The lack of burial spaces is leading entrepreneurs to come up with out-of-the-box alternatives such as bio-burials, virtual graves and space disposal.
Mankind has been burying its dead since time immemorial. But what happens when we run out of burial space on a planet that is also running out of space for the living?
A new generation of options are being pioneered by enterprising businesses that could change the way we send off loved ones. For example, San Francisco-based Elysium Space describes itself as a “memorial spaceflight” company planning to send the ashes of dead people into orbit, hitching on to one of South African entrepreneur Elon Musk’s rockets.
Closer home, there are alternative on-the-ground solutions being looked at. A South African startup, Biotree.earth, produces biodegradable urns made out of natural plant fibers and materials that aid in fertilizing soil and neutralizing the pH levels of ashes, creating a healthy environment to grow trees.
It was founded by 60-year-old Dereck Holmes and 28-year-old Christo Cilliers. Generations apart, they are on the same page when it comes to life and death matters.
Holmes, who already owns a logistics company, never thought he would find himself in the business of death and funerals.
“The whole concept of Biotree.earth is that it celebrates the life of a person and not the death and you can see it manifest in the tree of life and [it’s] not a piece of stone in the ground,” says Holmes.
He has four children and four grandchildren and is Biotree’s CEO. Cilliers left his advertising business to start Biotree.earth and is now its Managing Director.
“I feel that the funeral industry is very dated, our practices are very dated and they are not considerate of the environment at all. And I just believe that there’s a time and space, that is now, to start addressing that industry and create a more sustainable alternative,” says Cilliers.
The inception of the business was when he had a light-bulb moment about an alternative to conventional burials and cremation.
“Cremation in itself is not necessarily sustainable because when we cremate a body, there is still a carbon offset that we need to deal with because we are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere,” he says.
“One adult tree produces about 170kg of oxygen a year. And then I went ‘but is that enough to offset what we are doing with cremation’?”
The idea was to double that effect by growing a tree for every body cremated.
He developed and tested the product for two years and then approached Holmes with the idea.
Coincidentally, Holmes, who owns a farm next to the Vaal River in South Africa, was also thinking of an alternative way to bury his animals.
“Chris came to see me simultaneously and I told him, ‘look I’m interested in creating a biodegradable urn for animals’. He had ones that were for humans. So we said, ‘how can we combine this’.”
Holmes invested in Cillier’s business idea and the two ventured into completely new turf selling biodegradable urns suitable for humans and animals and in 2015, they started operations.
They tested out their first animal bio urn on one of Holmes’ farm animals, a pet duck named Gosling in 2016.
They cremated the duck, put the ashes into the base of the urn, dug a hole and placed the urn in the ground.
They planted a lavender seed to celebrate the life of the duck, and it grew into a lavender shrub.
The trial was a success and the same year, Holmes buried a chicken named Henrietta, and in 2017, he buried a duck named Norman using the bio urns.
Fiona Kantor from Wynburg, a suburb in Cape Town, lost her mother in 2015 and cremated her.
After researching bio burials, she came across Biotree.earth and purchased an urn. A year later, her dad fell ill and also passed away. He was cremated.
She then placed both her parents’ ashes in the same urn.
“It’s almost bringing them back to life in a way… It was more [about being] closer to them spiritually and have a place we could visit, and contribute to the environment,” Kantor tells FORBES AFRICA.
She planted an erythrina lysistemon, known as the common coral tree, that’s bright red in color, in the urn.
“At the moment, mom and dad are in a very beautiful green pot in my patio,” she says happily.
In a sense, the words ‘family tree’ take on a new meaning here.
Cilliers was astounded by Kantor’s story and says: “That’s one of the things where someone really thought out-of-the-box and used the product to make it something unique to their story.”
The pet urns go for R2,290 ($152) a piece and the human urns for R2,490 ($166). Biotree.earth has also grown to a staff of 10.
Trees of life
On touching, the urn feels plastic but it is made of natural plant fibers that bio-degrade in the soil after about two months, depending on soil and weather conditions.
The ashes go into biodegradable bags and are placed in the base of the urn. This prevents the ashes’ alkalinity from damaging the plant’s roots as it grows. The top of the urn gets re-attached and 800ml of water is added to expand a soil disk inside. A seed can then be planted.
In addition to the coral tree, other locally-conducive tree seed options include bolusanthus speciosus known as elephant’s wood, acacia tortilis known as umbrella thorn, cytisus scoparius known as the common broom, castanea sativa known as sweet chestnut, and quercus robur known as the English oak.
Once the seed has germinated, the urn is planted in the ground.
Cilliers attests he has never received any negative feedback about a plant failing to germinate. The trees can be planted in backyards so long as they are not on private land or in a botanical garden.
Can you actually become a tree after death?
Professor Cas Wepener, a theologian and religious studies scholar at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, has done research on rituals in the Christian religion and work pertaining to death.
“People’s beliefs and views concerning death have changed quite a lot and what we call future hope, ‘eschatology’, in theological terms has also changed and it has changed from ideas about heaven to ideas about better ecology,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
He says that the planting of a tree symbolizes different things in different cultures and shows something about their faith. But there are different views.
From a scientific perspective, Professor Mary Scholes from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says that it is impossible for ashes or for a dead body, if buried close to a tree, to generate energy which could be used by the tree.
Ash is made up of magnesium, calcium and potassium. “Energy is defined in physical terms and ash does not meet this definition. If someone wants to believe that energy is generated in a spiritual way, they are perfectly entitled to their opinion,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.
A multi-billion rand industry
Due to the many different cultures within the South African context, Cilliers’ and Holmes’ biggest challenge is to change the perceptions around burials.
“The funeral industry is a very tight-knit group… when someone new steps into that and poses direct competition, it is not always accepted. So it has been a very difficult journey to get people to accept the idea. It has been a very difficult journey to get the product out to consumers,” admits Cilliers.
“I feel like there’s a very big monopoly in the funeral industry that’s not right. You know, when we are benefitting from people’s death, that’s not right.”
Cilliers says Biotree has seen a growth of 21% from February last year to this February. They have also expanded into seven countries including the United Kingdom, Portugal, the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Twentynine-year-old Lethi Mngadi is one prospective client buying in to the concept of bio-burials.
“Before I used to think cremations [were a] ‘no’. But now I’m like ‘let me just donate all my organs, get cremated’ and I know that my family has control over what they do with me,” she says.
She is the marketing coordinator for Doves, a funeral provider in southern Africa, and has been working in the funeral business for three years.
One sunny spring afternoon in September, FORBES AFRICA visits the Doves funeral home in Randburg, a residential town in Johannesburg.
There are spring flowers and roses in the gardens surrounding the main office.
But these aren’t just your normal garden flowers, they are home to ashes buried in clay urns.
“Underneath each of these rose bushes, there is someone,” says Willie Jansen van Nieuwenhuizen, the branch manager of Doves’ Randburg branch.
He works with Mngadi and has been part of the funeral business for over 30 years.
“The funeral business is a multi-billion rand industry,” he says.
According to Hippo, a financial services provider, there are more than 100,000 burial societies in South Africa and about 18.9 million South African adults are covered by a funeral plan.
They say the biggest expense when organizing a funeral is the coffin or casket.
An average casket could cost around R8,000 ($533) while top-of-the-range coffins could sell for between R37,500 ($2,500) and R50,000 ($3,332) or more. The grave would range from R1,500 ($100) to R6,000 ($400) and a headstone can cost from R1,500 to R7,000 ($467).
Conservatively, all of the above could approximately cost R40,500 ($2,700), whilst a cremation could total up to approximately R7,000 ($467). A private cremation can cost around R5,000 ($300) while a chapel cremation starts at around R9,000 ($600).
Thankfully, preferences are changing.
“Most families would prefer not to leave a carbon footprint,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen. Mngadi agrees: “I think it’s also the millennials, especially in the black culture, we always want to bury. But now our generation is starting to be more educated about what’s going on. Because you are going to be burying your parents, you are now more educated and informed about all the different options.”
The prevailing problem in South Africa and many parts of the world is that burial space is limited.
A 2013 survey by BBC Local Radio indicated nearly half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years.
“By 2025, we won’t have burial space left,” agrees Cilliers.
As per news reports in South Africa earlier this year, families have been encouraged to share gravesites by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo that’s in charge of the City of Johannesburg’s cemeteries and designated public spaces.
This means a family member might have to be buried on top of another.
The argument is that being buried in the same grave has huge cost-savings‚ is environment-friendly and affords families a central point to pay tribute and conduct religious ceremonies if needed.
However, Van Nieuwenhuizen says that burying bodies in one gravesite can cause further problems.
“If it is a very wet season, the settlement does take longer, because the coffin at the bottom is going to collapse.”
Of the 32 cemeteries across Johannesburg‚ only four have not yet reached full capacity; Westpark‚ Olifantsvlei‚ Diepsloot and Waterval cemeteries are still able to house over one million future graves, says a report on timeslive.co.za in April. Johannesburg itself has a population of over five million.
“So it is becoming more expensive to bury a person in cemeteries,” says Mngadi.
“It’s becoming very limited as well because of space. So you will find that in rural areas, people still bury in their yards. But us in urban areas would rather not. And purely because you don’t want to leave your loved one in Johannesburg and then relocate.”
These considerations force some to opt for cremation, preserve the urn or scatter the ashes.
“To put it in a simpler form, we are going to get to a point where you are forced; you have no other option but to cremate because where are you going to put your loved one?” says Mngadi.
Another problem plaguing the burial business is theft and vandalism.
During our interview, Van Nieuwenhuizen shows us an image on his phone of a grave that was recently dug up and the body removed.
He says some of the reasons people dig up graves is to use the body for muti (traditional medicine), witchcraft or to make crystal meth.
The Friday before our visit to Doves, they had reported missing marble headstones. People who steal them, they say, varnish the engraved names and resell the headstones to other users.
“[People] are now being abducted for their parts while they are alive, so how [much] worse is it when you are putting your loved one in a cemetery that has very limited security,” adds Mngadi.
This is one of the reasons why both Van Nieuwenhuizen and Mngadi advocate cremations.
“I find more comfort in knowing that my mom is in a beautiful urn in our house than not knowing what’s happening at the cemetery,” she says.
But even so, cremations can be taxing on the environment.
As per an article in the Huffington Post, “the average cremation uses 28 gallons of fuel to burn a single body, emitting about 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s about 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year”.
Experts are therefore still looking for new innovations to come up with answers.
What does the future of funerals look like?
“I think we will eradicate traditional burials. Whether that be in the next 10 or 30 years, I am not sure,” Cilliers offers.
“Burials are going to stop sooner or later, and then we are going to move over to resomation,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen.
Resomation or biocremation is an alkaline hydrolysis process that typically produces less carbon dioxide than cremation.
Another alternative is to create a diamond out of a loved one’s ashes by extracting the carbon remains.
Space burials have also been introduced where they blast the cremated remains into outer space.
You can send the ashes of your loved ones into space on one of techpreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets for $2,500.
Burials gone digital
At the time of the interview with Biotree.earth founders Cilliers and Holmes, they were launching an additional product to their business, a digital funeral platform.
Memory Lane is an online app that details a person’s life including key milestones, where they have traveled to and their life’s achievements.
With every urn sold, a code is given to the client to create an online memorial and geo-tag the urn.
“In concept, it’s like a virtual grave,” says Cilliers.
Holmes says the app won’t only be for the dead but for the living as well.
“It takes you down memory lane. So you can write a biography about yourself, and then it can take you to all the places you have traveled to, the pets you have had and it puts that on a timeline with the photos and a gallery,” he says.
“Over and above that, you’ve got a life file which is a safe, which keeps your will, any title deeds you have to your properties, insurance properties, all your codes you have to your ATM cards, everything. That lifeline is bank encrypted. So it has one-time pin numbers that no one can get into until after your death.”
Only nominated guardians can gain access to it and your friends and family can continue to contribute to your site with pictures or stories and family trees.
Even people who can’t make the funeral can post online.
Holmes was inspired to create this site after not being able to save his late parents’ photos in one place.
This, he feels would be a way to digitally track a family’s lineage for years to come. Holmes says the app will be free for the first few years.
As for the future of burials, he says: “I think the concept of burial forests will become bigger and bigger as we start moving out of the developed areas and move into the rural areas to create burial forests with long-term sustainability and as gardens of remembrance.”
Cilliers and Holmes hope that with each death, a new tree, a new life can take its place, creating a greener earth in the process.
Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?
How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?
As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.
Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.
Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.
What is climate change?
First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:
a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.
The causes of climate change can be any combination of:
- Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
- Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
- Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).
What changes have been detected?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.
The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.
A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.
Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.
This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.
Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.
The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.
One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.
As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.
Adapting to a changing climate
Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.
Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.
As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.
The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation
Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.
As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.
The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).
The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.
The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.
To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.
Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.
Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.
“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.
But South African businesses were affected too.
Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.
Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.
“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.
Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected.
Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.
“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.
Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).
Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.
Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.
The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.
Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.”
Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.
There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.
There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.
A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.
Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”
“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.
She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.
Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.
“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.
She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.
“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).
“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.
Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.
The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.
Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?
Quality Higher Education Means More Than Learning How To Work
When people talk about quality education, they’re often referring to the kind of education that gives students the knowledge and skills they need for the job market. But there’s a view that quality education has wider benefits: it develops individuals in ways that help develop society more broadly.
In Zimbabwe, for example, the higher education policy emphasises student employability and the alleviation of labour shortages. But, as my research found, this isn’t happening in practice.
University education needs to do more than produce a graduate who can get a job. It should also give graduates a sense of right and wrong. And it should instil graduates with an appreciation for other people’s development.
Tertiary education should also give students opportunities, choices and a voice when it comes to work safety, job satisfaction, security, growth and dignity. Higher education is a space where they can learn to be critical. It must prepare them for participating in the economy and broader society.
This isn’t happening in Zimbabwe. Graduate unemployment is high and employers and policy makers are blaming this largely on the mismatch between graduate skills and market requirements.
Investigating Zimbabwe’s universities
My research sought to examine how a human development lens could add to what was valued as higher education, and the kind of graduate outcomes produced in Zimbabwe. I investigated 10 of the universities in Zimbabwe (there were 15 at the time of the research). Four were private and six public.
I reviewed policy documents, interviewed representatives of institutions and held discussions with students. Members of Zimbabwe’s higher education quality assurance body and university teaching staff were also included.
I found that in practice, higher education in Zimbabwe was influenced by the country’s socio-political and economic climate. Decisions and appointments of key university administrators in public universities and the minister of higher education were largely political.
In addition, resources were limited and staff turnover was high. Universities just couldn’t finance themselves through tuition fees.
Different players in the higher education system – employers, the government, academics, students and their families – have different ideas about what “quality” means in higher education. The Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education understands quality as meeting set standards and benchmarks that emphasise the graduates’ knowledge and skills.
To some extent, academics and university administrators see quality as teaching and learning that gives students a mixture of skills and values such as social responsibility.
But lecturers must comply with the largely top-down approach to quality. They tend to do whatever will enhance students’ prospects of getting employment in a particular market.
The educators and students I interviewed acknowledged that developing the ability to work and to think critically were both central to higher education. But they admitted that these goals were hard to attain. This was because of the country’s constrained socio-political and economic environment. Academics and students felt that they couldn’t express themselves freely and critical thinking was suppressed.
Stuck on a road to nowhere
The study illustrates how an over-emphasis on creating human capital – skilled and knowledgeable graduates – limits higher education’s potential to foster broader human and social development.
University education should do more, especially in developing countries such as Zimbabwe that face not just economic, but also socio-political challenges. Before building more universities and enrolling more students, authorities and citizens should consider what quality education means in relation to the kind of society they want.
It’s possible to take a broader view of development, quality and the role of higher education. This broader approach – one that appreciates social justice – can equip graduates to address the country’s problems.
The road ahead
Universities can’t change a society on their own. But their teaching and learning practices can make an important difference.
Because quality teaching and learning means different things to different people, people need to talk about it democratically. Institutional and national policies must be informed by broad consultations to identify the knowledge, skills and values they want graduates to have.
University teaching and learning should emphasise freedom of expression and participation so that students can think and act critically beyond university.
Also, academics don’t automatically know how to teach just because they have a PhD. Universities should therefore ensure that academics learn how to teach and communicate their knowledge. Curriculum design, student assessment and feedback, as well as training of lecturers should all support this goal of human development.
When universities see quality in terms of human development, their role becomes more than production of workers in an economy. It gives them a mandate to nurture ethically responsible graduates. These more rounded graduates are better equipped to imagine an alternative future in pursuit of a better society, economically, politically and socially.
–Patience Mukwambo: Researcher, University of the Free State
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