Why the circular economy's success in Africa is crucial, for Africa and the World

Why the circular economy's success in Africa is crucial, for Africa and the World

“Waste not. Want not”: Why is the circular economy's success in Africa crucial?

The Circular Economy's success in Africa will be essential to global efforts to assure long-term sustainable growth. Africa is the only continent in the world where the young population is growing, with the youth population anticipated to reach 51% of the overall population by 2050. As a result, a young and rapidly expanding middle class will necessarily desire a higher standard of living, which will lead to increased consumption. However, there are encouraging signs that economies are seeking to accommodate this increase by pursuing more circular activities, with some of the most ambitious Circular Economy related policymaking taking place in Africa's medium and lower income countries. To combat mounting waste crises, Rwanda and Kenya have enacted blanket bans on plastic bags. Furthermore, increasing recycling rates as well as introducing new business models that monetise waste streams through economic value and resource recovery are also proliferating in some African countries.

As the English have it: “Waste not, want not”. This maxim is perhaps one of the most referenced explanations for the importance of sustainable resources management. But those who still strive to pursue a sustainable future may be giving very little attention to the socio-economic implications that such a pursuit can have on the global economy. In this blog post, we take a look at how Africa can lead the way in curbing the impact of global waste and pollution that is hurting the world.

Why Africa Must Embrace The Circular Economy?

History tends to repeat itself. This means we can learn from what has gone before to better prepare for the future. And that's where history gives us a useful place to start as we look to Africa's circular economy which has the potential of producing cost savings and reducing exposure to market price fluctuations, increasing renewable energy and releasing valuable materials and energy in existing products. Yet this can be viewed by some actors as a risk and a threat. 

With the current and projected increase of resource consumption in a globalised linear economy already far exceeding planetary boundaries, the redistribution of wealth from North to South continues to be essential for the 300 million people who live in poverty in countries still classified as low-income, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Why Africa Should Be at the Heart of the World's Circular Economy Agenda?

Circular Economy Strategies are often promoted as a means to achieve integrated and inclusive development, however the characterisation of circular economy policies within the media sometimes fails to recognise that inclusivity is not pre-packaged within circular economy. These policies increase the risk of concentrating power and wealth amongst a few actors in global supply chains to the detriment of poor nations. For example, the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan identifies setting eco-design standards for electronic and electrical equipment, addressing hazardous chemicals in material cycles, and improving circularity of plastics, as priorities for Europe’s transition to Circular Economy. Much of this plan focuses upon the benefits to Europe through greater resource efficiency. However, a more circular economy can also deliver benefits for people in low-income countries if their needs are better considered when creating inclusive circular economy policies.

The circular economy may be a means by which greater value can be created in the South such as the remanufacturing of end of life products for re-export to customers in the North e.g. Barloworld’s refurbishment of Caterpillar parts in South Africa. The Green Alliance has postulated that the Circular Economy will generate higher levels of jobs in the industrialised countries, give communities more control over their fate and lead to more competitive emerging economies.

When Will Africa Get Its Own Circular Economy Act?

Africa has the potential for building a circular economy similar to that of China. What is lacking is policy – or rather policy designed for Circular Economy implementation in place. What do we mean? Well, Africa needs to get policies in place that incentivise producers and consumers rather than garbage and waste disposal. There is also a need to ensure that there is capacity and infrastructure available to allow companies to recycle their materials in order to maintain a circular economy. Circular economy policies in Africa have a long way to go according to a new report commissioned by the European Commission in Nigeria. Ghana, has put forward actions geared towards full implementation of the circular economy at national level. These actions are not backed by incentives, financing or support from the government which is where things fall down. The inability to find finance is an important reason why recycling businesses or services are not widespread and why it does not really work yet.

Circular Economy Will Benefit From US$4.5 Trillion Prize

It is estimated that the new business models which treat waste as an economic opportunity will have a global impact of US$4.5t by 2030. The African continent, which has been identified as a region with high potential for circular economy development, can act as a pioneer in the movement toward this transition. ​Resource constraints, technological development and socio-economic opportunity are three key drivers for the transition to Circular Economy. Transitioning to CE in African countries will be a combination of effort by many actors, sometimes in coalition, but mostly in unstructured form. International organizations are emerging which support the sharing of good circular practices. One example is the Circular Economy Club - this is a global network of CE professionals which encourages collaboration to achieve a greater impact of circular practices. In February 2018 a global mapping session was held to record Circular Economy initiatives in 67 cities (including Cape Town and Port Harcourt) which is to be shared publicly on an open source basis. There are numerous actors in Africa building on the effort to create a more sustainable future for the continent: governments (e.g. The African Circular Economy Alliance – see text box), non-governmental organisations (e.g. The African Circular Economy Network – see text box), business (both multinational and smaller entrepreneurs), international development agencies (e.g. Tearfund) and international coordinating bodies (e.g. World Economic Forum).

Circular Economy - How Africa Can Lead The World?

Circular economy in Africa can contribute towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 12 “Sustainable Production and Consumption”. The opportunities for accelerating Circular Economy principles in Africa are increasing and African case studies are emerging which reflect the local cultural context e.g. Rwanda’s new e-waste recycling facility which was opened in Dec 2017. In Northern countries, the Circular Economy narrative is focussed on economic and environmental issues with less emphasis on social impacts. In comparison, CE activities in the Global South focus on social and environmental matters, with economic considerations only recently emerging.

Africa presents an enormous opportunity for the circular practice movement. While the global north has in recent years seen a rise in both environmental awareness and economic necessity for CE strategies, the south’s deep-rooted community-based approach to waste management provides an opportunity to develop circular practices within African cultural context. Although circular economy principles have been in use in Africa for many years, case studies of good practice have remained hidden. An accelerated transition towards circular practices in Africa will build on lessons learnt and principles developed in northern countries, there will also be distinct differences. 

Why? The circular economy is a concept which has been gaining momentum over the past few years and is often referred to as a way to transform the world’s economy. It is based on a number of deceptively simple ideas: reduce the amount of waste entering our system, design products to be reused or recycled at the end of their lifetime and close this loop so these materials become raw materials for new products and the cycle keeps repeating itself. A circular economy where our waste is used as an input in the production of other products seamlessly fitting into our existing consumption patterns.

Additionally, Africa has shown an ability to rapidly adapt and innovate, launching new business models and platforms that lead the way globally in terms of delivering impact and results at scale, with the mobile money platform Mpesa being the best known example. Similar innovation is taking place within the sphere of the circular economy as new collaborative models, digital platforms and data models are being launched, which put Africa at the centre of the circular economy innovation more globally.

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