SDG Graduate Schools: Shared knowledge for the cities of tomorrow

Population growth, air pollution, congested roads – the challenges are increasing in the cities of sub-Saharan Africa. A South African-German graduate school is now promoting young experts to help them make cities more sustainable.

For people with low incomes, building a home of their own in Ghana's cities is an arduous process. In many cases, they can only buy the land to start with and do not have enough money to begin building. When they are ready, someone else has often already started building a house on the land, because they have not been able to have it officially recorded that the land belongs to them. Having a house of their own thus becomes a distant dream.

Dennis Kamaanaa Sumbo from Ghana addressed this problem in his master's thesis and has been thinking about the topic ever since. He will now be looking for possible solutions to the problem as a Ph.D. student at the bilateral SDG Graduate School of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and Technische Universität Berlin (TUB).

“Response to growing challenges”

The Wits-TUB Urban Lab set up by the two universities is devoted to issues connected with urban development: How can the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations be implemented in cities in the sub-Saharan region in future? “The Graduate School is a response to the growing challenges that face cities in Africa,” explained Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane, Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

High population growth, increasing air pollution and congested roads are just some of the current and future problems. “We also lack politicians, urban planners, urban managers and architects who could help make the cities more sustainable,” Sihlongonyane added. This is a problem addressed by the Wits-TUB Urban Lab, which is receiving funding from DAAD of around 1.8 million euros from the budget of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) up to the end of 2020.

Taking away the financial burden

“The programme is designed to help more young experts in the sub-Saharan region acquire skills related to the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda for more sustainable urban development,” explained Lars Gerold, head of the relevant section at DAAD. To this end, the programme provides direct support for students: six Ph.D. students and 14 master's students receive grants. “That gives many students the opportunity to even think about taking a postgraduate course, because it takes away the financial burden,” remarked Taki Sithagu, project coordinator of the Wits-TUB Urban Lab in South Africa.

The topics that the young women and men from sub-Saharan Africa will be researching are as diverse as their origins: One participant will be looking at how taxi and bus systems in Johannesburg could work together to make the transport system more sustainable. Another student will be examining whether focusing on African traditions can help increase the share of women working in the urban development sector.

Getting talking to other people

In the course of the programme, the students take part in workshops and summer schools, some of which are held in Africa and some in Germany, such as the one held in Berlin at the end of July 2017. “I would like to become a highly qualified academic,” said Ph.D. student Dennis Kamaanaa Sumbo. “So the trips like the one to Berlin are a big opportunity for me.” At the meetings, the students work on their research questions and find out about new study methods, for example. Some of the teachers are young academics from sub-Saharan Africa, which gives them the opportunity to experience working abroad. “This not only creates a network between Berlin and Johannesburg, but also one that covers the whole of Africa,” Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane commented.

One of the main programme approaches involves teaching students new methods to achieve the SDG goals. The idea of “co-producing” knowledge plays a key role here. “The academic knowledge that has been taught at the universities in sub-Saharan Africa and here in Germany too up to now is inadequate in many respects to solve the great urban problems,” explained Dr Anna Steigemann from the Habitat Unit at TU Berlin, one of the project coordinators of the Wits-TUB Urban Lab. She added that it was more important to start talking to the local people and to team up with them to gather knowledge – for example with representatives of local initiatives and neighbourhood organisations, activists and private firms that are getting involved at local level.

Enriching for everyone

The programme also has a strong focus on practical experience. “In order to gather knowledge locally, the students also need ethnographic or sociological tools, such as more in-depth interview techniques,” Steigemann explained. “We aim to enable them to reach a common understanding with the local people.”

The Wits-TUB Urban Lab not only directly supports training and exchange between students and academics. Researchers from both universities are also working to reform the Wits curriculum to align the existing study programmes more closely with the SDGs. In addition, the new master's programme on Urban Management – the first of its kind in South Africa – is scheduled to start in 2019.

Wits will benefit from the exchange of information with TU Berlin, which already has a similar programme. In return, TU Berlin will profit from the knowledge contributed by the experts on development issues at Wits. “We are combining different experience,” explained Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane. “That's very enriching for everyone.”

Author: Hendrik Bensch

This article was orginally published on

Bilateral SDG Graduate Schools

The programme seeks to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the United Nations. Thus, bilateral partnerships between higher education institutions in Germany and developing countries are supported in order to establish bilateral SDG graduate schools in developing countries.

Further information

August 2018


Bettina Onyango
2 August 2018

Dear Ederson Zanetti,
Thank you for sharing with us information about the "Consórcio Intermunicipal de Desenvolvimento Sustentável do Portal da Amazônia" and its activities.
Did you know that the Alumniportal Deutschland is not only an information platform but also a community of experts? We would therefore suggest you present the project and the need of capacity building to the community in the group "Sustainability". This group gathers motivated alumni and experts with a special interest of putting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development into practice.
Look forward to you input.

Ederson A Zanetti
1 August 2018

We are working towards SDGs and Paris agreement implementing with municipalities at Brazilian Amazon region. We already applied for membership at un global cities, c40 and other innitiatives. Capacity building is much needed and i would like to know when its possible to have your innitiative at portal da Amazônia intermunicipal consortium? How should we proceder?

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