suitable for tourism. Indeed, some 70% of the impressive 13% of land area set aside for wildlife in Zimbabwe is too rugged and hostile for traditional tourism. But it is still in need of custodianship.

Even wild places popular for tourism are vulnerable to a crisis situation – as the current coronavirus outbreak demonstrates. It may take more than a decade for these destinations to recover from the setback. What future do wild spaces dependent on tourism now face? The world has a responsibility to assist the conservation of these wild spaces, with funding support and the provision of  appropriate expertise, relying on local accountability and capacity.

We need to bring the best minds and hearts to the conservation debate. Those with disguised motives should excuse themselves. We need robust discussion resulting in yet unimagined outcomes. We need to listen. Fixed and polarised attitudes remain a major impediment to robust, solution-seeking debate. The elephant issue is not about elephants across Africa or an individual elephant or its family (an unhelpful animal welfare narrative )); it is about finding the most suitable ways to conserve discrete populations in their distinct wilderness landscapes.

There is a global responsibility to fund, resource and upskill each of these wilderness landscapes. I encourage Africa’s conservation visionaries to use the mind space created by COVID-19 to shift out of the rut of present “looking- forward” dogma, and imagine beyond a 10-year horizon with a “future-looking- back” approach. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to conservation problems in Africa. Individuals, NGOs, governments and donors all need to understand this, and to respect that diverse situations require their own unique solutions.


Richard Maasdorp has a deep love for the people, the wildlife and the wild places of Zimbabwe, his country of birth. A retired civil engineer, he has a Masters in Business Leadership and a wealth of experience as head of several major construction companies, and chair of Zimbabwe’s power generation board. A patient and passionate observer of nature, he now leads The Zambezi Society, helping to conserve the Zambezi River’s magnificent wildlife and wildernesses.

Going to waste

Solar power: the dark side

Traded as environmentally sound, solar power leaves waste that could engulf Africa in the same way as plastic

Street lights powered by solar power in Oti province, northern Togo, February 2020. The Togolese government and private sector is installing mini solar power plants in different localities to enable rural communities access to subsidised electricity Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP

Daniel Wesonga, a resident of Moi Farm village in western Kenya, is a happy man since purchasing a small solar lamp the size of a medium cup, which also has a high frequency radio. He is now sure of light and entertainment, two things that are about to change his otherwise boring and dark village nights. The 47-year-old father of six has depended on a paraffin lamp, which he says is expensive, considering that he has spent an average of Sh30 ($0.30) of his daily wage of Sh150 ($1.50) as a bicycle repairer on kerosene to ensure his children do their homework for at least three hours every night.

”I bought this on hire purchase, after paying a deposit of Sh600 ($6),” Wesonga told Africa in Fact. “I now have a balance of a similar amount to be paid over the next six months to wholly own the gadget. Farewell to kerosene and messy soot!” Almost every household in the tiny village on the bank of the River Nzoia has a solar gadget, thanks to aggressive marketing by solar firms that have focused especially on rural Africa, where the majority of homesteads are yet to be connected to the power grid. Asked what he will do with the small solar gadget if becomes faulty, Wesonga rubs his thin pale palms on his bushy face. ”I’ll just throw it away, what else can I do?”

Wesonga, just like tens of millions of other people in Africa who have heeded the sustainability agenda and embraced solar power, is clueless on how to handle solar waste. Their governments, which have generously provided incentives to solar firms to ensure high uptake, are not helping either. For instance, Kenya lifted all Value Added Tax (VAT) charges on imported solar products in 2014, and zero-rated import duty on solar imports to motivate households to adopt the cheaper and environmentally friendly energy.

Yet the country has no waste policy to curb mass dumping of photovoltaic panels, which have short lifespans, just like any other electronic gadget. Renewable energy expert Jacob Ng’eno, of African Solar Designs based in Nairobi, says that while solar energy is traded as environmentally sustainable, growing mountains of broken or otherwise non-functioning panels that are likely to be disposed of in two or three decades will wreck the environment.

The Global E-waste Monitor (2017): regional e-waste

In 2016, Asia was the region that generated by far the largest amount of e-waste (18.2 Mt), followed by Europe (12.3 Mt), the Americas (11.3 Mt), Africa (2.2 Mt), and Oceania (0.7 Mt). While the smallest in terms of total e-waste generated, Oceania was the highest generator of e-waste per inhabitant (17.3 kg/inh), with only 6% of e-waste documented to be collected and recycled. Europe is the second largest generator of e-waste per inhabitant with an average of 16.6 kg/inh; however, Europe has the highest collection rate (35%). The Americas generate 11.6 kg/inh and collect only 17% of the e-waste generated in the countries, which is comparable to the collection rate in Asia (15%). However, Asia generates less e-waste per inhabitant (4,2 kg/inh). Africa generates only 1.9 kg/inh and little information is available on its collection rate. The report provides regional breakdowns for Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.

A call centre bearing solar panels on its rooftop supplies power in a village without electricity in Seguela, Côte d’Ivoire, 2013 Photo: Sia Kambou / AFP

A property developer who violates the rules risks a year in prison or a $10,000 (Sh1 million) fine or both. The standard lifespan of solar gadgets ranges from 20 to 30 years, which means that some of the panels installed in the early part of the current boom are not far from their expiry date. Yet, the country’s e-waste draft Bill 2013 continues to gather dust on parliamentary shelves seven years on. Nor is it a priority for the 12th parliament that will exit office in 2021. By then, every person in the world will have at least seven kg of e-waste to dispose of every day, up from 6.1 kg, as captured in the United Nations Global e-waste Monitor, 2017.”Solar waste will soon form a huge part of electronic waste,” Ng’eno said.

“And it’s not easy to recycle. Solar waste will outdo plastic waste, which has wrecked the world in past decades.” He urged African states to come up with urgent plans to deal with e-waste. The Kenyan government’s soft heart for solar traders has seen at least 20,000 additional families acquire solar gadgets. In 2017, Kenya enforced regulations compelling hotels, educational centres and residential buildings to install solar water heating systems, with the aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 15% by 2030.

According to that report, the photovoltaic panels associated with solar energy are classified as “large equipment”. The solar waste menace is likely to get ugly in Nigeria, which is a boom market for solar firms, occasioned by high population and extreme poverty. Like Kenya, the western African nation has attracted a significant amount of solar Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the past decade, especially in rural and home solar and photovoltaic (PV) electrification.

In Kenya, solar importers have to meet basic requirements – such as obtaining a class V2 licence from the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA), which entitles them to carry out the manufacture or import of solar PV systems or components. Nigeria’s market, meanwhile, is grossly unregulated. This has led to a market in sub-standard solar power products, which have much lower lifespans, and it will inevitably result in considerable e-waste. A recent study by the World Bank placed Nigeria among countries in the world with poor electricity penetration.

High levels of power outages (at least 32.8 in a month) have made the inhabitants of Africa’s most populous nation easy prey for unscrupulous solar vendors. Nigeria aims to install 30,000 megawatts of solar PV by 2030 as outlined in the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) action plan dated December 2019. Most of this will be installed off-grid, while Nigeria aims to have about 40 million batteries, according to an Institute of Development Studies (IDS) publication of December 2016. But the typical lifetime of a battery is only about three years, compared to the 20-25 year average lifespan of PV panels.

A solar oven used for solar cooking in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2009 Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP

So this means that over the lifetime of this project about 280 million batteries will have to be installed, replaced, recovered and recycled to achieve 30,000 MW solar PV capacity. Most of them will find their way into domestic garbage bins. A similar fate awaits other African countries with similar solar power targets in terms of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) of 2015, which calls for the continent to install 300 GW of solar power by 2030. It is perhaps what motivated the Nigerian government to introduce taxes on solar products in February 2018. There’s now a 5% import duty on solar panels and 5% VAT, whereas in the past there were no tariffs on solar panels.

Nigeria also slapped a 20% import duty on solar batteries, to discourage mass imports. Rwanda is one of few countries in the region to have put in place tight regulations to combat the impending solar waste chaos. In July 2014, Rwanda introduced regulations to guide solar water heater dealers, to regulate the market and also to protect consumers from unscrupulous firms. The country’s solar water heating regulations are meant to support the government’s ambitious programme to install 12,000 quality solar water heaters countrywide – which should translate to a saving of 23,328 MHw on the national grid by the end of this year.

Tough penalties have also been set for suppliers and technicians who fail to meet the minimum standards, a move which protects against the dumping of substandard goods. “These regulations are intended to provide a licensing and regulatory framework for the design, installation, operation, repair, maintenance and upgrade of solar water heating systems in Rwanda,” according to the draft regulation issued by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (Rura). The regulation also sets minimum academic qualifications and professional requirements for technicians of solar water heaters in the country.

Those found violating the rules face cash penalties that range from Rwf10,000 – Rwf5 million ($10.50 to $5,300) depending on the offence. Despite these measures, solar firms continue to troop to Rwanda, thanks to the government’s tax policy, which imposes an almost zero rate on solar products, with the aim of reducing the country’s heavy dependency on thermal electricity. In addition to offering tax exemptions, the Rwandan government is meeting 25% of the cost of imported solar power water heaters. Each heater costs between Rwf800,000 and Rwf900,000 (about $900) on the open market in Kigali.

The country is now a significant importer of solar gadgets, which are fast becoming a dependable source of energy, especially in rural areas that are yet to be connected to the national power grid. Yet, as the number of imports into Africa increase each year, so does the solar waste pile, polluting rivers, soils and the air when burnt. In 2016, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned a multi-country study to research electronic waste in Africa’s off-grid renewable energy sector. The report concluded that the off-grid solar sector across 14 sub- Saharan African countries would produce 3,600 tonnes of electronic waste the following year.

While this represented a fractional percentage of total estimated electronic waste flows, it also put waste from off-grid solar products on a par with electronic waste from the mobile phone industry. Globally, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects solar waste to hit 78 million tonnes by 2050, most of it in Africa.

E-waste generation and collection per continent

Indicator Africa Americas Asia Europe Oceania
Countries in region 53 35 49 40 13
Population (millions) 1,174 977 4,364 738 39
Waste generation (kg/inh) 1.9 11.6 4.2 16.6 17.3
Indication WG (Mt) 2.2 11.3 18.2 12.3 0.7
Documented to be collected and recycled (Mt) 0.004 1.9 2.7 4.3 0.04
Collection rate 0% 17% 15% 35% 6%

Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna


Victor Amadala is an award-winning journalist with hundreds of published works in local and international outlets. He is currently a senior business writer for the Star Newspaper, the third-leading paper in Kenya. A Thomson Reuters New Age Media Fellow, he is passionate about developmental journalism for positive change in Africa.
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