The Anthropocene: what are we building?

Cecilia Wandiga | October 14, 2021 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

The original version of this article was published on September 2, 2021, at the Centre for Science & Technology Innovations

You cannot build a house for last year’s summer -

Ethiopian proverb

African knowledge, including scientific, is transmitted through contextual storytelling. The goal is to ensure knowledge remains fluid. While written knowledge transmission is easier to verify, written knowledge is also more difficult to update. There are challenges with both forms of knowledge transmission. Updating 3 million copies of a book versus updating 3 million people via conversation requires an extensive amount of planning and logistics. It can take a while to present the contextual background of a story. Proverbs help to anchor the reader and listener to the lesson of the story.

Our goal with the Centre for Science and Technology Innovations (CSTI) and the Geoversity Science and Culture Odsomo digital series is to provide both written (blogs) and oral (webinars) updates that guide readers and listeners through the sometimes confusing web of science information. Understanding Odsomo as a knowledge-sharing culture will not occur in one blog or one webinar but rather over decades. Scientific peer review focuses on the veracity and utility of information from the perspective of those with formal schooling. African traditional knowledge sharing also requires veracity and utility, however, the evaluators include the community at large. If science and technology knowledge cannot benefit the people at their level of understanding then the storytellers are speaking to themselves. In this spirit, we attempt to blend formal and informal knowledge systems by documenting both written and oral knowledge. 

The debate about the negative effects of human pollution, industrial emissions, and waste have been viewed by some as abstract and by others as obvious. Climate Change is a term that causes confusion because the reality is that seasons change yearly in every country. Many then wonder why there is a need to spend research dollars on studying how the weather changes. A simple way of understanding the need for Climate Change research is to pause and examine the effects of the built environment. When it is hot, do we seek refuge from the heat using an air conditioner or under the shade of a tree? In winter, do we warm ourselves with a gas heater or a fire?

Image courtesy of @anandmahindra on Twitter

If the summer heat has averaged 26.7°C (80°F) for the past 40 years and this year the average is 32.2°C (90°F), we have an unusually hot summer. However, if the 32.2°C (90°F) average summer temperature keeps occurring for 10 years or more, we have a change in the climate. Similarly, if the winter cold averaged – 1.1°C (30°F) for the past 40 years and we now see a consistent trend towards 10 years or more of 4.4°C (40°F) winter temperatures, we have a change in the climate. Both trends are showing warmer temperatures. If multiple countries around the world are showing the same warming patterns, we call the trend global warming

If you are designing a home during the period of global warming, do you use the same insulation factor you used 40 years ago? What if you increase the insulation to keep more cool air in during summer and more warm air in during winter? 

In Kenya, the increase in temperature, as well as the cost of cement, have led to an interest in the use of polystyrene (EPS panels) as a building material (GCR Staff, 2016Property Noma, 2021). In addition to lower material costs, an additional benefit of polystyrene production is that the process consumes less water than cement production (Kiganda, 2021). Some might wonder how EPS panels compare to strawbale insulation in terms of thermal insulation. Strawbale panels seem more logical if one is selecting natural building materials. Italian researchers showed that 20cm thick EPS panels provided better thermal insulation during summer when compared to 20cm thick strawbale insulation while also providing better acoustic insulation year-round (Evola, et al., 2019). This means better energy efficiency, a more stable indoor temperature, and less noise.

We would like to see future research expand the evaluation of sustainability to include an analysis of materials that are food for animals. For example, elephants eat straw but not rice husk agro-waste. Portland-pozzolana rice husk cement has been technically feasible in Kenya since at least 1994 yet is only recently gaining industry attention (Intermediate Technology Development Group, 1994; Wachira, et al., 2019). Highlighting polystyrene is not presenting polystyrene as a universal solution but rather an illustration of the reasons why the construction process of a house today cannot be the same as the construction process used 40 years ago. One of the new construction tools not often used 40 years ago is Whole Life-Cycle Assessment to compare the environmental footprint of different materials and construction techniques (Kimani & Kiriatha, 2019). Equally new are Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) metrics to assess the impact of company governance policies for tracking data on preventing emissions and pollution while improving resource efficiency, employee well-being, and social equity (Mutisya, Nzaku & Coulson, 2020). Join the discussion and share your favorite eco-efficiency construction metrics!

A detailed summary of the climate change patterns in Africa can be found in Prof. Shem O. Wandiga’s AfriSMC Press Briefing on the Effects of climate change in Africa from March 19, 2021. Climate Change effects are closely linked to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. If you have ever stood by an open fire in a closed space or burned food while cooking, the space you are in gets quickly filled with smoke. Some types of emissions are odorless and colorless but they fill the room and can kill you if not ventilated, such as poisoning from carbon monoxide. Ventilation does not mean the carbon monoxide from your car or gas heater ceases to exist. All that happens is that the gas you cannot see or smell moves from your room to the outside and now creates a risk to others. Carbon dioxide gets absorbed by trees and turned into oxygen, assuming there are enough trees to absorb the carbon dioxide released. Trees also convert carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide and methane. Hence, even if you have a lot of trees, you can still have high carbon dioxide and methane in the air (Revkin, 2019). The balance between human emissions and plant emissions can be better understood through the recently published African science Shared Earth, shared ocean Framework (Obura, et al. 2021). It is important to re-emphasize that space must be shared for flora and fauna to flourish.

Within the context of Climate Change research, another term has emerged: the Anthropocene. The exact start date of the Anthropocene epoch is ambiguous. Odada, Olago & Olaka (2020) present a summary of the evolution of the Anthropocene in Eastern Africa (see image below). 

Record of the Anthropocene in East Africa

We will not resolve the debate about the definition of Anthropocene in this blog, nor is there a Kiswahili or local language translation available for the term at present. We are not trying to increase your eco-anxiety (Fomina, 2021). However, we are inviting you to watch a video recording  from our webinar aired first on September 8th, 2021. This  2-hour interactive webinar explores the topic “What is the Anthropocene (epoch) in Africa and why should we change our human activities?”

You can find out more about our webinar series here.


Centre for Science and Technology Innovations (CSTI). Web of applied science. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from 

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Fomina, M. (2021, August). Eco-anxiety: Friend or foe? The Decision Lab. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from

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Obura, D. O., Katerere, Y., Mayet, M., Kaelo, D., Msweli, S., Mather, K., Harris, J., Louis, M., Kramer, R., Teferi, T., Samoilys, M., Lewis, L., Bennie, A., Kumah, F., Isaacs, M. & Nantongo, P. (2021, August 13). Integrate biodiversity targets from local to global levels. Science, 373(6556), p. 746-748. DOI:  

Odada, E. O., Olago, D.O., & Olaka, L.A. (2020). An East African perspective of the Anthropocene. Scientific African, 10. DOI: 

Property Noma. (2021, March 31). What are EPS PANELS? Alternative Building Technologies in Kenya. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from 

Revkin, A. (2019, March 25). Trees release flammable methane—here’s what that means for the climate. National Geographic. Retrieved from 

Wachira, J.M., Thiong’o, J.K., Marangu, J.M. & Murith, L.G. (2019). Physicochemical performance of Portland-rice husk ash-calcined clay-dried acetylene lime sludge cement in sulfate and chloride media. Advances in Materials Science and Engineering. DOI: 

Wandiga, S.O. (2021, March 19). AfriSMC Press Briefing on the Effects of climate change in Africa by Prof. Shem O. WandigaAfriSMC TV. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from 

Cecilia Wandiga is Executive Director at the Centre for Science and Technology Innovations (CSTI), University of Nairobi, Kenya.

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