November 03, 2014

African Fund Supports Conservation-Minded School Construction

Photograph by Rachel Brose, MASS Design Group

Workers build scaffolding in Ilima section of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a remote area that is one of the most biodiverse and one of the most threatened parts of the world.

In rural parts of Africa, people concerned solely with survival cut down trees for charcoal and hunt wildlife for bushmeat. So the African Wildlife Foundation has started a school-construction program intended to help save the continent’s incomparable animals and land by educating its humans.

Helping people break out of the cycle of poverty can also curb the environmental degradation that so often accompanies it, said Patrick Bergin, the organization’s chief executive.

"Our goal is to give children in rural Africa access to quality education, introducing technology and a supplemental conservation curriculum," he says.

The foundation’s newest school opened recently in one of the world’s most remote corners: the Ilima region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which lies three airplane flights and a six-hour motorcycle ride from the nation’s capital. Located deep in the Congo Basin rainforest, Ilima is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions—and also one of the most threatened.

In exchange for the primary school, the village of Ilima has promised to protect more than 600,000 acres from deforestation. The African Wildlife Foundation’s goal is to help residents provide education to the next generation as a way to bring new opportunities that will enable the region to join Africa’s rapid economic growth.

To build the Ilima Primary School, which doubles as a community center, the foundation is working with MASS Design Group, an architectural nonprofit in Boston.

"We collaborated intensively with the Ilima community on the design, and used only local labor and native materials, like mud brick and wooden roof shingles to build it," says Michael Murphy, chief executive of MASS Design.

Before the school ever held its first class, he said, it was teaching marketable skills like carpentry and masonry, as well as demonstrating that "resources not previously considered valuable are worth conserving, instead of razing for agriculture."

The Ilima project comes on the heels of two other schools the African Wildlife Foundation built, in Tanzania and Zambia.

"The benefits this education-conservation arrangement brought to both those communities and their wildlife convinced us to scale it up," says Mr. Bergin.

The school in Ilima represents the first step in a commitment the foundation made at the 2013 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, where it pledged to construct 15 new schools over the next decade in "key conservation landscapes."

The African Wildlife Foundation, with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, has a full-time staff of 172 employees in 18 African countries and the United States. Government grants make up almost two-thirds of the organization’s $22-million annual budget. The rest comes from a combination of membership revenue and private donations.