A time to think seriously about sustainable development

Monday May 18 2020

Whether you believe in prophesy or not, it is not easy to argue with the view that someone has touched the global reset button.

More often than not, a reset button is necessary when things have gone wrong and you want to re-start afresh.

Prior to the start of 2020, a significant number of people had started to warn of impending disaster due to manmade megatrends such as increased carbon emission that is pushing global warming to unsustainable levels and a burgeoning population that is putting a strain on the planet’s resources.

Besides, the Covid-19 virus, the year 2020 has come with so many reasons why we must question ourselves over the sustainability of human actions known to be inimical to the environment as we have always known it.


Globally, the environment is changing. From raging fires witnessed in Australia and California to floods in Europe, Asia and Africa, not to forget the locust invasion in the horn of Africa, and drought in the tropics, we are paying dearly for our actions as each of these disasters threaten our livelihood.


These rapid changes require a megatrend analysis to understand the interventions we need now and in the days to come in order to ensure sustainable development in a voraciously competitive world.
We also need to understand new disruptive platforms that threaten the entirety of the existing business models.

With Covid-19, the reset button has been activated. Rather than spend time agonising on the present and how we restart from where we stopped, we should spend more time trying to figure out how we can emerge from the constant bombardment of calamities.

The eagerness to start from where we paused and continue with business as usual irrespective of the uncertainties that lie ahead is simply a waste of time.

It would mean we learnt nothing from this experience, and that we let the opportunities presented by this crisis slip through our fingers.

There is clearly a need to make new commitments at individual, organisational and national levels as a measure to mitigate against either environmental degradation or unplanned population growth.

To start with the environment, the reset button has revealed what we would never have known. That lockdowns all over the world have made the world cleaner than ever before. The impact of lockdowns on the environment in various cities has been captured with startling images of now cleaner cities.

This is not to celebrate lockdowns since they undermine economic growth. However, we must ask some tough questions: How do we maintain a cleaner environment and still create jobs without polluting the environment?

This is an important question especially now when studies are that showing inhaling dirty air makes Covid-19 more lethal. The Harvard University’s School of Public Health analysed data of tiny pollutants particles known as PM2.5 and established that these particles when inhaled over a long period of time sharply raise the chances of dying from the virus.

People who lived in areas with one microgram per cubic meter more PM2.5 in the air had a Covid-19 death rate that was 15 per cent higher. The study validates a 2003 study in Asia during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which established that death rates in more polluted areas of China were twice as high as in the least polluted areas.


There is no doubt that pollution causes diseases. The decline in patients visiting hospital could be as a result of a decline in opportunistic diseases that come as a result of environmental pollution be it in water or air.

There is need for research to establish if there could be any relationship in the decline of patients and the increasing cleaner air especially in cities.

At an individual level, we must commit to walk, run or bike and use less of gasoline powered vehicles. At the organisational level, it will be cheaper to provide employees with pooled transport and discourage personal vehicles to reduce number of vehicles on the roads. At the national level, we need new policies to emphasise investment in green energy.

Population explosion, another megatrend, is about to explode, especially in Africa. We cannot continue to pride ourselves on how we possibly have a population dividend.

There could perhaps be no dividend at all if we continue to give birth without regard to resources. Our youth will become a formidable resource if we are capable of supporting them to their fullest potential.

Our population is not expanding because we want it to, but because we have persistently disenfranchised women. Although the gap between male and female in secondary school enrolment is narrowing (51.6 per cent male against 48.4 per cent female), UNICEF says that the greatest gender disparity exists among the poorest quintile group of Kenya, with attendance rates being 33.1 per cent and 25 per cent for males and females respectively. This is a recipe for manufacturing poverty.

Many young women give birth without regard to resources that can support the children and as a result exacerbate poverty.


The response to poverty in most African countries is often wrong. We never use data and, as a result, Africa contributes more than 50 per cent of the global poorest. We need to change tact.

Unfortunately, disillusioned young fathers act irresponsibly. The burden is left with young mothers, hence poverty. With more children, we aggravate any chances of ever dealing with poverty effectively.

The only way out is to reset how we deal with this glaring youth crisis. For a start, the government must spend more resources in providing skills to these young people and start deliberately empowerment programmes otherwise we all perish in the hands of disgruntled youth.

In technology, the reset button is very important. It is often activated as a last resort after every other attempt has been made to troubleshoot the issues with a machine. Often when you are left with no choice but to reset and start afresh.

It is analogous to life. The world has been pushed to the limits. That explains why we cannot contain the fires nor stop the floods and why we are now facing a new, mysterious, but very dangerous, virus.

The decision to reset the world back to factory standards was made for us by the novel coronavirus. We now have the opportunity to think a fresh and build a sustainable future.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.