Seedbeds of Transformation Conference explored tensions and opportunities towards sustainability in Africa

by Yuki Hashimoto
A summary of the conference

Over 300 researchers, practitioners, industry leaders, policy makers, and others participated in a highly interactive landmark conference to discuss tensions and opportunities towards sustainability in the context of Africa over three days. Seedbeds of Transformation: The Role of Science with Society and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa was held from May 9 to 11 at the Boardwalk Hotel in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It was hosted by Future Earth, the South African Government Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation of South Africa, and START.

The main message from the conference “for a future earth we need” was to “claim Africa’s power, identities and knowledge as central to sustainability and social justice.” Twelve areas of action were identified collectively by all the participants in a bottom-up process. It involved a plenary that overarched day 2 and 3 and dived deep into an African perspective on ‘dancing’ with tensions, contradictions and opportunities in the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some of the areas of action were:

  • Centering values and ethics: centering SDGs around the whole human, acknowledge norms that are oppressive in doing sustainability work
  • Valuing long-term processes and dialogue: instead of supporting goals, support value-supporting processes
  • Transforming cultures of research: change the way research questions are made, reimagine universities, and reinterpret SDGs from a user’s perspective
  • Re-framing taken for granted definitions: lack of focus on human well-being, should be focusing not on problems but on opportunities, do research that not only complies but also challenges how transformations in Africa are codified

During the final plenary where these above action points were elaborated, the facilitators encouraged all participants to contribute by explaining specific ideas and examples per each action point.

The Seedbeds of Transformation conference was unique in its incorporation of art. Eight local street artists were present throughout the three days and pitched ideas on how to use their artwork to interpret transformations towards a sustainable society. An artist was selected by a panel of judges to receive a 10,000 Rand grant to make their ideas into reality. Samkela Stamper was the finalist and the grant will be used to empower local women to make art in a community center.

Another feature of the conference was the presence of early career researchers and changemakers. Thirty-five early career researchers were selected from around the continent and gathered to network, work together on a tangible publication from the conference, and even lead sessions.

Overall the conference was a huge success in bringing together a diverse range of participants together in a highly interactive, participatory, and innovative conference on how to bring about transformations in the African continent towards sustainable development.

Quotes from the conference

  • I taught myself how to make mosaics and I go into these communities and I teach women because I like working with women. I think they are more empowered than we think, it’s just that we don’t invest in them more often. –Samkela Stamper, local street artist
  • It’s so nice to see the intersection between arts and science. Taking academia aside, institutions of power, government, and all of that, can we look at people and talk to them. –Samkela Stamper, local street artist
  • We are talking about trajectories, sustainability, adapting and connecting, and this is the byproduct of those dialogues. This is a great tradition and I hope you continue, and there is more and more and more. – Badabeem Badaboom, local street artist
  • I’ve been inspired by the science, by the people, by the ideas. But I’ve been also inspired by the scientists who see themselves as change agents... I’ve been inspired by the artists reflecting back on what they heard. And I feel really a movement building. There’s been calls for regular meetings like this. People like to be connected to people. People like to be challenged. People want to be leaders and take on the challenges, even though we know many of the challenges that are in front of us can be difficult. – Amy Luers, Executive Director, Future Earth
  • I really want us to say our future earth. We are future earth and we are together working towards the world we want to live in. –Amy Luers, Executive Director, Future Earth
  • “…we came here as a group of early career change-agents – we set up in solidarity and we came up with great ideas. As we were talking we discovered that there were a number of challenges. Our challenges resonated with a sound of unity.” -Kuda Lovejoy Mudokwani, Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre and Early Career Researcher
  • “My challenges are not mine alone. But once shared, they become our collective responsibility to solve…We need to access spaces where our voices can be heard. It was upon us to find these spaces where we can be heard, where our talents can be seen. - Kuda Lovejoy Mudokwani, Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre and Early Career Researcher
  • What we’re trying to initiate is a process, with or without SDGs. This continent needs to be different. And we can not be different if we do not initiate now, a positive social change…That means we need to use our power as scientists because knowledge is power. And because knowledge is power it is inherently a political asset. There is no way that we can transform this continent if you do not work with the policy makers. – Cheikh Mbow, Executive Director, START
  • What is new is how can we do things differently? How can we change our influence to modify the scenarios, the trajectories of Africa in a way so that when we come to 2030 we see a different image of Africa that would not be possible without bringing sustainability science into this process. –Cheikh Mbow, Executive Director, START

Photos: Mark West/Future Earth.