Africa is one of the fastest urbanising regions in the world – and it is widely accepted that the rapid urbanisation of its burgeoning big cities will play a vital role in the continent’s continued growth and development.

By Kate Stubbs, director: business development and marketing at Interwaste

But, are we thinking far enough ahead to plan for the resources that will be consumed, and the waste generated by this ongoing development as well as the rapidly growing populous of city dwellers? The short answer is no.

The Katowice Climate Change Conference is currently underway in Katowice, Slaskie, Poland (2-14 December 2018). This event aims to elevate market awareness and attention – for desired actionable outcomes – on a host of critical priorities related to climate action but also aspirational Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) centred on; decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9), and responsible consumption and production (SDG 12).

I believe these three SDGs are unendingly interdependent, particularly for rapidly emerging and urbanising economies in Africa, and here below I’ve shared my thoughts on how targeting these SDGs simultaneously – with a long-term strategic vision – will help nations in Africa re-imagine waste as an opportunity to meaningfully contribute towards a resilient and sustainable future.


Imagining Africa’s growth to 2050

The UN has estimated that the global population will near 11.3 billion by 2060. Populations in Africa are expected to experience just as much exponential growth – and the collective count for the continent is predicted to reach over 2.5 billion by 2050, which remarkably will represent about 26% of the world’s total population by that time.

Of course, these figures present immense opportunities for investors and businesses – as it means that Africa currently hosts the fastest growing consumer market in the world. However, it also alludes to a very serious challenge that threatens the future resilience and sustainability of cities and urban nodes, especially in developing regions in Africa, if we don’t change our attitudes to what we consider resources versus waste.

In fact, according to the World Bank, in 2016 the world’s cities generated 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste, which based on the population figure at the time roughly equated to 0.74 kilograms per person per day. While this may seem like a ‘manageable amount’, in reality, it’s not. Many of the world’s developed and emerging nations, alike, are finding that their landfills are already over-capacitated, and therefore to continue to maintain healthy air and ground contamination quality levels, they are having to look at implementing drastic changes wherever possible to divert waste from landfill.

Adding to this mounting pressure, research by the World Bank also indicated that annual waste generation is expected to increase by 70% from 2016 levels to 3.40 billion tonnes in 2050 – and the leading root cause is rapid population growth and urbanisation.

When we look at the whole picture in this context, it is evident that we need to examine more strategic approaches to how we manage our resources, as well as waste, sustainably going forward.


Coming full circle

The Circular Economy is a relatively new concept, however, in the African context it offers significant opportunities to truly deliver on more inclusive economic growth, which includes job opportunities and positive environmental practices that are direly needed for sustainable growth.

As a reformative system, the Circular Economy is a model that aims to strip out all unnecessary waste materials, energy losses and related carbon emissions across supply chains and – through integration and innovation – promotes closing these gaps to allow materials, energy and resources to be ‘fed’ back into the cycle. The consensus is that the linear model of the past to make-use-dispose must be done away with – and that a more sustainable eco-cycle can be achieved through long-term design and planning, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and upcycling.

While adoption of this thinking is still in its infancy in Africa, there are success stories that can be seen in pockets, where, through innovation we are also seeing new business streams and even new industries come to the fore.

For example, the drive to divert waste from landfill has directly resulted in waste disposers or management companies merging into reprocessing industries, with significant focus being placed on reuse, recycle, repurpose. This is causing manufacturers to rethink how they design their products as well as the type of resources they use to make their goods and products of today, that will (re)become raw materials of tomorrow.

Additionally, in cases where recycling and reusing is not possible – such as with food and other waste that cannot be safely repurposed for consumption – we are seeing growth in safe destruction facilities as well as the waste-to-energy space. In fact, waste-to-energy plants offer a unique opportunity to tackle two critical challenges to lasting, sustainable development across Africa; power generation, and sustainably managing waste by reducing reliance on landfills.

Across industries, we are seeing a more concerted effort to find solutions that make active use of waste – building on the philosophy of reuse wherever possible. And, where reuse may not be possible, to adopt a more environmentally friendly approach to recycling and/or appropriate waste disposal. However, we need to instil a complete culture change and shift markets towards ‘giving back to the system’ in how we approach and treat resources versus waste, so as to avoid potential crises and ensure we build towards a resilient and sustainable future in Africa.