Despite initial skepticism, the Eco-Schools initiative is gaining momentum in Ghana. Students get hands-on experience with sustainability, such as waste management — crucial in a land where it's practically non-existent.
DW: Eco-Schools is an international program started by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) that aims to encourage young people to engage with their environment, starting in the classroom. A total of 67 countries now participate - how did Ghana get involved?
Hilde Opoku: My background is that I'm Norwegian and I was involved in the development of the Eco-Schools program in Norway, and I really saw all the amazing things that Eco-Schools were doing.
At the same time, I was doing a parent initiative connecting the school of my children with a school in Ghana as an exchange, and when they came to Norway and saw what the Eco-School was doing, they also wanted to be part of it.
So I volunteered to develop it for them, not knowing that it would be a long, bureaucratic process, but in 2014 we were formally accepted by the international organization FEE to run Eco-Schools Ghana. Now I'm living in Ghana, running the program, running also a different program called Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE).
But I'm also working with the government of Ghana on sustainable development goals. So we're looking to use the Eco-Schools program as an approach for schools to teach them about sustainable development. So we're right now in the process of launching this as a much bigger program than what it has been so far, hopefully at the start of the next academic year in September 2018.
We have approximately 30 schools in the two programs [Eco-Schools and YRE]. I think we should move up very fast to 100 schools for the next school year, and we are now in three different regions. In five years I think we should be well established in all of Ghana's 10 regions.
My knowledge about the program has been using it as a policy tool; one thing is the educational part but because it is so hands-on, it also has a great environmental impact in itself, like when it comes to waste management or energy saving or encouraging children to walk to school instead of using cars, so it's really both an educational program but also an impact program.
What was the reaction in Ghana when you first suggested launching the Eco-Schools program there?
Enthusiasm in the schools - you always find some engaged teachers who take up the task to run the program. However, there has always been some critical voices not understanding why they should care about litter or all these things, they didn't find it important for the students.
But the interesting thing is that as it moves on and they see the benefits and see how not only is it relevant for the different subjects that they teach in the school, but that it also makes a difference for the area around the school, more and more people buy into it.
So it's really nice to see that it also has a positive effect on getting teachers and parents involved in the issues that we are working with the kids on.
What feedback have you had from students and parents?
As the normal teaching here is classical classroom teaching - the teacher tells the children what they should know and then they are supposed to repeat it - we see that the children are really excited when we have this learning-by-doing approach, that they get out of the classroom, they can go for walks around their neighborhoods, see the problems and then have a problem-solving task.
So this methodology is very attractive for a lot of young students. I think a success criteria is to start with those who are enthusiastic, showing interest, and then others will follow. But because we had this collaboration with Norway all the time and they have had the possibility of a biannual exchange, it is rather popular to be on the Eco-School program, to do well and then have the opportunity to travel and all that, so we have some carrots that also encourage students to really work on it.
Some parents have told me that they have seen such a transformation in their kids, both in their interest in going to school but also their openness, that they opened up, and I think that that engagement, their interaction, their creativity, gives self-confidence to the children.
So although this is about environmental issues, I also think it's a personal journey for students to show more who they are and feel confident about themselves, that those who have this interest can actually use it to explore more of themselves and feel more happy about their schooling.
What steps have to be taken to become an Eco-School?
Because we want to get the kids on board, we first form a committee at the school, which is more like a student forum, that runs some of the decision-making, so they do an assessment in the school community to see what is their most important thing they as a school can do to change the environment around them.
And given the situation here in Ghana, most of the schools start with waste management, because waste is really a problem here.
So then you make an action plan - how can you, in one year, make a difference - so they put down mile stones, activities that they want to do and so on, and then submit it to us, we approve it and then there is a review when we go back and give them feedback.
At the end of the year, if they have done everything in their action plan and we see an impact, they are awarded with the Green Flag, so that everyone can see that their school is an Eco-School.
And that starts the next circle with a new action plan and you add something to what you did the first year, so you always advance, so what you did the first year, the second year becomes normal practice, then the third year you add something to it, so it's an ongoing process.
What is one your favorite Eco-Schools projects in Ghana?
I think the favorite one is the workshops we are doing with waste, when they use the waste to create artwork, that always brings up new ideas and the children really get engaged.
The beach cleaning days are a campaign that we do twice a year, but waste management is a daily activity, that they sort the waste, they sell the plastic, that they do things with the paper.
Remember that we are in a country where there is no functioning waste management system, so the learning process is a bit slow because they are not even familiar with the concept of waste separation, which, like in Germany, is something everybody has been doing for many years, so we are really breaking ground here.
How is the YRE program going in Ghana?
Internationally, that one is more or less run as a school program but we see that so much of the youth in Ghana are out of school or out of work, so we are trying to develop it to be like a community course, so you can join it even if you are not in a school, so that you have an activity.
And we really use it to encourage the youth to raise their voice in a public debate, to be part of radio programs or write articles, because it's a hierarchical system here and normally you have to be a senior before you go and raise your voice publicly.
And I really think that when it comes to environmental issues, it is important to hear the youth, because they are the ones carrying the concerns and it’s their future, so we want to train them to really be advocates for themselves and for the environment.
Hilde Opoku is a special adviser on the UN Sustainable Development Goals for the Minister of Finance in Ghana, and is the National Operator for Ghana’s Eco-Schools program. She is elected Deputy Mayor of Trondheim, Norway, but is currently on a one-year leave of absence to carry out her work in Ghana.
This interview was conducted by Melanie Hall.