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Circular economy: moving Africa towards environmental sustainability

Circular economy: moving Africa towards environmental sustainability
Greater use of renewable energy can help move away from carbon-intensive power sources to create low-carbon economies. (Photo: EPA/Nic Bothma)

A circular economy can support Africa’s economic development, enhance sustainability and help curb future health problems. But it requires collaboration between government, business and consumers.

First published by ISS Today.

For Africa, the impact of Covid-19 has made thinking about the future more important than ever. Recent analysis by the African Futures and Innovation team at the Institute for Security Studies forecasts that the pandemic is set to undo several years of development progress on the continent. At the same time, Covid-19 has raised questions about how prepared we are for future disasters, especially those linked to climate change.

Although we cannot predict the future, current societal, environmental and economic trends can be used to anticipate scenarios and decide what action is needed now to achieve our desired outcomes. For Africa, an important question is how to recover from Covid-19 while enhancing environmental sustainability.

The concept of a circular economy is a good starting point. A circular economy presents a shift away from the current linear take-make-waste extractive systems by designing waste out of the process. Products and materials are recycled, helping to conserve the environment and the planet’s finite resources.

A number of avenues can be followed to shift towards a more sustainable and circular economy. Electricity, agriculture, urban infrastructure including transportation, plastics, manufacturing and textiles are a few examples that present economic opportunities in a circular economy.

Many existing initiatives are aimed at moving to the circular economy in Africa. For instance, the Switch Africa Green Programme promotes the use of biogas technology, E-waste management, organic agriculture, green manufacturing and eco-industrial parks. Partner countries include Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa and Uganda.

In Ghana, a Waste Recovery Platform connects stakeholders and facilitates partnerships to administer waste management data and reduce policy implementation gaps. As an example of initiatives on the funding side, the African Development Bank is establishing the Africa Circular Economy Facility to support circular economy practices in member countries.

Greater use of renewable energy can help move away from carbon-intensive power sources to create low-carbon economies. Modelling by BP estimates that Africa’s electricity demand will more than triple by 2050, and renewables are expected to have the largest share of the generation mix at 67%.

The fusion of agriculture and solar energy generation could boost sustainable development. For example elevated solar photovoltaic panels are used to shelter crops planted beneath, referred to as agrophotovoltaic or APV projects. This can increase yields while conserving the land space used for solar panels in confined urban spaces.

Small-scale farmers could use this approach while offering the potential of mini-grids and electricity access for rural communities. Overall, the adoption of more sustainable farming practices together with a reduction in food waste could not only help conserve water, but also sustain the productivity of agricultural land.

With Africa’s growing population and rapid urbanisation, urban planners should design systems for resilient and resource-efficient cities. Circular systems can help reduce rising levels of municipal waste, with better management having positive impacts for the environment, health and urban economies. For example, designing economic activities around the recovery of resources, reuse and recycling could help create jobs for rising urban populations.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation identifies both challenges and opportunities from the circular economy. For Africa, the risk is that circular economy practices in high-income countries could reduce the demand for natural resource imports from the continent. Adopting circular economy standards may also prove difficult from an import regulation point of view.

Yet, with growing populations in much of Asia, if not in Europe and North America, there will be greater demand for food, inputs, water and energy. Planning for and investing in circular economy systems today could help Africa meet this rising need while also curtailing resource depletion and climate change.

In preparing for future disasters, a recent study on the ecology and economics for pandemic prevention highlights the importance of investing in the protection of tropical forests. These forest boundaries are a launch-pad for zoonotic viruses, like Covid-19 and Ebola, which jump from animals to humans.

When the clearing of forests results in more than 25% of the forest cover being lost, the likelihood of contact between wildlife, humans and their livestock increases. Protecting tropical forests could help curb the spread of zoonotic viruses. And the cost of investments to prevent future pandemics could be far lower than the cost of managing them.

The Congo Basin – which is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world – lost approximately 16.6 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2014, according to a study by the University of Maryland. Industrial logging, demand for wood fuel and agriculture place this forest under increasing pressure.

Protecting this resource with circular economy practices could go a long way to combating future pandemics while at the same time sustaining a forest that helps lower global carbon emissions. Here the example of combining solar energy and agriculture could be one way to reduce the demand for wood fuel while increasing sustainability.

A circular economy can support Africa’s economic development, enhance sustainability and help curb future health problems. It requires collaboration between government, business and consumers. It may not be a silver bullet for development but can certainly make Africa more resilient to future threats. DM

Requier Wait is a Senior Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria.

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