Contextualising air quality for inclusive development in Africa

Marleen Dekker is professor of Inclusive Development in Africa at Leiden University.
Agnieszka Kazimierczuk is a project researcher at the ASCL.
Deborah Stein Zweers works at the R&D Satellite Observations department of the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI).

Air pollution is currently the second largest cause of death in Africa and air pollution-related costs are high. Vulnerable groups, including children and low-income population, face higher risks and impacts leading to environmental injustice which hampers achievement of inclusive development. To address this problem, adequate air quality policies must be designed in an informed way. ASCL colleagues participated in a workshop in Kigali on a pilot design for air quality (AQ) in Africa.

Air pollution in Africa has been and remains understudied, which results in a gap in the scientific, every-day and political understanding of emissions, atmospheric processes, and impacts of air pollutants in this region. What is known is that air pollution is currently the second largest cause of death in Africa, exceeded only by AIDS. The air pollution-related costs in Africa are estimated between 0.95-1.2% of national GDP. Polluted air is a growing challenge for the continent, as Africa is yet to industrialise and the number of people living on the continent, currently 1.2 billion, is expected to double by 2050. More than 80 percent of that increase will occur in cities, and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) will host five of the world's 41 megacities by 2030 (Lagos, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Dar es Salaam, and Luanda). These structural and demographic transitions will inevitably affect air quality on the continent and impact negatively on a number of health, environmental and other socio-economic factors. Policies that could properly address these issues are necessary, yet the lack of established air quality monitoring networks, and as a consequence a lack of real-time data, forces policymakers to manoeuvre in the dark.

Air pollution and inclusive development
Environmental injustice linked to the fact that polluted air and its consequences are impacting population groups in different ways negatively affects potential opportunities for (more) inclusive development in Africa. Inclusive development is about ensuring that more people benefit from economic growth and development. It aims to reduce poverty and inequality, in both income and non-income dimensions, assuring meaningful participation of and benefits for vulnerable groups in development processes. In the context of AQ, vulnerable groups include young children, the elderly, people with certain underlying diseases, foetuses and groups exposed to other toxicants that interact with air pollutants, and those with low socio-economic status.

The poor often live in areas likely to experience increased exposure to air pollutants – notably in locations of high pollution and low-quality housing (e.g. proximity to high traffic areas or factories). Studies that have included socio-economic factors have identified poor and less affluent population groups as most exposed to environmental risk in their place of residence. Such evidence calls for policy action to be based on robust air quality data that would tackle air pollution related problems, taking into account individual and context-specific vulnerabilities.

Legal and political framework to tackle air pollution
Clean air is not a named goal of ‘Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want’, the United Nations (UN)’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Agenda or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Paris agreements. But it is critical to achieving most of their targets.  All UN Member States have committed to fulfil the ambitions of the SDG agenda[1], and all but four African countries[2] have ratified the Paris Agreement [3]. Yet, there is still no clear global commitment to a certain level of ambient air quality that is compatible with human health and the natural environment. Moreover, on the national level, a majority of African countries does not have legislative instruments containing ambient air quality standards (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Countries with (green) and without (red) legislative instruments containing ambient air quality standards. (Source:











While the international agreements spell out universal objectives, the challenges faced by African countries in reaching them are different in nature and magnitude than those faced by industrialised economies. African policy responses will have to be well-informed, context-specific and, foremost, innovative.

Measuring air quality
The most common methods to monitor air quality are ground level and satellite measurements. The former provides accurate local air quality measures, while the latter provides greater spatial, and often temporal, coverage. Although still in an early development phase, ground level monitoring using low-cost sensors is currently gaining traction on the continent (see initiatives such as AirQo in Uganda or Ghana Urban Air Quality Project (GHAir)). Despite worldwide coverage, satellite data on AQ (some open-access, like data from the TROPOMI instrument) are not frequently in use to monitor AQ in Africa due to limited capacity to access and work with the available data. Furthermore, while used, their readings do not always match what is being captured on the ground level, posing important scientific as well as policy questions.

Closing the gap
African cities in particular are in need of data describing the atmospheric chemical state of urban air, that is, which pollutants are most prevalent and weigh most heavily with respect to disease burden and agricultural productivity. The available methods shows that (i) it is important to use the integrated approach to AQ measurement (using both satellite and ground measurements together), and (ii) what we learn in the ‘global North’ cannot be assumed to be the same and just applied in the ’global South’ without any further investigation. New research needs to look into local contexts to better understand local emissions and craft contextual air quality models linked to socio-economic realities. Finally, effective communication between the researchers and international, national and municipal agencies, as well as development programmes and concerned organizations operating in the field is yet to be established.

To this end, researchers from the African Studies Centre Leiden teamed up with colleagues from the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI)and the University of Pretoria for a joint project that promotes the use of AQ satellite data (TROPOMI) to inform African climate and air quality policies. This research wants to bring together natural and social sciences to understand the local emissions and investigate the socio-economic reasons and impact behind them. It is a direct result of the workshop organised jointly (also with the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC)) at the Leiden-based Lorentz Centre in April 2022, where it was concluded that only once embedded in the local realities, the data can truly inform policies on air quality and climate on the continent.

In the framework of this partnership, ASCL colleagues Marleen Dekker and Agnieszka Kazimierczuk, as well as KNMI colleague Deborah Stein Zweers participated in a workshop[4] on a pilot design for AQ in Africa that took place in Kigali (Rwanda) between 17 and 19 January, hosted by Carnegie Mellon University Africa. The ambition of the workshop was to take stock of existing work jointly (both African and international scholars working on AQ in Africa), define a road map and planning for the air quality research in Africa for the coming years, including a full-fledged research campaign in one of the East African cities to advance the ‘localisation’ of air quality models. The key message from the science community: generate more data on urban air quality in Africa to fill in the current natural science knowledge gaps and complement these with the socio-economic qualitative research and policy dialogues. There is a clear call for interdisciplinary partnerships, which is at the heart of the work of the ASCL.

[1] Meaning that all African member states adopted the agenda, with the exception of Western Sahara, which is not officially recognised as a sovereign state by the UN.

[2] These countries are: Angola, Libya, Eritrea and South Sudan.

[3] As well as preceding treaties: UNFCCC (1992) and The Kyoto Protocol (1997). Additional global treaties targeting specific pollutants equally exist: The Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985) and The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987); The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001) and The Minamata Convention on Mercury (2013).

[4] The event was a follow-up of the June 2021 virtual workshop entitled ‘Pilot Design for Air Quality in Africa’.


Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts in the ASCL Africanist BlogSubscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments. 

Top photo: Waste incineration and air pollution in Lagos Island. Photo credit: Joshua Okunfolami, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Air quality
inclusive development
satellite data
sustainable development
Agenda 2063
African Union

Add new comment