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Inside Central Africa's first conservation university

October 13, 2023
tags:#Cameroon, #biodiversity, #education, #conservation
by:Njodzeka Danhatu
Environmentalists hope this will be the first of many schools offering a holistic and hands-on approach to biodiversity conservation.

It is Friday afternoon in Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region of Cameroon, and Dickson Kum, 23, sits under a paper canopy with two colleagues at the open space in one of Buea’s main junctions. The group is there to answer the questions of young folks interested in enrolling in their newly-established biodiversity conservation university.

Kum, who is a student at the institute, has taken it upon himself to canvass on behalf of his university.

He graduated from high school in 2020 and decided not to pursue a university education because he couldn't find the right curriculum. Now, he's found a programme that he believes will help him become a GIS and Remote Sensing Technician.

Kum has explored various forested areas in Cameroon, and the constant navigation challenges can be overwhelming. These challenges include not knowing how to access the forest, pinpointing the locations of specific activities and dealing with issues related to a growing population in his native village in Cameroon's Northwestern region, which has led to human-wildlife conflicts.

For Kum, the lack of knowledge about suitable areas for expansion has led to multiple issues, particularly in the form of conflicts between farmers and grazers. The creation of the ERUDEF University Institute of Applied Biodiversity Sciences (EUIABS) by ERuDeF, Kum said, will help him realise his dream of becoming a map producer. This, he believes, will assist him in tackling some of these issues and helping people navigate the forest properly. 

ERUDEF, originally founded in 2012 as a biodiversity vocational training institute, has this year evolved into an applied biodiversity university.

In Cameroon, government-funded schools traditionally offered programmes that focus exclusively on forestry and neglect the broader field of biodiversity conservation. These schools, such as ENEF, EFG and ANAFOR, train mostly forest and wildlife guards, advisors and forestry and water technicians. However, their programmes generally do not cover areas such as sea and ocean conservation, desertification, urban pollution and other related subjects.

EUIABS is therefore a pioneering institution in the CEMAC Sub-region, with the ability to produce experts capable of diagnosing biodiversity conservation challenges.

The institute aims to deliver cutting-edge professional, entrepreneurial, corporate and scientific education to nurture future environmental industry scientists and leaders.

Its programmes include nature management and protection, forest engineering, meteorology, wildlife management, agro-forestry and agroecology, topography, project management, GIS and remote sensing, forest management and urban planning among others.

The catalyst for EUIABS' establishment

In 2018, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) ranked Cameroon's fauna and flora biodiversity as the 21st richest in the world and the 4th richest in Africa. However, this environmental treasure, as noted by Cameroon's Minister of Environment, Nature Protection, and Sustainable Development, Pierre Hele, is facing significant threats from natural factors like climate change, drought, floods, desertification, pollution and deforestation, among others. These challenges have far-reaching consequences on both the well-being of the population and the nation's economy.

According to WWF, 68 per cent of the world's biodiversity has been lost since 1970, and there's an urgent need to rethink humanity's relationship with nature in order to protect the planet and its inhabitants, as many species are at risk of extinction if these trends continue.

EUIABS was established precisely in response to these challenges. Speaking to FairPlanet, the university's inaugural vice chancellor, professor Ntabe Eric, said he is determined to address these issues by actively contributing to the sustainable development and conservation of Cameroon's natural resources.

"There is no university in Cameroon that is focusing on biodiversity, not even in Central Africa," he said. "It is the first of its kind [in the] entire sub-region."

He added, "It is a hands-on type of learning. Most of the work will be in practice, and we have partner industries, institutions and NGOs, [such as] St. Monica University [USA], Virginia Tech-College of Natural  Resources [USA], and African Conservation Foundation [UK)], which will assist us in grooming young Cameroonians to become references when it comes to biodiversity management around the globe." 

According to professor Eric, the school's ultimate objective is to ensure that Cameroon’s natural potential, particularly the forest, "remains sustainable so that posterity - our children’s children should benefit from what we are having today."

Tackling Challenges 

FairPlanet spoke to Shey Aloysius Sah, Director of Administration and Human Resources at EUIABS, who shared that one of the challenges the university faces is gaining official recognition in Cameroon's higher education sector because EUIABS's curriculum deviates from the conventional approach followed by other higher education institutions in the country.

"It is true that recently the government has been enacting laws that talk about enterprise universities, but we have conceived that model and applied already for quite some time now," he said. "While other curricula are emphasising classroom activity, we are emphasising natural laboratories that are the forest, ocean, seas and rebellion areas as our laboratories."

Another major challenge for the university is encouraging graduates to found their own enterprise as opposed to applying for existing position in the job market.  "You graduate and create an enterprise," Sah said. "It is an obligation."

But identifying qualified trainers as the school grows is, according to Sah, EUIABS' greatest challenge. However, the school has been conducting post-graduate training programmes, and Sah believes that this initiative would eventually provide them with trained instructors upon programme completion.

Job creators - not seekers

Louis Nkembi, ERuDeF's CEO, argues that EUIABS will play a pivotal role in linking its graduates with potential funders. This, he claims, will empower graduates to present their projects and secure funding opportunities, encouraging them to become job creators rather than job seekers.

Aiming to become the centre of excellence for biodiversity learning and culture both at national and international levels, the school shall offer certification in various training programmes, a [Higher National Diploma [HND], and vocational training in disciplines that are related to biodiversity conservation. 

"We want to have a graduate embedded with a complete integrated sustainable module," Nkembi said.

With the ambition to become a hub for biodiversity education, EUIABS will provide certifications across a range of training programmes, including a Higher National Diploma (HND), as well as vocational training in fields closely linked to biodiversity conservation.

According to Nkembi, students graduating as technicians will receive CFA 5 million (USD 8,065) in funding and be grouped with five other graduates to initiate a viable project.

Senior technicians graduating with an HND will be granted CFA 10 million ($16,131) each, according to Nkembi. As a group of five graduates, they are expected to have a combined CFA 50 million ($80,667) to launch a viable project with.

Those graduating with a degree, he said, should be should receive 20 million ($32,285) per individual, while graduates of the post-grad research school will receive a minimum of CFA 40 to 60 million ($64,571 - 96,834) to launch their career as a researcher.

Students will be trained to develop a project and raise money for it with the mentorship and support of ERuDeF and its funding partners

The grant money to help graduates launch their enterprise will not come directly from ERuDeF's account, he clarified, but from the global network they are striving to set up. Since the school has recently been rebranded and upgraded to a university, the upcoming batch of graduates will be the first beneficiary of this global network the institution is looking to establish.

Additionally, the school also offers opportunities for scholarships, internships and research placements, allowing students to engage directly with field experts and biodiversity conservation initiatives to gain the practical skills needed for their future careers.

'We need many more such universities'

To gain additional perspective on the university and its potential, FairPlanet spoke to Chafoh Tazeh, a senior forestry technician and head of eco-tourism at Mount Cameroon National Park. Upon reviewing EUIABS's curriculum, he expressed that the creation of such a school would be beneficial as long as it has highly-qualified teachers on staff.

Highlighting the various environmental challenges, including climate change, affecting our planet, Tazeh argued that many more such schools should be created. 

"It is high time we educated and trained as many advocates for the environment as much as possible in different domains so that in the long run it will be like a doctrine where everybody will know the impact of preserving the environment for the future generation," he said.

Commenting on the university's agro-forestry programme, Tazoh said it contains tangible solutions to global warming and food insecurity. He claimed that some Cameroonian farmers still opt for the burning of trees (ankara) to generate manure - a practice the programme discourages and provides sustainable alternatives to.

Another widespread issue he pointed out is shifting cultivation, explaining that farmers don't necessarily need to leave their fields fallow for extended periods. He believes that agroforestry, which combines agriculture and forestry, can be a more sustainable approach. By planting trees like cocoa, coffee, oranges, mangoes and pears, he said, farmers can address climate change and food insecurity while still reaping the benefits of these tree species.

He concluded that owing to a the gradual increase in sensitisation campaigns, the situation in Cameroon is slowly changing, with a growing number of people becoming aware of the vital importance of preserving natural habitats and wildlife. 

Image by Njodzeka Danhatu 

Article written by:
Njodzeka Danhatu
Njodzeka Danhatu
ERuDeF CEO. Louis Nkembi
ERuDeF CEO. Louis Nkembi
EUIABS Vice Chancellor sits (second from right) with others during the university\'s launch.
© Hope Nda
EUIABS Vice Chancellor sits (second from right) with others during the university's launch.
EUIABS students canvassing on behalf of the school.
© Njodzeka Danhatu
EUIABS students canvassing on behalf of the school.
Canvassing students displaying programme pamphlets to the public.
Canvassing students displaying programme pamphlets to the public.