Empowering Words for Cleaner Skies from the CLEAN-Air Africa Network

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The fourth annual International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies (07 September 2023) focusses on the theme, ‘Together for Clean Air’. The theme aims to highlight the urgent need for stronger partnerships, increased investment, and shared responsibility for overcoming air pollution. 

The CLEAN-Air Africa Network was launched in Kampala, Uganda on the 5th of April 2023, coinciding with a three-day workshop which brought together various stakeholders including academia, civil society, government, city officials, private sector, and development partners from 16 African countries and 31 cities. The key objective of the network is to serve as a community of practice, strengthening cross-regional air quality networks to enable collective learning, and knowledge sharing. On this Clean Air for Blue Skies Day, we asked our collaborators across the CLEAN-Air Africa Network what the theme, “Together for Clean Air” represents to them both personally and professionally. 

To commemorate this year’s Clean Air day, this blog, written by Monika Kamkuemah, captures quotes from the Network that encapsulate the essence of partnership, shared responsibility, and the unwavering dedication to combat air pollution on the continent to ensure a sustainable future.

On Collaboration and Partnership:

Engineer Bainomugisha believes that the current moment is critical for all partners to unite and enhance the ongoing efforts aimed at achieving cleaner air throughout the African continent, emphasising the importance of robust networks to tackle air pollution.

“We do believe that it is a critical moment for all of us partners to come together and amplify the actions we are doing to achieve cleaner air across the African continent. We cannot underestimate the power of strong networks in tackling huge global challenges such as air pollution.”- Engineer Bainomugisha, Associate Professor of Computer Science, and the Chair of the Department of Computer Science at Makerere University, Uganda. 

AirQo, based at Makerere University, an initiative by Engineer and his team, is building advanced digital technologies and tools to measure, model, and inspire cleaner air actions. With support from Makerere University, the Government of Uganda, the U.S. Department of State, Google.org, amongst other partners, they are able to scale these solutions to other African countries.

“Tackling the air pollution crisis requires a participatory multi-sectoral approach. At AirQo, we work collectively with individuals, city authorities, and communities across African cities to empower them with timely air quality information and evidence to tackle the air pollution challenge and advocate for cleaner air. This is our story.”- AirQo Group, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. 

The low-cost sensors developed by AirQo, are being deployed across the continent, leveraging existing networks to support deployment, maintenance, and capacity building. Lagos, Nigeria, is one of the cities taking several measures to address air quality management in collaboration with various partners to support clean air initiatives.   

“In Lagos, we draw our clean air strength from partnership. For instance, in one of our projects, the US Department of State provides financial strength, AirQo in Makerere University provides the technical strength by manufacturing low-cost sensors (LCS) for us, the US Consulate in Lagos provides quality data strength by approving LCS colocation, the Lagos state government (LASEPA) joins hands in sensor deployment, communities, NGOs, the Federal Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation gives strong support. Even schools join in awareness creation. We will achieve Clean Air with this strong partnership, as many other international organisations are equally partnering with us.”Rose Alani, Lecturer and Atmospheric Scientist, University of Lagos, Nigeria. 

On Empowerment and Change:

Partners also advocated for a shift in mindset and behaviour in Africa to address air pollution, emphasising the possibility of achieving cleaner air through education, informed decision-making, collective action and adopting habits and activities inspired by natural systems and organisms to ensure a harmonious relationship with the environment.

“Quality air in Africa is not a mirage; we can change the narrative surrounding air pollution through unlearning pro-air pollution behaviours, informed decision-making by stakeholders, symbiotic relationship between Africans and their environment, and embracing the habits/activities of other living organisms only to the extent that improved air quality is achieved.”Bolajoko Malomo, Researcher, University of Lagos, Nigeria. 

“Empowering change, embracing purity, and uniting together for clean air for a breathable future.”Olanike Maria Buraimoh, Environmental Microbiologist, University of Lagos, Akoka, Nigeria.

These sentiments of ensuring a breathable future and the importance of clean air for one’s health and well-being were echoed across the continent.

“If you want to shorten your life on earth, if you want to be very sick in your old age: Don’t listen to AirQo’s advice. Friends let us grow old together in health, Thanks to the quality of our air that we will have cleaned.”Robert Mbiake, Lecturer, University of Douala, Faculty of Science, Cameroon. 

On Participatory and Transdisciplinary Approach:

The multifaceted nature of air pollution, encompassing natural and built environment, health, social, and economic aspects, underscores the need for transdisciplinary action to foster thriving communities and a healthier planet. A key strength of the network is that it involves experts from various disciplines working together to combine their diverse perspectives, insights, and experiences to develop innovative solutions.

“La pollution de l’air est un problème environnemental, ainsi que sanitaire, social, et économique. Une action collaborative est nécessaire pour que nos communautés et notre planète puissent prospérer de front.” [“Air pollution is an environmental, as well as health, social, and economic issue. Collaborative action is necessary for our communities and our planet to thrive together.”]Meelan Thondoo, Anthropologist and Researcher, MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. 

“The journey to cleaner air in African cities requires collaborative action. Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development is committed to catalysing change by working with local communities and communities of practice to address challenges of indoor and outdoor air pollution. On this International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, let us redouble our efforts to work together for better-ventilated homes, and more sustainable construction and transportation solutions.”Taibat Lawanson, Professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Co-Director Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development, University of Lagos, Nigeria.

For Azeezat Afinowi-Subair, access to clean air is a fundamental human right that should never be compromised, a right which she takes very seriously in delivering her mandate as the head of the Climate Change Unit in the Lagos State Ministry of the Environment & Water Resources. 

“Clean air is a right, it cannot be compromised. Together we can chart the course of sustainable living to improve air quality.”Azeezat Afinowi-Subair, Assistant Director/Head Climate Change Unit, Ministry of the Environment & Water Resources, Lagos State Government, Nigeria. 

The potential for citizen science, particularly youth engagement in driving advocacy for clean air is another important avenue. Tolullah Oni, the founder of UrbanBetter talks about the concept of “precision activism,” which involves young people using citizen science, wearable sensors, and digital platforms to generate data that can be instrumental in shaping urban health decision-making and urban design to create cleaner and better cities. 

The climate vulnerability experienced across Africa has seen a rise in youth-led social movements protesting the need for more urgent action and creatively deploying digital tools for civic and political engagement. But these approaches have not so far been harnessed proactively for participatory urban health governance. In the context of dynamic urban environments, digital technologies offer an opportunity to support more robust data and build a contextually relevant evidence-base for policy makers. UrbanBetter’s Cityzens initiative is deploying precision activism to unleash the transformative potential of young people, Africa’s majority demographic.

These Cityzens for Clean Air are using citizen science to contribute to urban health decision making using wearable sensors and a digital platform to generate data stories to inform and augment urban design for clean air and better cities”.  Tolullah Oni, Clinical Professor, University of Cambridge and Founder, UrbanBetter. 

Temitope Sogbanmu ends with a strong call to action, reminding us that no one should be left behind in our pursuit of a healthier environment.  

“Clean air is central to a sustainable world requiring joint efforts and will by all of us to achieve the world we want. We must ensure that no one is left behind in this cause. What are you doing to make a difference?”Temitope O. Sogbanmu, Senior Lecturer, Ecotoxicology and Conservation Unit, Zoology Department, University of Lagos, Nigeria. 

These remarkable quotes remind us that the path to cleaner air is paved with collaboration, shared responsibility, and a commitment to a healthier, sustainable future. Together, we can breathe life into our vision for cleaner skies. Join us this Clean Air Day and beyond, as we #TogetherForCleanAir.

Monika Kamkuemah, is a postdoctoral researcher at UrbanBetter working at the intersection of climate change and health.

Read more about work by other #UrbanBetter Disruptors.

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