Project Design

Conceptual Framework

Envisioning the future

The research program examines processes and practices that reflect visions of the future, influence contemporary decisions and thereby prepare the ground for processes that shape future conditions.

Researching open futures

The future of rural Africa is open – for transformation, surprise, hope, fear, speculation and contestation. Future-making happens amidst controversial visions of the prospects of the continent. Amidst controversies between a renewed development optimism of “Africa rising” and warnings of a “new scramble for Africa”, the future is explicitly addressed as the bone of contention. And yet the question arises whose future the different voices are referring to, who produces visions of the future, and how these visions are put into practice.


Two dominant types of land-use change are currently gaining ground in a highly dynamic way: intensification of agricultural production on large and medium-sized farms, and conservation of natural resources in national parks or community-managed conservancies. They respond to global regulatory regimes and incentive structures, leading to a transformation of nature and social ecologies, and massive transformations of local livelihoods.

Why rural Africa?

“Many of the dramatic transformations that prepare the future of the African continent are played out in rural areas.” This includes the impacts of climate change, large-scale land acquisitions and investments, food and energy production, population displacement, but also resistance against these processes. Rural Africa is a battleground of future-making. The CRC views the rural not in a dualistic way as the opposite of the urban, but as a socio-spatial entity that is intertwined with ‘the urban’ and ‘the world’ through various connections, like commodity chains, agro-food systems, migration regimes, communication networks, or other interdependencies in the context of globalization. Boundaries between the rural and the urban are progressively blurred, with urban residential settlements mushrooming in rural areas, multi-local households, new technologies like mobile phones and digital cash transfers, etc.
Future-making refers to the way how ideas, expectations and imaginations of the future inform action in the present.

Structuring our approach

The CRC is organized around three bridging concepts, i.e., coupling, boundaries and linkages. They refer to different forms of intersections of social-ecological transformation. The purpose of addressing these three concepts is to facilitate cooperation between natural and social sciences within the CRC for an interdisciplinary knowledge production on future-making in rural Africa.

Understanding futures of probabilities and possibilities

“The future may be understood either as the outcome of predictable processes that can be planned, calculated, measured, modelled, and managed in the present (future of probabilities), or in terms of imaginations, visions, aspirations and political discourses that have an influence on decision making and future-oriented practices (future of possibilities).” At the same time, plans, calculations and models are developed in an attempt to control what is ultimately a future that is not fully predictable. Future-making in rural Africa is framed by controversial discourses about modernity, development paradigms, and Westernization, which are embedded in specific human/nature-relations.

Bridging Concepts of Collaborative Research Center (CRC)

Research questions

The central research questions of the CRC address the relationship between large-scale land use change, social-ecological transformation, and future-making. They serve as guidelines for interdisciplinary cooperation.

  1. How can we understand and research future-making in rural Africa from different disciplinary perspectives?
  2. How and by whom are rural African futures made probable and/or possible?
  3. What are the main challenges and consequences of future-making in rural Africa?
  4. In which way are conflicting visions of future expressed, negotiated and translated into large-scale land-use change and ensuing social-ecological transformation?

Our Study Sites

Empirical research of the project focusses on areas of enhanced social-ecological transformation. Newly established development corridors have become “hot spots” of large-scale land-use change in sub-Sahara Africa, especially with regard to agricultural intensification of Savanna lands, but also relating to the expansion of conservation areas. In contrast to earlier infrastructure projects, a strong emphasis is now put on the involvement of the private sector and the development of value chains along the corridors to enhance productivity and economic change. Conservation efforts have become part of large-scale transformation through the establishment of transboundary conservation areas, private conservancies and community-based activities.

The three study sites selected as examples for the inception phase all have a connection to development corridors, but in different ways:
(1) The Kenyan Rift Valley (KRV) in relation to the “Lamu Port – South Sudan – Ethiopia” (LAPSSET) corridor

(2) The Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT)

(3) The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) in southern Africa and its links to the Trans-Caprivi corridor that was recently expended to form the Walvis Bay-Ndola-Lubumbashi Development Corridor (WBNLDC).

While being located within the savanna biome with comparable biophysical conditions and similar agricultural land-use strategies, the drivers, underlying concepts and spatial representations of future-making are in principal highly divergent, involving intensification (SAGCOT), conservation (KAZA-WBNLDC) and exploitation (KRV-LAPSSET).
The SAGCOT corridor is characterized by a state-driven commercialization and intensification of agriculture through public-private partnerships. The Tanzanian government, together with private investors, aims at exploiting the availability of natural resources (land, soil, water) in the Rufiji Basin (mainly lowland rice in the Kilombero Cluster, and potatoes, field vegetables and dairy products in the Ihemi Cluster) for large-scale mechanized production to satisfy a growing national demand, but partially also targeting the international market. Year-round crop production entails an expansion of cultivated land and investments in (irrigation) infrastructure.
SAGCOT in Tanzania and project research sites
KAZA is the largest transboundary conservation area in Africa, integrating five signatory countries in one transnational protection zone for wildlife and vegetation. In this narrow corridor, a growing number of land users but also of organizations catering for tourists are concentrating in an increasingly restricted space. This entails intensification, but rather as side effect of an overall strategy aiming at conservation.
KAZA transboundary conservation area, the WBNLDC, and research sites
The Kenyan Rift Valley (KRV) and the LAPSSET corridor are examples of fragmented intensification with historically and economically diverse processes of transformation. Developments in these areas are part of Kenya´s ambitious national development plan Vision 2030. They aim at exploiting geothermal (and wind) energy as well as fresh water resources, establishing a cut-flower and export-oriented field vegetable industry in the Rift Valley, fostering investments in roads and other infrastructure, and supporting access to national and international markets through value chain developments. Such social-ecological transformations provide a strong pull for labour in-migration, accelerate the sedentarization of pastoralists, and enhance other aspects of social change in rural areas.
Kenyan Rift Valley and LAPSSET Corridor with indication of CRC study sites