New School of Thought

New School of Thought

Mayu Mishina

Children at Manyara Ranch Primary School

To hear Craig Sholley tell it, AWF never intended to build schools. Supporting capacity building and opportunities for conservation education, sure. But physically building a school?

“At the time, we couldn’t visualize a direct link between schools and conservation,” Sholley, one of AWF’s vice presidents, says.

Thus when AWF began discussions with a community in northern Tanzania about conserving a wildlife corridor in the Maasai Steppe, it was the locals, not AWF, who brought up their desire to have the nearby primary school improved. After carefully considering the merits of this quid pro quo—a school in exchange for a wildlife corridor—AWF committed to moving the existing Manyara Ranch Primary School from its original wildlife-rich location and rebuilding it in a less dangerous area.

Lupani School was a community request as well. In return for Zambia’s Sekute community setting aside 20,000 hectares of land, part of a critical elephant corridor in the Kazungula landscape, AWF rebuilt the area’s dilapidated primary school.

Both schools were intended to be one-off projects. But as the management team realized the extent to which the new structures were impacting the lives of local families and their wildlife neighbors, our thinking began to shift. A clear relationship between schools and conservation was emerging.

Meanwhile, many of the rural communities with which we worked lacked access to quality schools.

“There are communities that live alongside wildlife that crave for their kids to be educated. But in remote areas, this is particularly difficult. Children often have to travel long distances to attend school. School resources are lacking because of the difficulty in getting materials to these remote locations. Building upkeep may be poor, again, because of limited funding, and so on,” explains AWF’s Daniel Wesonga.

Education Where People Live

AWF is therefore launching an ambitious new program intended to provide rural communities high-quality education where they live. Classroom Africa will offer a replicable model by which AWF will create primary schools for communities in exchange for specific conservation outputs. All Classroom Africa schools will feature the following components:

  • Architecture. AWF will build or rebuild a primary school and campus. Architecture will be tailored to climactic conditions and community needs. Buildings will use local materials where possible.
  • Teacher training. AWF will provide regular teacher training to ensure the highest quality of instruction.
  • Conservation curriculum. AWF will supply a curriculum that incorporates conservation instruction.
  • Integrated technology. Just as with the IT lab at Manyara Ranch School, every school will include a technology component.


It’s not a given that every community in a remote area will merit the consideration of a conservation school. But where a Classroom Africa school makes sense from a conservation standpoint, building the physical structure is only the first step. “This will be a long-term relationship,” says Wesonga. AWF will provide annual maintenance, help find teacher incentives and offer other assistance as needed.

Communities, in return, must adhere to specific conservation agreements. We will conduct an annual school and conservation audit to ensure “conservation covenants” are being met.

Investment in Communities

We have already begun partnering with architecture firm, MASS Design Group, to consider infrastructure needs. Though a young firm, MASS already boasts and impressive portfolio that includes a hospital and school in Rwanda, among other projects. The firm has attracted the attention of the architectural world for its thinking around how architecture can be used to meet humanitarian and broader social goals.

“We believe strongly that buildings can improve lives,” explains founder Michael Murphy, adding, “I think it’s pretty evident that for conservation work there has to be investment in communities. Part of that is investing in dignified infrastructure to improve lives.”

Indeed, with proper planning, design, and community input, says MASS Research Manager Amie Shao, “These will not simply be schools but campuses that help the community build stewardship of the environment.”

Not the Exception But the Rule

MASS is currently drafting a manual that provides guidelines around the building of one of these schools. AWF has, meanwhile, begun discussions with potential partners in the areas of curriculum development and technology.

We are also making plans to retrofit Manyara Ranch and Lupani School to ensure they meet the rigorous standards being laid out. MASS representatives joined Sholley and our CEO, Patrick Bergin, on a visit to Manyara Ranch Primary School and have provided some draft remodeling plans.

Which, perhaps, brings us back full circle. “This whole idea of looking at education and schools as a strategic way to facilitate conservation in Africa: It’s very novel,” says Sholley. “We thought Manyara Ranch and Lupani School were one-offs. But they’re not the exception; they’re the rule. There are very few cases in the world where a community is not concerned about the education of their children. And if the idea of a conservation school can facilitate a conservation discussion, then in the end, everyone benefits.”

Photo: MASS Design Group

About the Author

Mayu was Director of Content and Messaging for African Wildlife Foundation, responsible for AWF's print and online content, collateral and overall organizational messaging. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has nearly 20 years' experience in communications, storytelling, and writing.