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[NAIROBI] African universities have rallied behind a scheme to integrate community-guided environmental initiatives into their teaching and research agendas.

The African Association of Universities (AAU), a confederation of 212 universities, stated its support for the Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in African Universities (MESA) Partnership during the 1st MESA International Conference held at the UN Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, last week (24–28 November).

The partnership was launched in 2004 and aims to work with African universities to incorporate environment and sustainable development issues into all aspects of their activities.

It intends to reform environmental training so that students and researchers can identify community problems and develop 'homegrown' solutions.

Goolam Mohamedbhai, secretary-general of the AAU said that MESA — which comprises more than 77 universities and sub-regional networks — has created a forum for environmental scholars to connect for Africa's development.

Ransford Bekoe, AAU assistant project officer, told SciDev.Net that education for sustainable development (ESD) will be a priority of the AAU's four-year action plan due next year, and will be the theme for the African University Day in May 2009.

The AAU has also invited MESA to present a session at its 12th general conference next year, the theme of which is "Sustainable Development in Africa: The role of universities".

"The presence of the AAU secretary-general in this meeting signals good support in connecting a wider network of universities to strengthen MESA and provide a stronger direction on the concept of ESD," Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University in South Africa and rapporteur-general of the meeting told SciDev.Net.

"We will engage with the AAU conference next year to give a sense of what MESA can do."

So far, MESA has developed over 65 university courses that facilitate practical approaches to applying environmental knowledge in fostering sustainable development. For example, the African Network of Agriculture and Forestry Education is working with agricultural universities to develop learning materials based on indigenous and local agricultural knowledge.

"Such schemes will eliminate 'ivory tower' universities which are detached from the environmental realities in their locality," says Dorcas Otieno, chairperson of Kenya's National Environment Management Authority.