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Africa beckons as an ideal place to build the foundations for a circular economy

As part of the UNESCO African Engineering Week Waste Management Conference held in Kigali, experts from across the continent visited the Rwanda E-Waste Recycling Facility, a Rwanda Green Fund investment, to learn how the second largest such facility in Africa operates. During the tour a photographer captured a man in a hardhat and uniform disassembling a hard drive.
Image Credit: Flickr/Rwanda Green Fund

Last week policymakers, global leaders, and startups gathered at forum in Rwanda, aiming to bring circular economy climate solutions to Africa.

About 90% of the world operates within a linear economy, while only 10% is circular. In other words, 90% of the materials ever extracted from the Earth are wasted — thrown into a landfill, buried, or incinerated — with only a minuscule fraction put back into the global economy, the Dutch nonprofit Circle Economy reports.

In a broad context, the waste economy is the villain origin story of modern-day climate change. The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra describes the alternative, a circular economy, as one that “tackle[s] the root cause of biodiversity loss, climate change, and the depletion of natural resources.”

“Rather than producing more and more goods in a circular economy we get more value from what we have, and we keep that value in the economy for as long as possible through smarter design, digital solutions, and a shift from owning products to using services,” the fund said in a statement.

That’s why Sitra, a self-described “think-do-and-connect tank,” along with the nation of Finland began the World Circular Economy Forum, with the first one held there in 2017. And earlier this month, for the first time, the group traveled to the Global South, with WCEF2022 held in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

“It is much easier to adapt now than the costs that we will incur if we wait,” said Wanjira Maathai of the World Resources Institute at the forum. “It is time we look at it (circular economy) as a driver of Africa’s development.”

Along with the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, the forum encourages “Rethink, Redesign, Repurpose,” using them as motifs to drive the conference. As the largest global conference of its kind, 1,500 people from more than 100 countries are gathering in Rwanda, a founding member of the Africa Circular Economy Alliance, under the theme, From Africa to the World.

Scheduled from December 6-8, the forum asked the question: With its vast young population, and plethora of natural resources and innovation, how can Africa can lead the world towards a new, more resilient economy – the circular economy?

As the African Circular Economy Alliance (ACEA) points out, alongside growing concern over the constant extraction of non-renewable resources, there is also concern about space for trash. “With the linear model, waste is not valuable, hence left to mount on landfills, and we are slowly running out of space to dispose of it. Some African cities such as Johannesburg in South Africa generate 4000 tonnes of waste daily and will run out of landfills in the next four and half years,” the alliance writes.

Research from the ACEA shows that the five biggest bets for circular economic potential in Africa lie within food systems, packaging, the built environment, electronics, and fashion and textiles. Forum talks operate around these bets, encouraging less material consumption through methods like regenerative agriculture, biodegradable plastic packaging, and zero e-waste policies.

“We need a wide system transformation. If we really mainstream the circular economy together with renewable energy and energy efficiency, we can reach the goal of 1.5 degrees. If we focus on five key sectors we can reduce the carbon footprint by 60% and the nature footprint by 80%,” Adriana Zacarias Farah, head of Global Opportunities for SDGs, said in the forum’s day one recap.

Speakers include changemakers in Africa, especially from startups focused on circular models in those sectors, such as Rewoven, a Cape Town textile recycling startup, focusing on reusing and recycling products from the furniture, automotive, construction and fashion industries, Hustlenomics, a startup working to replace unstable shelter with sustainable housing in South African townships, and TeKeya, which created an app to make sure surplus food is either sold at discount to consumers or donated to charities.

These startups are just a few of Sitra’s compilation of 12 inspiring circular economy solutions coming out of Africa.

Present are also policymakers, researchers, and advisors across the African continent and world.

The forum took place in the context of Africa’s rapid urbanization, and the need for jobs that comes with that. For example, with Africa’s share of the world’s forest standing at 17%, forest management could generate about 3 million jobs across the continent.

As the Associated Press reports, the Rwandan environment minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya said at the forum’s opening ceremony, the continent should galvanize local knowledge from its youth, innovators, and entrepreneurs to fast track the continent’s development progress “without repeating the same mistakes made by the industrialized nations.”

Today. Our economies use about 1.6 Earths, meaning we’re using about 60% more of the Earth’s resources than it can regenerate every year. By 2050, with an increased global population and a resulting rise in consumption, that “overshoot” could get to 3-4 Earths. With Africa seeing some of the highest population growth rates in the world, doubling by 2050, the circular economy may be essential to ensuring emissions don’t double with it.

“The inclusive approach simply means that no one is left behind. We grow together. That’s why we talk about a just transition, because all categories of actors must work together, and grow together,” Jocelyne Landry Tsonang, the representative of the African Circular Economy Network in Cameroon and participator in the forum told the publication Afrik21.

“In this respect, the circular economy must not be at the expense of job creation. Because in Africa we need jobs. We have a demographic dividend that requires us to create jobs. So, how can the circular economy be at the service of job creation, sanitation and the fight against hunger? That is why we are talking about this inclusion, i.e. all sectors together.”

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