AFRICA can leapfrog the kind of widespread industrial pollution that has troubled the West for decades by using more solar energy and recently developed, cleaner production methods. This optimistic outlook comes from a leading Kenyan researcher, Calestous Juma, and Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, program officer of the African Academy of Sciences, based here.
And the democratic reform movement now sweeping Africa is likely to boost environmental protection, as people demand more government accountability, says Professor Anyang' Nyong'o.
"A dictator is interested in his survival" - not the environment, says Edward Rugumayo, a Ugandan biologist working in Kenya.
Africa already faces an array of threats to its fragile environment, including rapid population growth, deforestation, and water pollution.
But the continent needs industrial development for economic reasons; experts such as Dr. Juma and Anyang' Nyong'o see industrial growth as the solution to chronically low world-market prices for African raw materials - forest products, minerals, and cash crops like cotton and cocoa.
The answer, they say, lies in alternatives to hydrocarbon energy sources. "We could start using solar energy instead of going toward coal-fired plants that have been emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," says Juma, director of the African center for technological studies.
Juma contends Africa presents a large, potential market for solar energy, especially since the continent has not yet heavily invested in fossil-fuel energy sources.
Solar costs are dropping. Researchers Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, writing in the State of the World 1991, a publication of Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington, D.C., note a drop over the past two decades in the cost of photovoltaic electricity from $30 per kilowatt-hour to 30 cents.
"These cost reductions mean that pumping water with photovoltaics is cheaper than using diesel generators in remote areas of Africa," they write.
Anyang' Nyong'o also says African governments must insist on locating industrial facilities away from rivers and the ocean, to minimize water pollution. And governments must insist on installing environmentally protective technology, such as smoke-stack scrubbers.
Despite initial costs of such technology, "the final cost [of cleaning up a dirty environment] is more expensive," he says.
Africa must stop "waiting for [such] technology to be offered to them." It should "go out and acquire it," something he has not seen African scientists or industrialists doing.
Meanwhile, with a 2.9 percent rate of annual population growth - compared with 0.7 percent in North America and 0.3 percent in Europe, according to the Population Reference Bureau - Africa faces many other environmental challenges.
Juma, Anyang' Nyong'o, and several other specialists offer these assessments:
* Environmental protection laws. Most African countries lack regulations for industrial pollution, pesticide use, and water quality.
Kenya, however, may be the only African country to have a law denying patent protection to a product or process that is deemed environmentally harmful, says Juma.
* Tree loss and soil erosion. Africa is losing roughly 5 million hectares of forest each year to industrial and fuel cutting, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Regions are drier, and greater soil erosion is diminishing fertility and filling reservoirs with silt.
Internationally, low world timber prices do not cover reforestation costs, says Mr. Rugumayo, who works for the Environmental Liaison Center, a coalition of international environmental groups here.
* Plant and animal loss. Deforestation is also wiping out thousands of species of plants and animals before their potential uses are known, says Rugumayo.
One hectare (10,000 square meters, or roughly 2.47 acres) of tropical forest, such as in the Amazon, Indonesia, or Central Africa's Zaire, has about 800 plant species and 2,000 insect species, says Rugumayo. By comparison, a hectare in a colder climate has only about 20 species each of plants and trees, he says.
Greater efforts are needed in Africa to conserve not only the big game from poachers and habitat destruction, but also insects and micro-organisms, says Juma.