Far-reaching sustainable campus project launched at UCT

16 May 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo UCT News. Voice Cwenga Koyana. Read time >10 min.
Solar panels, which can be found on the roof of the Graça Machel residence on campus.
Solar panels, which can be found on the roof of the Graça Machel residence on campus.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) has initiated a R10 million five-year long, campus-wide project to support the environmental sustainability ambitions of its Vision 2030. The project will be supported by the vice-chancellor’s strategic fund. It will include leading research, feasibility studies and proof-of-concept living labs on campus.

UCT’s physical footprint is around 1 million m² with over 200 buildings across five campuses and annual energy and water costs of around R100 million and R20 million respectively. Annually the university is responsible for some 70 000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions via its use of electricity, refrigerants, liquified petroleum gas, and fuel for generators, vehicles and the UCT Shuttle fleet. That’s not counting the indirect impacts of food supplies, printing paper, consulting services or work-related travel.

Launched by UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng in 2021, this five-year project (2021 to 2026), Khusela Ikamva (meaning “secure our future”) Sustainable Campus Project, will target five research areas: energy/carbon footprint, water, waste, wildlife, and social responsiveness, and play a major role in addressing the institution’s sustainability.

The project will not only harness the expertise and creative thinking of UCT’s senior researchers in these areas, but the greater UCT community too, including professional, administrative and support staff (PASS), and students – particularly postgraduate students working in the five research areas. It will also involve key student bodies such as the Green Campus Initiative and the Residences Environmental Student Committees as well as the SRC.

This transdisciplinary community of practice will work together to address sustainability across the five research areas and the associated environmental, financial and social impacts in the UCT campus context.

UCT a living lab

A key aspect of the Khusela Ikamva initiative is to build on UCT’s existing environmental sustainability strategy by undertaking research projects to determine the feasibility of specific elements within this. In doing so, UCT will become a living lab, said project coordinator, Manfred Braune, the director of Environmental Sustainability in the Office of the Vice Chancellor.

Braune is supported by UCT’s Research Office as well as a governance committee that will track the project’s progress over the five years via a structured monitoring and evaluation process.

“Certain solutions will require a proof of concept to be tested on campus, through the living lab approach,” said Braune.


“Ultimately, we aim to reach everyone in the UCT community so that the impact is felt in all spheres of campus life.”

The project also aims to effect sustainability through the campus community, he said.

“Ultimately, we aim to reach everyone in the UCT community so that the impact is felt in all spheres of campus life,” said Professor Phakeng. “The intention is to bring more and more of the UCT community into this project as it grows, to maximise its reach and impact.

“Some of these community members will be very actively involved with specific roles and responsibilities defined in the work packages and others are involved as stakeholders on the journey.”

Phakeng added, “In terms of researchers working with UCT PASS staff, this presents a wonderful opportunity for all spheres of UCT to be involved and play a part in research, not just the traditional researcher. The project will see staff at every level of the university being able to collaborate on a university-wide research project.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison added, “This is a first for the university. We are excited about the value this ascribes to every person in the UCT community and the role we all have in making this a sustainable campus.

Dedicated leaders

The project themes have dedicated team leaders in charge of specific work packages. They will also consider the intersections of these themes, allowing for collaboration between themes and work packages.

Following are the key technical components of the project:

  • Reduced carbon footprint

This work is led by energy systems researchers guided by Professor Harro von Blottnitz. It aims to develop a cost optimal pathway and business case for UCT to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 or sooner.


“We must not only help the nation chart its way out of carbon-intensive electricity but go one step further and faster ourselves.”

It balances inclusive knowledge co-production aimed at transformative change on the one hand, with expert pathway analysis to provide financial intelligence associated with choosing and setting carbon footprint and energy reduction targets on the other. Energy efficiency and rooftop solar photovoltaics will present a good opportunity for the living lab aspects of this component of the project.

“Most of the institutional carbon footprint is associated with our electricity purchases. As a leading institution, we must not only help the nation chart its way out of carbon-intensive electricity but go one step further and faster ourselves,” said Professor Van Blottnitz.

“Given years of load-shedding and electricity price hikes ahead, we suspect there’s a good business case to be made for investing into an optimal combination of deep energy efficiency improvements and own generation as well as off-site renewable energy purchase through wheeling.”

Wheeling refers to the transfer of electrical power via a utility's transmission or distribution system between different grid or network service areas.

  • Integrated food-water-energy system

The project includes a ground-breaking component for South African universities to develop a campus-wide, integrated food-water-energy system based on the anaerobic digestion of organic waste with concomitant technologies to produce valuable products. Dr Thanos Kotsiopoulos leads this element of the project.

“At the core of our design is the integration of traditional anaerobic digestion (AD) of food waste with additional valorisation units,” said Dr Kotsiopoulos. “Tailored to the characteristics of UCT food waste, we plan to enhance the economic complexity and sustainability of a conventional AD system.

Through this approach UCT can produce renewable energy (biogas), fit-for-purpose water and fertilisers, he added.


“Opportunities also exist in supporting green gardens and creating green walls for the cooling of campus buildings.”

“These products can ultimately be used to support existing systems by providing energy to kitchens and supplying clean water and fertiliser for the maintenance of UCT grounds. Opportunities also exist in supporting green gardens and creating green walls for the cooling of campus buildings. The flexibility of a circular and integrated design centred on the transformation of food waste can therefore provide multiple benefits.”

“It’s exciting to be involved in research work that I’m passionate about that can also make a long-term difference to the campus that we occupy to become a sustainable campus – as the name of the project suggests, it is about securing our future,” said Nodumo Zulo, a junior research fellow on Dr Kotsiopoulos’s team.

  • Wildlife, waste, food

The third element of the project, led by Professor Nicoli Nattrass, will focus on the wildlife, waste, and food nexus on campus, where UCT occupies an important position on the urban fringe and a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage Site.


“We have a special responsibility to protect our wildlife by eliminating the use of, or need for, rodenticides.”

Poorly disposed food waste on campus leads to rodents breeding, which are then fought with toxic pesticides, which in turn find their way into the precious remaining wildlife on Table Mountain National Park.

This component will include monitoring wildlife and rodents; important to providing a scientific basis to better understand UCT’s relationship with nature. It will also inform new educational and artistic interventions that will be deployed on campus, said Professor Nattrass.

The purpose of this will be to educate the campus community about the waste–rodenticide–wildlife connection through action research and by employing innovative art to support recycling, waste reduction and integrated pest management of external spaces on upper campus.

“This is a really innovative initiative. It is exciting to work with students, staff and contractors to make UCT a poison-free, zero-waste campus,” said Nattrass. “UCT is practically in the Table Mountain National Park and we have a special responsibility to protect our wildlife by eliminating the use of, or need for, rodenticides.”

  • Holistic water management

The fourth component aims to help transform UCT into a ‘no drop wasted’ campus by seeking to embed a more holistic approach to water management in line with water sensitive design (WSD) principles. The team is led by Dr Kirsty Carden and will assess alternative water use opportunities on UCT’s main campuses, selecting projects that could be implemented as exemplars/test cases.

These WSD living lab demonstrations will be established on upper campus or other feasible locations with maximum reach in terms of engaging and learning with the UCT community. This work will actively support and build on UCT’s Sustainable Water Management Strategy (developed in 2019), said Dr Carden.

“We have almost completed an initial assessment of the potential for rainwater harvesting on upper and middle campuses and will follow this with further studies on the most promising of these,” Carden said.


“Through this project, we hope to be able to showcase a more sustainable approach to managing water.”

“The project will also include research on the collection and treatment of human urine for fertiliser and water production that is currently being developed by Associate Professor Dyllon Randall and his students. Efforts in all these projects will also feed into and/or complement those being undertaken by other team members, for example, in exploring attitudes and practices related to these interventions through a social science lens.

“Through this project, we hope to be able to showcase a more sustainable approach to managing water, not only on UCT’s campuses, but also as an inspirational example to surrounding communities and the city as a whole.”

  • UCT community engagement

Inclusive engagement within the UCT community will be critical to achieving transformative sustainability on all these technical components and interventions. The critical work of building a university-wide community of practice, where every individual can make manageable changes, will be led by Dr Britta Rennkamp and Professor Sheona Shackleton, in collaboration with Braune and other team leaders.

The engagement process will consist of general engagement and social scientific research that link each of the project’s themes: carbon footprint, energy, water, waste and wildlife.


“We need to understand our fair share and how UCT can make a difference as a community.”

“We need to understand our fair share and how UCT can make a difference as a community,” said Dr Rennkamp. “Khusela Ikamva aims to empower every member [of] the campus community to take action that is manageable and achievable. Step by step, one by one.”

Professor Shackleton added, “A more sustainable campus is only achievable if the entire UCT community feel that they are part of such a process and their ideas, solutions and concerns have been heard and considered in project design and implementation.”

Nondumiso Mginywa, a member of the community engagement team, said, “The stakeholders and the engagement processes are being mapped out as we speak, with a number of meetings and engagements that have already started.”


Each team leader acts as a principal investigator (research leader) and is contracted to the Research Office for their portion of the project’s funding. The budget of R10 million will be spread over five years, but additional funding will be sought for project opportunities that emerge, said Braune.

In her endorsement, Phakeng said, “The Khusela Ikamva project demonstrates a clear commitment to inclusivity and transformation by bringing on board a diverse group of project participants, whether academic staff, PASS staff or post- and undergraduate students, to help co-create solutions.

“The degree to which it is inclusive and transformational will become an integral indicator of the success of the project and its participants.”

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Committed to Environmental Sustainability

Committed to Environmental Sustainability

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Vision 2030 strategy’s goal is to unleash human potential in pursuing a just and equitable society. This vision rests on three fundamental pillars: sustainability, excellence, and transformation. In line with this strategy, the university has developed different initiatives, including a sustainability strategy, to provide direction for UCT’s environmental sustainability. This strengthens the university’s ambitions of being a net-zero carbon/energy, water, and waste-to-landfill campus by or before 2050.

UCT Sustainability and the SDGs 2022

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