Business Schools Engaging in Interdisciplinary Projects to Reach Sustainable Development Goals – Aarhus University and the Maasai Mara in Kenya

20150422_130113Global challenges are often very complex and call for evidence-based solutions across disciplines and sectors. The question is, who can and will take leadership and bring the necessary stakeholders to the table to find sustainable solutions?

Universities and business schools, like Aarhus University School of Business and Social Sciences (Aarhus BSS) in Denmark, are increasingly taking on this role. Initiated by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Organizational Architecture (ICOA), a global challenge has been identified at Aarhus BSS to work on sustainable development challenges with the Maasai Mara in Kenya. I spoke with Program Director Pernille Kallehave from Aarhus University about this ambitious and unique project.

What is the Maasai Mara?

The Maasai Mara is a national reserve named in honour of its ancestral inhabitants, the Maasai people. Thousands of wildebeests migrate every year from the Serengeti plains in Tanzania to eat the juicy grass of the Maasai Mara. While rich mega faunas with large annual migrations like in the Maasai Mara were once common across the earth, they now form a unique African heritage, and survive only in a declining, small part of the continent. The Maasai Mara hence constitutes a unique and irreplaceable part of Africa’s natural heritage. With about one million inhabitants, the Maasai Mara also experiences an increase of the population of 4,7% annually, with a poverty index of 41%, and about 344,000 people living below poverty line. These people need food, jobs, education, infrastructure and health services, and these needs put huge pressure on the land, and increase human-wildlife conflicts. Thus, the Maasai Mara faces challenges in four main categories: land use and climate change, ecosystem challenges, political and economic challenges, and human and cultural challenges.

How did Aarhus become involved with the Maasai Mara?

The Maasai Mara project was initiated by a request from administrators of the Karen Blixen Camp, a safari camp in the Maasai Mara. A year ago, they presented the many challenges of the area for example the ongoing erosion of the area’s iconic wildlife and other key ecosystem components, the human-wildlife conflicts, the climate change, the land tenure system breakdown, and the uncoordinated research activities. They expressed the need for evidence-based knowledge to ensure sustainable development of the region. Intrigued by the challenge, an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the four faculties at Aarhus University and the Justus-Liebig Universät Giessen (Germany) established The Maasai Mara Science and Development Action (MMSDA). Maasai Mara University and University of Nairobi from Kenya soon joined the project.

Researchers in this interdisciplinary network represent a broad variety of perspectives; researchers from biology and agri-ecology will contribute with knowledge about climate change, ecosystem management and food security, and researchers from economy and business will look at the economic drivers and governance challenges of the region. Cultural analysis will be brought in to understand the complex cultural dynamics and the intricate negotiations around heritage and identity. Furthermore, ICOA provides knowledge in developing models that can analyse complex dynamic interdisciplinary organisational problems using statistical as well as simulation models. The models will integrate biological and social data, combining both quantitative and qualitative data.

What are the key features of the programme and how does it work in practice?

The intentions of the MMSDA are fourfold:

  • Develop a research strategy that can meet the research needs of the identified challenges of the Maasai Mara: In April 2015 the first Summit took place at Maasai Mara University. A broad group of academic and non-academic participants provided valuable insights about the challenges. The four universities involved are now developing a catalogue of research ideas. The ideas will be mapped with the challenges to ensure that the research initiatives will be relevant and have a potential to create real impact and sustainable solutions.
  • Develop interdisciplinary analysis tools that can work with the complexity of the challenges. This includes the development of a cross-disciplinary database that can feed data into the analysis tools. To develop the analysis tools, the network connects researchers with different professional backgrounds from Europe and Africa. Later other researchers will be invited to share their data and results via the database for the benefit of the Maasai Mara.
  • Develop strategies for how the results of analysis can be implemented. This is done in collaboration with researchers and stakeholders with local knowledge (Kenyan ministries and universities, companies, local community and institutions, NGOs, conservancies etc.).
  • Facilitate local implementation projects in cooperation with local authorities and population. This requires a special organisation of the project with a number of advisory boards, associate members and a strong outreach strategy. This is being set up now.

A Board of the projects and an interdisciplinary Scientific Board have been elected. They will design a strategy for the activities to support the interdisciplinary cooperation.

What have been some of the lessons you have learnt so far or some of the interesting insights that have come from working on this process?

All involved are very enthusiastic and show a high degree of commitment to the project. Working holistically with an important challenge and in close cooperation with the people, whose lives are affected by the problems, inspires the researchers involved. Research has a new meaning now that publication is not the main goal.

What have been some of the challenges? Successes?

Of course working across continents and culture is always a bit of a challenge, but also makes it very exciting. We are looking forward to starting the dialogue with potential sponsors and getting their feedback. We hope that they will appreciate our holostic approach. This will give them the opportunity to make a difference in a long-term and evidence-based manner.

The Summit at Maasai Mara University 21-23 April 2015 was a great success. The Maasai King came and endorsed the project and so did the Danish Ambassador in Kenya. But most importantly, the local Maasai community came and engaged in the discussions.

What’s next for the initiative? 

We will now define an ambitious 20-year research and development proposal and then go look for funding. We will also start including students in the project and use the Maasai Mara as a case in teaching at various programmes. The next Summit will take place in the spring of 2016 and here we will invite researchers from other universities to come and share their research.

For more on this project visit





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