What the preservation of our heritage tells us about our future

Recently, in certain countries of Sahelian Africa such as Burkina Faso and Mali, there has been a renewed interest in the so-called “Nubian vault” architectural technique. Houses built according to this ancestral model, probably coming from the ancient Egyptians, are less costly, because they use the local earth for the bricks, more perennial (about fifty years), better insulated than the iron sheets covered houses, and ecological since they do not use wood. These fresh houses with small and chiselled openings that retain heat on the outside, allow the easy addition of a roof terrace. NGOs have made it the basis for some development projects in response to the lack of decent housing, lack of employment and the challenge of ecological preservation.

This example illustrates a legitimate questioning of some of our States about the accumulation of capital. Should we accumulate physical capital or knowledge? At first sight we naturally answer both. But in this case, what should be prioritized between knowledge that is difficult to measure, which is a bet on the future, and the accumulation of infrastructures and financial capital, more easily quantifiable? I believe that we can lead the two accumulations head on, one helping the other, supporting the other, nourishing it, making it even wealthier.

The example of the Nubian vault shows that it is important to preserve the techniques specific to Africa, to know how to adapt them, but also to defend them as our genuine heritage. The effort must be global: finding funding and partnerships for the development of our continent, but also maintaining control over what we want to do, according to our needs and cultures. The days when we were forced to make laterite tracks rather than paved highways are gone. That is why we must also give ourselves the means to choose and build. And this requires a renewed effort to educate, preserve and transmit the intellectual capital that we have, sometimes without even noticing.

Likewise, without knowledge, how can we maintain the physical capital that we have received as an inheritance, too often fallen into decay? Africa, today more than ever, needs hydraulic engineers, renewable energy specialists, mining engineers and geologists to exploit its immense natural resources. We also need to better protect our inventions. The world observes us – to say that it spies on us would be too strong – and tries in good industrial logic to take over what belongs to us, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally. I think of Ethiopia’s long battle against the American giant Starbucks to recover the appellations of origin of its finest varieties of coffee: Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and Harrar. In this case, David defeated Goliath, and these three names which evoke voluptuous perfumes are now registered Ethiopian trademarks. As a result of this initiative, some 15 million people living in the coffee sector in Ethiopia have seen their incomes increase, while the state has exported more. Ethiopia is today one of the leaders of the continent in the protection of intellectual property.

Like the Nubian vault, coffee is a heritage, both genetic, agricultural and cultural, which we must preserve and develop. We must continue to invest in the production of knowledge. The State, with its public sector, the private sector and citizens, each at their level, must participate in this effort. Let us not doubt that the profits, which seem sometimes impalpable, will eventually bring about a sound and stumbling effect, as shown by these two examples.

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