Welcoming the circular economy to Africa


“Like all major transitions in human history, the shift from a linear to a circular economy will be a tumultuous one. It will feature heroes and pioneers, naysayers and obstacles, and moments of victory and doubt. If we persevere, however, we will put our economy back on a path of growth and sustainability. Many years from now, people will look back on it as a revolution.” – Frans van Houten


Imagine a world where pollution was reduced to a minimum, a place where the air, land and water were free of waste from industries. Wouldn’t that be a world that we would all want to live in? Well! This is a possibility but in order to make it a reality we have to change the way our economy operates, we have to adopt what is known as a circular economy (CE).

For years we have relied on a traditional linear economy where we make a product, use it for a time and when it has outlived its usefulness we dispose it. However, we have a reached a point of no return as a global economy, where it is impossible to stick to this approach. Over the years the population of the world has been increasing each day, according to the World Economic Forum, the global population is going to reach 9 billion people by the year 2030 with 3 billion new middle class consumers.

The fact that the world is already depleting its natural resources, things will only get worse as we go on. Henceforth, this creates the need for a circular economy which, unlike the traditional linear economy which creates, uses and disposes, focuses on keeping material in use as for long as possible then extracting the maximum value from them while in use and finally regenerating as well as recovering products and materials at the end of each service life. Basically this is an approach that is in favour of re-using and recycling as much as possible.

The model has been referred to as the future where industrial systems are restorative and regenerative by intention. Apart from assisting in creating job opportunities and increasing economic growth, circular economy is also expected to assist in terms of environment and health. The model is becoming popular in Europe where various companies have adopted it. For example, Phillips, the multinational technology company has adopted the model in their lighting and healthcare sectors.

In Africa however the case is different as the model has just started hitting the ground. This can be accredited to the African Circular Economy Alliance, which is the brainchild of Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa in conjunction with World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The alliance is responsible for fast tracking the adoption of the new model in the continent. The model will help Africa foster new partnerships in order to reach its sustainable development goals.

According to Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s Minister of Environment the alliance will need more support to be able to fully unlock the potential of the circular economy.

“As we launch the Alliance, we need to turn our ideas into action. Rwanda is excited to work with other governments, businesses and organisations across the world to fast track the circular economy agenda in Africa. I invite other nations across the continent to join with us through the African Circular Economy Alliance and contribute expertise and experience,” he said.

This is good news for Africa, as so far the continent hasn’t benefited much from the linear economy. Despite Africa having a majority of the raw materials, the continent has failed to take advantage of the extraction and exportation of the materials to the developed world. Africa has long been at the bottom of the supply chain as they are considered the providers of raw materials while the east is the processor of the materials and the west and Europe are the distributors and consumers of the finished goods.

As a result, Africa has seen a lot of waste being sent its way in the form of dumped goods such as discarded computers and old mobile phones even though it owns most of the required raw materials. This has seen the continent fill up with waste from the developed world despite not having the right requirements needed for waste management. In fact according to Daniel Hoornweg and Perinaz Bhada-Tata 2012 review; What a Waste, Sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for only 5% of the world’s waste while OECD countries produce almost half of it.

The fact that Africa has a lot of waste and waste management in most nations is characterized by poor collection and lack of proper disposal makes the circular economy a perfect model to deal with this challenge. With a high percentage of the waste being organic, several people have moved to composting this organic waste and using it instead of the expensive fertilizer. However, it is rare to see this happening in the large scale.

If it was to happen in the large scale it would not only give farmers an affordable alternative to fertilizer but would as well generate revenue, create jobs and do away with excessive waste. For instance in Kenya, several organizations such as Sanivation and Bentos fuels are transforming organic waste into fuel. These organizations are incorporating the circular economy model by using waste to its maximum value.

On the other hand, the model also helps to improve the living standards of the people. Currently a large number of people are in the informal business of collecting waste in the form of iron, plastic papers and bottles in order to make a living. As a result of improper disposals those who work as waste pickers usually work in terrible working conditions. However, if the CE model were to be picked up then the picking would be more organized resulting to better working conditions and more job opportunities.

Additionally, the CE model also encourages those interested in artistic development to use technical waste such as plastic bottles and glass to make pieces of art. Apart from this, it goes on to create revenue and jobs that tend to help the economy of a nation. Several Kenyans, for example, have recycled waste plastic and glass bottles to create houses. In the informal sectors some have even used waste to create sculptures, giving many a source of income.

Africa has also been the prime location for second hand goods from developed countries where they are imported to the continent in millions. This can be accredited to the fact that many people in the continent are not able to afford brand new goods. However, integrating the CE model, the repair and refurbishing industry has developed as these second hand goods require maintenance, people have been able to start businesses to repair and refurbish them so they can give their maximum value.

So far not many have grasped the benefits that the circular economy has to offer the African economy. For too long we have stuck at the bottom of the supply chain, it is time we start processing and distributing goods ourselves. Africa has the potential to become a leading bloc but only if the other African nations can join and collaborate with African Circular Economy Alliance. If all of Africa was to unite and adopt the circular economy, the continent would be able grow and surpass the other regions.