Building is good, but building for sustainability is even better…

Sahara Group Foundation

Sahara Group Foundation

Sahara Group Foundation is the Personal and Corporate Social Responsibility vehicle for Sahara Group - a leading Oil & Gas, Energy, and Infrastructure conglomerate.

I recently came across a quote by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which resonated deeply with me and spoke to the crux of this article – “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build, and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

Climate change and its attendant issues have received more attention in the past decade than ever. The worldwide dialogue on the sustainability of systems and the environment has further intensified due to this growing trend. These discussions have led to the emergence of the energy transition, a critical action required to mitigate the effects of global warming. On the other hand, Africa has found itself on the other side of the divide due to the divergence of priorities from the Global North. The African continent is in a peculiar position in the global energy transition journey. Significant issues, including a shortage of infrastructure, low access to energy, and extreme poverty, contradict the climate agenda.

The global north should not sacrifice Africa’s need for accelerated infrastructure development at the altar of the energy transition. Nevertheless, the accelerated growth we aspire to must be built on the tenets of sustainability. Therefore, Africa must find the sweet spot between driving the shift to cleaner energy sources for the long term and meeting its pressing energy and infrastructure needs. Whatever the ambition, the freedom to channel mineral and natural resources towards the development of the countries remains paramount to developing economies.

“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing…”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

However, despite the prolific resources the continent is blessed with, the most zealous of ambitions will not evolve beyond mere potential without the right levers to drive sustainable implementation. Therefore, Africa’s inability to absorb or handle the sometimes-devastating effects of climate change is indicative of an even bigger problem. Consequently, while these arguments for climate change have their merit and cannot be ignored, one must consider, through the lens of truth and pragmatism, the real reasons behind the continent’s struggle to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change.

Several issues threaten the realization of the lofty roadmap to Uhuru. Notable amongst them is the absence of maintenance culture, which stems from a lack of accountability and a degree of nonchalance that varies from country to country. This absence of a maintenance culture has resulted in large-scale mismanagement of resources and taxpayers’ funds. It significantly contributes to the infrastructure deficit holding our development aspirations hostage.

One would quickly observe that many of the countries that are rife with poor maintenance culture also suffer from high levels of poverty and social stratification. This high poverty level raises the tendency for people to defer to persons of status and wealth regardless of how it was attained. Unfortunately, the command of authority based primarily on financial status tends to go hand-in-glove with a lack of accountability. Wealth becomes the essence of power.

“The sky is not the limit. Your mind is.” – Lynette Simeone

Beyond the absence of accountability, another phenomenon holding back our industrialization aspirations is our cultural and often unsubstantiated beliefs passed down from generation to generation. These beliefs usually discourage scientific investigation and experimentation, which are critical to innovation. In these parts, expeditions and other forms of research are considered to be needlessly dangerous missions. Where these beliefs defy logical reasoning, we tend to try and substantiate them with spiritual ideologies held as sacred and too weighty for rationalization. For example, the concept of land reclamation and the belief that cities should never be built on water because “water must find its level.” The original saying is, “Water seeks its own level.” The saying references the scientific principle that the surface of water placed in a container will remain at the same level on all sides, provided the container is balanced on an even surface. That same saying found its way into the dynamics of human relationships, used in the context of the belief that humans tend to attract others on a similar path or station in life. This saying has since found its way into our thinking around land reclamation and the spheres of possibility, e.g., the Eko Atlantic City Project in Lagos State. Based on this saying, many have voiced concerns about this land reclamation project and its susceptibility to adverse climate conditions.

However, evidence to the contrary suggests that land reclamation, if done correctly, can fast-track development and that we can sustainably build cities on water. Take, for instance, the Netherlands. At least 20% of the country’s land mass was reclaimed from the sea. This reclamation work, an example of which is the Zuiderzee Project, has been pivotal to the nation’s development and constitutes a significant reference point in hydraulic engineering of the twentieth century. Similarly, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), we have examples of the Palm Islands, Burj Al Arab, and Dubai Marina, all built on reclaimed land. Perhaps the problem then is not the water, but the durability and quality of the technology deployed, coupled with our poor environmental practices.

“The tongue cannot claim to be ignorant of what the teeth are doing” – African Proverb

As a people who genuinely desire progress, we need to understand our role in creating the problem. We cannot continue to play “ignorant” while blaming “climate change” for problems we created for ourselves. Take, for instance, the 2022 and 2023 flash floods across Nigeria. To address this issue, some State Governments embarked on an exercise to demolish structures built on the canal routes. While the action may be commendable and necessary, it begs the question, who sold the land to the offenders? Who approved the building plans? Are we addressing the problem from the root cause?

Over the years, we have also had significant flooding incidents that seriously hampered food security and logistics from one part of the country to another, incidents that have been attributed to rising sea levels and climate change. However, we could have avoided or at least mitigated the effect of some of these incidents through proper planning based on scientific and economic data/projections. Preventive and corrective maintenance of existing environmental infrastructure, e.g., dams and waterways, would go a long way in managing disasters that we attribute solely to climate change. In contrast, lack of maintenance is a significant contributor.

“Do not let what you can’t do keep you from doing what you can do” – African Proverb

According to, Africa will experience significant population growth in the coming years. The continent’s population has increased annually in recent years, growing from around 811 million to just over 1.37 billion between 2000 and 2021. The population is projected to reach nearly 2.5 billion by 2050 due to a largely youthful population and high fertility, which will compensate for the high mortality rate. The Government can only plan for or meet a nation’s infrastructure by considering the population and attendant growth projections. The current infrastructure in much of sub-Saharan Africa is grossly inadequate for the current population, let alone future projections. What, then, are we doing to intentionally drive the infrastructure and socio-economic growth required to meet future needs? Even more importantly, do we have the structure and accountability mindset to maintain these public assets as they come on stream?

The man in the mirror

We must remember that the highest form of learning is “unlearning”. Unlearning bad habits such as clogging the drain systems with waste, misuse, and destruction of public assets & facilities as an expression of frustration, lack of maintenance planning and implementation, etc. But before you give yourself a pass mark claiming not to do any of the above if you are renting property, whether for a home, office, or business, how well are you taking care of that property? Do you treat it like it’s yours or do you have a “your headache, not mine” mindset? Do you support or join hoodlums in vandalizing public assets as an expression of frustration, thereby wasting taxpayers’ contributions? Destroying these amenities means taxpayers’ funds will be used repeatedly to solve the same problems, thereby delaying further development.

“A twisted hand cannot grip well” – African Proverb

No matter how well-intentioned, the level of efficacy of the solutions will only be as good as the underlying governance framework on which it is established, the actual implementation of well-laid-out plans, and the sincerity of purpose-driving action. If we solve problems but cannot sustain the solutions implemented, have we solved the problem? It is, therefore, essential to maintain a clear end-to-end process, whatever the strategy adopted. This will ensure we channel scarce resources in a manner that will yield sustainable results for the long term and help us break out of the pattern of constantly having to play catch up with the rest of the world.

Sign up to Sahara Group Foundation email newsletter for opportunities, SIF News and more special annoucements

More articles for you