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Learning for transitions: a niche perspective

Luke Metelerkamp, Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University, South Africa
Reinette Biggs, Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Scott Drimie, Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa


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Roughly eight hundred million youth are projected to enter the African job market by 2050. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for urgently needed sustainability transitions on the continent, because with appropriate training and skills this youth bulge could be instrumental in driving systemic change. By training the youth in new practices and approaches, they could be central to creating new systems and African futures that are more sustainable and just. We focus on the question of where the new skills and competencies needed to underpin such transitions could come from and, in turn, how youth might access these competencies. We investigate these questions by exploring an emerging sustainability niche around organic agriculture in the South African food system. We used a network and power-mapping tool, Net-Map, to map the key knowledge resources used by successful organic farmers, as well as to understand how actor learning networks develop and disseminate new skills and competencies. We found that although a substantial volume of knowledge has been generated and sophisticated informal learning networks exist within the niche we studied, knowledge is highly fragmented. The development and transfer of knowledge is impeded by the absence of teaching capacity and poor institutional alignment at a provincial and national level. Our findings suggest that state-led extension services and formal training institutions are of little help to niche pioneers and instead contribute toward the path-dependency of the current food regime. The substantial implications of these findings underscore the need for further studies to investigate whether similar patterns hold elsewhere on the continent, and for other niches. If they do, our findings imply that addressing the sustainability challenges on the African continent will require creative approaches and new models of learning that are capable of developing and transferring the knowledge and practices emerging in sustainability niches to the 90% of youth in Africa who will not progress to formal tertiary training but will be central to driving potential sustainability transitions.

Key words

food systems; learning; multilevel perspective; sustainability transitions; youth development

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087