Sussex alum, backed by Coldplay, launching solar-powered agriculture enterprise


Fumani Mthembi

A graduate of the University of Sussex has attracted the backing of rock band Coldplay for a sustainability project in Costa Rica.

Fumani Mthembi, who graduated from the university’s Institute for Development Studies in 2009, now runs her Johannesburg-based development company, Knowledge Pele, which invests in the development of under-performing local economies in South Africa and Costa Rica, through agri-tech enterprises using renewable energy.

The collaboration is launched today, Thursday 17 March, on the eve of Coldplay’s opening show of their “Music of the Spheres” world tour which starts in Costa Rica. The University of Sussex is the official research partner in the project and will be recruiting a team of postgraduate students to support the work.

The collaboration, which is also backed by Costa Rica’s Environment and Energy Ministry, will be located in the province of Puntarenas in Costa Rica. The solar-powered ‘controlled environment agriculture’ project will investigate ways to grow local economies through sustainable agricultural practices that place women ownership and employment at the centre of production processes.

Fumani Mthembi was a Mandela Scholar at the University of Sussex. A peer and friend of Fumani’s at the University of Sussex was the current Costa Rican president, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who also supports the project.

The rock band Coldplay selected Knowledge Pele to be among its global sustainability affiliates. The selection recognises Knowledge Pele’s leadership as a company that designs and implements cutting-edge sustainability projects in the most vulnerable communities. The band is providing funding support to the project.

Initially, the projects will be launched in Costa Rica and South Africa, with the intention that they will later be scaled up and rolled out elsewhere.

Fumani Mthembi, managing director of Knowledge Pele, and former Mandela Scholar at the University of Sussex, said:

“We are honoured to be working with partners that we revere to take our work to the global stage. Our intention is to take our experience from the South African market to new geographies, demonstrating that social, environmental and economic returns are not only complimentary, but can be achieved in unison.

“The growing global food crisis is in tandem with an escalating climate crisis. It therefore stands to reason that solutions to the food crisis must factor in climate change. In addition, historical social issues persist. Women remain on the periphery of the global economy. By taking a multi-dimensional perspective on the matter, this collaborative research project, seeks to provide practical solutions to these challenges that can be scaled across the world.”

Prof Rachel Mills, Provost at the University of Sussex, said:

“We are incredibly proud of the successes of our former Mandela Scholar, Fumani Mthembi, who is a leading light in the challenge of how to tackle the global climate and hunger crises – all while empowering women. This is a hugely exciting collaboration which the University of Sussex is thrilled to support as its official research partner.”

Dr Divya Sharma, Lecturer in Sustainable Development and Co-convenor of MSc Sustainable Development within the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said:

“We are delighted to be able to support Fumani Mthembi’s enterprise as the official research partner. I have no doubt that the University of Sussex students who will join the project will benefit enormously from being part of this collaboration.”

Costa Rica sets a strong example to the world in terms of sustainability, and is almost entirely (99%) powered through renewable energy. The University of Sussex is ranked first in the world for Development Studies and in 2021 launched its Sustainable Sussex strategy.

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