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The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Africa

The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Africa

 Indigenous knowledge provides specific views of the world held by various indigenous peoples. It introduces different perspectives on nature and the human in nature. Indigenous Peoples around the world often hold unique worldviews that link today’s generations with past generations.

Many Indigenous Peoples consider concepts of responsibility through intergenerational equity, thereby honouring both past and future generations. This can often be in sharp contrast to environmental valuing and decision-making that occurs in Western societies.

There are approximately 370 million Indigenous Peoples today representing thousands of languages and cultures. Indigenous lands make up around 20% of the earth’s territory, containing 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity; a sign Indigenous Peoples are the most effective stewards of the environment.

The Indigenous Knowledge for Development Program of the World Bank in the African region

At the first Global Knowledge Conference in June 1997 in Toronto, government leaders and civil society groups urged the World Bank and other donors to learn from local communities. In concluding remarks to the conference, the vice president of the World Bank’s African Region supported a vision of a truly global knowledge partnership that would be realized only when the poor participated as both users and contributors of knowledge.

Around the same time, the results of client feedback surveys conducted by the World Bank in several African countries indicated that country authorities and stakeholders wanted Bank staffers to do better in adapting their highly regarded technical expertise to local conditions.

The African Department of the World Bank responded to these challenges by launching the Indigenous Knowledge for Development Program in partnership with over a dozen organizations in 1998. The programme has developed a number of instruments and services for the capture, dissemination and application of these practices. These include the creation of an Indigenous Knowledge database of over 200 indigenous practices; a dedicated monthly publication, Indigenous Knowledge Notes, which appears in two international languages (English and French) and two local languages (Wolof and Swahili) and has over 20,000 readers; and a multilingual website.

The programme has also helped Indigenous Knowledge Resource Centres in eight countries to improve their national and regional networking capacity. For instance, Uganda received advisory and financial support to draft a national strategy for the integration of Indigenous Knowledge into its national Poverty Eradication Action Program and grant funding to build capacity for the implementation of the strategy.

Other countries have undertaken various activities to build on Indigenous Knowledge in agriculture, healthcare, or education with the assistance of the Indigenous Knowledge Program. In cooperation with other agencies (the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and the Global Mechanism of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification), local communities have been supported in their efforts to share their Indigenous Knowledge through community-to-community exchanges. The Indigenous Knowledge Program promotes the integration of Indigenous Knowledge systems into World Bank–supported programmes.

The Adopted Protocol

The adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing was a milestone in the recognition of the intrinsic link between genetic resources and Indigenous knowledge and associated rights. The Protocol is the first multilateral environmental agreement with substantive provisions on Indigenous rights.

It states that traditional knowledge and associated genetic resources can only be accessed with the prior informed consent (PIC) of Indigenous Peoples, and if such access is authorized, fair and equitable sharing of benefits must be ensured. However challenges to integrate Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and worldviews in the environmental field continue, as illustrated by experiences at the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

IPBES embodies one of the most ambitious attempts to date to bridge the divide between scientific and indigenous and/or local knowledge. To bridge this divide, IPBES established a task force on Indigenous and local knowledge systems, methodologies, and an approach to recognize and work with Indigenous and local knowledge across all its assessments, most recently for those on sustainable use of wild species, values of nature, and invasive alien species.

Adapting to and Mitigating the Climate Crisis

Indigenous Peoples have criticized the predominant Western understanding of climate change, which they see as a result of the same mindset that promoted the exploitation of people and resources during colonization. Their historic experience and holistic perspective of nature-human relationships make them key agents in developing climate solutions.

The UNFCCC continues to marginalize Indigenous knowledge in climate discussions, with the 2015 Paris Agreement failing to fully recognize the role of and the need to further integrate Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and practices in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. 

Improving the Outcomes

It is time to get serious about Indigenous Peoples’ leadership and integrating new and traditional knowledge to create solutions and systems; that work both for people and the planet. If the international community is to succeed with its sustainability agenda, it matters what worldviews underpin its creation and control.

If Western cultures continue to subjugate Indigenous knowledge, humanity’s collective future will be compromised. It took many years for Indigenous Peoples to put forward their rich and long-lasting traditional knowledge and worldviews in the international arena.

If traditional knowledge is integrated with other scientific and technological knowledge, innovative and equitable ways of creating a better future for all can be found. For instance, the AI Laboratory develops and applies Indigenous protocols to the making of artificial intelligence based on caring for country and kin.

The IPBES assessments, the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, and the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change present significant opportunities for further dialogue, leadership, and convergence in the international arena. A key question is whether the international community will finally have the courage to move away from the status quo and follow the lead of Indigenous Peoples.


Working with this knowledge in an appropriate and ethically acceptable way can be challenging. This may overlook the uniqueness of Indigenous knowledge and then lead to the overall devaluation of indigenous political economies, cultural ecologies, languages, educational systems, and spiritual practices.


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