“The built environment is essentially a powerful platform that enables someone to live with dignity”

By Climate Champions | March 7, 2024

For the first time ministers and high-level representatives of key organisations in the built environment sector will come together this week to drive international collaboration on decarbonisation and resilience.

Co-organised by France and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with the support of the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, the Buildings and Climate Forum will take place on 7-8 March 2024 in Paris.

But what role can the built environment sector play in supporting the development agenda of Africa with an urban population expected to be 1.6 billion by 2030.

We spoke to Hon. Nasra Nanda, CEO and ESG lead at the Kenya Green Building Society and Chair, Africa Regional Network at the World Green Building Council.

How can transforming the Built Environment sector support Africa’s development agenda?

When you’re pushing for impact, especially in developing markets, you’re not just looking at buildings because a bulk of the population don’t reside in them. For example, in Nairobi, 60% of the population live in informal settlements. If you only advocate and certify green buildings, you’re locking out a significant part of the population. 

I see the built environment as an ecosystem of opportunities and challenges. Why? Because the built environment is essentially a platform that enables someone to live with dignity and also unlocks opportunities to improve their livelihoods. 

Using that approach, the Green Building Council has  expanded how we view our impact, helping us gain a foothold in the climate conversation as we build climate resilience for the urban poor from a people -first perspective.

When you’re living below the poverty line what does shelter mean? There’s a dignity and sanitation component which we’ve now brought into both national and regional conversations ensuring the voices of women, youth and minorities are heard too.

How do you hope the Forum will reflect and respond to the Built Environment context in Africa?

The Global South voice needs to be present and needs to be heard.

There needs to be an understanding that the perspectives of the Global North might guide but should not be a blueprint for the Global South.

For instance, when we think about the environmental conversation, scientific language around GHG emissions might not be the best approach for Africa because then it becomes an exclusive rather than an inclusive conversation.

The key concern for your average Joe or Jane is do I have food on the table and do I have shelter? So a key question is how does climate and sustainability ensure a life of dignity in the Global South? Because with  dignity, we can have a sustainable market, people can have food on the table and feel safe enough to live in a way that empowers them. Only then can we begin a conversation about  mini grids and carbon markets.

Africa’s story needs to be understood. It’s a buzzing, young, growing continent. There will be increased pressure on our cities as young people migrate from rural areas seeking opportunities.

We need to ensure this migration doesn’t hinder an economy heavily reliant on agriculture but  drives change in a way that enhances and empowers a population.

An example could be green job opportunities  in rural areas creating a link between sustainable agriculture and forestry as part of the conversation around sustainable infrastructure. These industries affect each other because it’s shared resources.

We have a growing housing issue in Africa. 70% of the houses are yet to be built.  That’s an extremely big opportunity because we have the opportunity to do it with low carbon materials which are locally available, saving on imports. We can utilize what’s already there, and we have the opportunity to do it the right way, in a sustainable manner, without exploiting or defeating local communities.

But it requires a layered approach from policy makers incorporating  a number of factors including; how do we unlock the housing agenda in cities? How do we unlock opportunities in rural spaces? And how does construction and other industries work together to provide a supply chain solution to this growing population?

The climate conversation is very much a development conversation in Africa, and you cannot isolate the two.

Kenya is a signatory to the Buildings Breakthrough – a  first of its kind platform for international collaboration between countries to accelerate climate action on buildings. How important is this initiative in supporting Kenya’s own development journey?

The peer exchange component is very useful as is having joint leadership from France and Morocco.

This is particularly important otherwise it would be very easy for it to just to be another elitist conversation. The minute someone feels it isn’t relevant to them, you’ve lost them.

In certain parts of Kenya, people think climate change is a hoax because they feel it’s all just jargon. So having relatable representatives from other Global  South countries who can relate to the reality on the ground is key for buy in and driving a collaborative climate agenda.

It’s only through collaboration that we can unlock the necessary support  that will drive development and climate finance into regions that really need it.

What progress has been made in Kenya to date?

Our main achievement has been in framing the urbanization issue through a people lens and bringing the  urban and  built environment agendas into the climate conversation.

The realisation has finally dawned that you can’t talk about building climate resilience without putting people first.

We’re currently giving inputs as a partner to the Building Climate Resilience (BCRUP) alongside  including the government of Kenya and other key regional entities about including  affordable, urban and peri urban resilient housing  for both formal and informal settlement populations within Nairobi and beyond, so that we can truly leave no one behind.

We’re also working with Reall on   a green affordable housing financial instrument with the aim of channelling green or climate finance to support developers working in this space.

In addition, at COP28 the KGBS in partnership with FSD Africa, supported the Nairobi City County,  in having the Nairobi City County Governor’s office being  named  the first IFC EDGEgreen government office in Africa, highlighting  leadership in action and leading from the top.

We are slowly but surely seeing a transition from commitments to action which is a powerful message of which I’m very proud. 

What motivates you to inspire and lead in this field?

I was working at a global law firm but felt I needed a purpose in my work.

The built environment was a platform that afforded me the opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of others.

As it happens, whilst I was still working as a lawyer, I  was part of  the real estate team. But I hated it. Why? Because it focused on assets, not people.

When I joined the  Green Building Council I  said the reason why we were failing to advance the importance of the built environment in both climate and development agendas was because we were focusing on greening buildings, not empowering people.

It doesn’t matter if  you’re trying to sell a skyscraper or a mini grid, the backbone behind all these investment opportunities are people.

The built environment is a powerful tool in creating empowerment that unlocks sustainable and dignified lives in a way that can lead to a thriving market.