How Africa Is Making The Most Of Waste

By Hadassah Egbedi

In the wake of depleting natural resources, increasing pollution and mountains of landfills, it has become clear that we must transform the way we manage resources; how we create, use or consume products, and what we do with them afterwards. That way, we can save the future.

Each year, an estimated 90 billion tonnes of natural resources are extracted to support the global economy, but only nine percent of these resources are recycled after their first use. Based on current trends, the number of extracted resources is expected to more than double by 2050. 

The theory of the circular economy advocates reduce-reuse-recycle; a shift from the linear take-make-waste industrial system that we have practised for centuries. It also champions regenerative design. The goal is to get maximum value and use from raw materials, products and waste to save energy, protect the environment, and promote economic sustainability. A joint study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co estimates that transitioning to a circular economy could create a million-dollar worth of new businesses globally.

Currently, Europe is leading the circular economy shift, with China and Japan following closely. In 2015, the EU Commission adopted an ambitious Circular Economy Package to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a regenerative economy to boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and create new jobs. That move has prompted several European countries to develop and implement roadmaps towards achieving a circular economy. 

On this side of the Atlantic, a transition or better put, participation in the circular economy movement is taking place in Africa, albeit slowly. Right now, a lot of the innovations and initiatives are very much end-of-pipe recovery and recycling. People, SMEs and companies are developing ingenious ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. 

Governments are also making efforts by enacting policies that encourage sustainable waste management and recycling, though implementation remains an issue. But hopefully, in time, as Africa increases its manufacturing rate and capacity, it will focus more on regenerative designs in production and extended producer responsibility in terms of its participation in the circular economy shift.

Solving the problem of waste management in Africa through recycling 

In May 2019, Nigerian lawmakers passed a bill to ban the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags in a bid to address their harmful impacts on the environment, animals and humans, and also to relieve pressure on landfills. Titled the ‘Plastic Bag Prohibition Bill’, the bill, if passed into law, carries a three-year jail term or a N500,000 to N5,000,000 fine if flouted. 

Before that, the Federal Ministry of Environment (FME) had drafted a national policy to guide the management of plastics in Nigeria from production to disposal or recycling, with a goal to promote the sustainable use of plastic as a resource and embrace a circular plastic economy. 

These moves demonstrate Nigeria’s commitment to the global fight against plastic pollution. A fight that is currently being championed by African countries; over 30 African countries have placed a partial or complete ban on single-use plastics. It also shows the country’s dedication to honouring its pledge to the UN Environment’s Global Plastics Platform to reduce plastic pollution and transition to a more circular economy.

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly 2018, the UN Environment and the European Commission jointly launched a Global Plastics Platform, a network to encourage new commitments from member countries in tackling plastic pollution and exploring innovative ways to change the design, production, consumption and disposal of plastics around the world.

Part of Nigeria’s commitment to the UNE’s Global Plastic Platform was to set up plastic recycling plants across the country, a feat, Alhaji Ibrahim Jibril, the Minister of State for Environment, claimed the country has accomplished to an extent. At a conference to commemorate World Environmental Day 2018, Jibril said that a total of eight recycling plants have been completed and handed over to state governments with 18 others in the works. 

But, according to findings by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, the said plants which cost N392 million in total are vandalised, not in use, and are wasting away. For example, one of the said recycling plants in Ekiti state reportedly has the capacity to produce about 12,000 kilograms of plastic pellets in a month. 

If the facility was consistently in operation, it could generate up to N1.8million in a month and N21.6million in a year, with a kilo of pellets selling for N150. But this is not the case. The plant is only functional whenever the state allocates a meagre fund towards its operation.

Fortunately, while government-owned recycling plants cannot be relied on for now, privately owned recycling companies, many in partnership with leading beverage and consumer goods companies, are stepping up to the task of plastic recycling. In Nigeria and across Africa, companies like Nestle, Unilever, Coca Cola have formed partnerships with indigenous recycling companies to accelerate the process of recovery and recycling of their post-consumer plastic packaging. 

Coca Cola has been in partnership with Alkem Nigeria Limited, a synthetic fibre manufacturer, for over a decade. Both operating a buyback and bottles-to-fibre recycling initiative from discarded PET bottles. So far the project has led to the establishment of over 20 collection centres across 10 cities in Nigeria. 

Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola, Founder, Wecyclers. Credit - Wecyclers
Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola, Founder, Wecyclers. Credit – Wecyclers

In September 2019, Nestle Nigeria signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Lagos-based Wecyclers, one of Nigeria’s most successful recycling companies, to establish plastic collection hubs across more communities in Lagos state. The company, which has been in operation since 2013, already had four recycling hubs and four franchises across Lagos State. However, its latest agreement with Nestle means the creation of more jobs and an increase in the number of subscribers and waste collection.

Wecyclers was created to solve Lagos’ waste management problem while empowering members of the city’s underserved communities, creating employment, and providing a steady, reliable supply of materials to both local and international recycling industries. The company developed a sustainable incentivised model of trash collection and recycling by creating a point system whereby people and households exchange recyclable waste for points. 

The points are awarded based on the weight of the recyclable material at N15 per kilogram. These points are accumulated and exchanged for prizes and cash. This model affords franchises and individual waste collectors, many of whom are women, an earning of up to N50,000 to N80,0000 a month, depending on how much waste they can recover and deliver. 

Also, in partnership with Unilever, the company places containers in strategic locations across the city to collect plastic recyclables. The 20ft long purple containers can be spotted in Gbagada, Obalende, and Ajah. Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola, the founder of Wecyclers, says the containers are an economic approach to collecting recyclables. “Instead of us investing so much money to establish hubs, we find locations and place containers for collection,” she said. 

Olawale Adebiyi CEO, Wecyclers. Credit - Wecyclers
Olawale Adebiyi CEO, Wecyclers and a container for recyclables. Credit – Wecyclers

These simple innovative models funded by the investments of the likes of Nestle and Unilever are how the company has been able to scale and what makes it successful; a recycling business can only thrive with a ready market and a steady reliable inflow of waste. Across the continent, a burgeoning number of waste recycling companies with similar innovative business models are advancing Africa’s participation in an emerging waste management industry and the development of a circular economy, globally. 

Lagos generates about 13000 tonnes of waste daily. Of which about 35 percent of the waste stream is recyclable, according to Bilikiss. However, only about 13 percent of that recyclable stream is actually being recycled. “Currently, Wecyclers do about a hundred tonnes of waste recycling a month and that’s just one percent,” Bilikiss said. 

A one percent recycling capacity is nothing compared to the number of plastic waste generated daily and also considering the growth rate of the per capita consumption of plastics in Nigeria. In the last decade, Nigeria’s per capita consumption of plastics has grown by five percent annually; from 4.0kg in 2007 to 6.5kg in 2017 to a projected 7.5kg by 2020. A 2017 field survey on plastic generation in Nigeria estimated about 1.5 million tonnes of plastics are generated annually. Of these, only 30 percent is collected for recycling. 

According to a recent report by Research and Markets, the plastic waste management market is projected to grow from $32.6 billion in 2019 to $37.9 billion by 2024, recording a CAGR of 3.1 percent during the forecast period. How can countries like Nigeria increase its waste recycling capacity to benefit from this projection in terms of revenue? 

We need policies,” said Bilikiss. “Now that we have shown that there is a model that works and that there’s a market for recyclables, we need stringent policies that promote waste management and recycling.” True to that, including heavy penalties for the violation of such policies. Drafting regulations have never been a problem, the challenge has always been in the enforcement. There are existing policies and regulations that advocates for proper waste management and recycling in Nigeria but little is known of them.

“Your waste is your responsibility” – Kitan Ogunbiyi

Kitan Ogunbiyi, a consultant for the Federal Ministry of Environment on waste management believes persistent grassroots sensitisation on already existing laws on waste management and heavy-handed enforcement will go a long way in creating awareness and building consciousness in Nigerians to take care of their waste. “Your waste is your responsibility. You have a God-given task to manage the waste you generate, people need to understand that,” she said. 

People also need to understand that there’s an opportunity cost for how they chose to handle waste; plastic or otherwise. If plastic waste is not recycled, it becomes a nuisance, ending up in drainages, oceans, landfills, and consequently in animals and humans. What are the economic costs of these aftermaths? And what is the cost in loss of value of wasted recyclables and a failure to properly regulate municipal waste collection? 

According to Ogunbiyi, waste sorting will drastically increase Nigeria’s waste recycling capacity. “In Nigeria, it is actually the law that we separate and sort our trash, but we don’t abide by that law because no one enforces it,” she said. “If we can get waste management right by getting households and corporate organizations to sort their waste, it will make recycling easy. There will be no need for waste pickers to scavenge dumpsites and landfills for recyclables and recycling companies are guaranteed a steady inflow of waste.” 

Recycling bins to sort waste. Credit: Ventures Africa
Recycling bins to sort waste. Credit: Ventures Africa

Number 24 of Section 1,  Part 3 of the National Environmental (Sanitation and Wastes Control) Regulations in Nigeria stipulates, “Any person who owns or controls a facility or premises which generates waste shall reduce, reuse, and recycle waste to minimise pollution by adopting the following: 

(a)imbibe cleaner production principles to conserve raw materials and energy;

(b)segregate waste at source;

(c)undertake resource recovery, reuse and recycling; and 

(d)ensure safe disposal”

Two months ago, the Lagos State Waste Management Agency (LAWMA) launched the Blue Box Program, a single stream recyclable collection program to encourage the separation of recyclables at the point of waste generation. Colour-coded recycling bags were distributed to households in different local governments by assigned recyclers. These bags are to be collected on designated dates by assigned recyclers and taken to recycling hubs within the area. With this initiative, LAWMA is hoping to recover about 50 percent of recyclables upstream, attract investors, create jobs, integrate informal waste collectors and minimise their presence in landfills. 

Though figures vary, issues about waste management and recycling are similar across African cities, many of them are generating huge amounts of waste yearly, but recycling only a meagre percentage due to a disorganised system of waste management and a failure to enforce waste management regulations. In Abidjan, less than 10 percent of about a hundred thousand tonnes of annually generated plastic waste is being recycled “due to a lack of coordination and appropriate collection and recycling infrastructure,” Yaya Kone Bruno, co-founder of Ivorian waste recycling startup, Coliba, told Ventures Africa.

Coliba connects households and companies with affiliated plastic waste collectors via a mobile application and web platform. Like Wecyclers, the startup operates an incentivised model of waste recycling, accumulating points per kilo of waste collected and then converting accrued points into internet data, foodstuff, and home appliances.

Recycling agent weighs collected plastic. Credit - Wecyclers
Recycling agent weighs collected plastic. Credit – Wecyclers

“We partnered with a mobile operator, GSMA, to convert points to internet data for hotels, big restaurants and corporations. The results are satisfactory,” Yaya said. Last year, Coliba established the first recycling plant for PET bottles in Ivory Coast. One with a capacity to produce 5000 tonnes of pellets and flakes yearly. These pellets are sold to companies like Coca Cola to use in the redesign of new PET bottles. 

“We have a great partnership with them,” Yaya said of the company’s work relationship with Coca Cola. “It is this sort of circular economy that we are trying to promote in the country.” Coliba’s other model of business is a social venture called Protect Our Planet. This program involves corporate and institutional sensitisation where students and company employees are educated on the significance of effective waste management and recycling. Last year, the startup reached 20,000 people in Cote D’Ivoire with its Protect Our Planet campaign. A number that it hopes to double this year. 

Protect Our Planet initiative. Credit - Coliba
Protect Our Planet initiative. Credit – Coliba

Established only three years ago in Ghana, and a year later in Côte d’Ivoire, the company has a strategic plan to scale across seven countries in West Africa in the next few years, with a keen interest in Nigeria. “We are currently conducting market research in Nigeria,” Yaya said. “Our target is to be able to recycle 50,000 tonnes of plastic across the countries we are present in a few years.”

Cote D’Ivoire also plans to exploit its plastic waste by building schools with it via an initiative that is funded by UNICEF in partnership with a Colombian social enterprise, Conceptos Plasticos. Both parties are setting up an innovative plastic brick making factory in Cote d’Ivoire where the plastic waste will be converted into modular plastic bricks that will be used to build classrooms for Ivorian children.

The project will be launched with 500 classrooms for more than 25000 children with the most urgent need in the next two years after which there would be an increase in production. According to Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF, the project will be “at the cutting edge of smart, scalable solutions for some of the major education challenges that Africa’s children and communities face.” 

The bricks, which are designed to fit together like Lego, will be made from 100 percent melted plastic. They are fire-resistant, 40 percent cheaper, 20 percent lighter than conventional bricks and will last way longer than conventional building materials. They are also waterproof, well insulated and designed to resist heavy wind. It will cost about $14,500 and eight tonnes of plastic to build each classroom. 

However, the potential of this project extends beyond addressing educational issues for children in Cote d’Ivoire to tackling environmental and economic issues simultaneously by reducing plastic waste and providing income avenues for the most vulnerable families in a formalized recycling market. 

Similar plastic to brick recycling exists in countries across Africa including Liberia, Cameroon, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Africa. 

In Nairobi, Mr Green Africa is changing the perception of waste and the future of recycling in emerging markets. Weekly, the six-year-old company receives, aggregates, and processes about 32 tonnes of waste – cartons, aluminium, and plastic – from waste collectors in its collection centres across Nairobi. 

Mr Green Africa operates a human-centric fair-trade business model that incentivises informal waste pickers by offering them fair prices and additional benefits including health care assistance, entrepreneurial training, and access to micro-loans thereby creating pathways out of poverty for them. Currently, the company is engaging over 2500 previously marginalised waste pickers.

Waste pickers and collectors form an integral part of every country’s waste management and recycling sector, particularly in Africa where a lot of recycling is done informally.  

These men and women contribute to economies and to environmental sustainability, yet they remain at the bottom of the pyramid, vulnerable, marginalised and poorly compensated. 

Female waste collectors sorting plastics. Credit - Wecyclers
Female waste collectors sorting plastics. Credit – Wecyclers

This is where organizations like Fair Plastic Alliance come in. FPA is an alliance of people, companies, and organizations committed to building an inclusive economy in the plastic recycling industry. The alliance aims to tackle environmental and social challenges connected to the poor handling of the plastic recycling chain by empowering and dignifying the work of waste-pickers and collectors. 

FPA runs a social business model in tandem with the theory of Professor Yunus who defined social business as a self-sustainable venture with an objective to combat poverty or tackle problems that affect people and society. One where investors give up on dividends and reinvest it into the business for its improvement and that of the community. In this case, the alliance leverages on the active inclusion of waste pickers. 

It’s basically the idea of helping local existing waste collection networks to develop and reach a scale that can then become industrial and can justify the set up of plastic recycling industrial facilities,” said Delia Innocenti of Serioplast, an Italy-based plastic packaging company. “Profits go towards the development of the enterprise and then back to the people and the community.” 

As a packaging company that works with recyclables that are mainly sourced by informal workers in developing countries, Serioplast is investing in the plastic recycling value chain by setting up recycling plants in these countries. We considered that a relevant part of Serioplast’s creations is out of Europe in emerging countries around the world,” Delia said. “Countries where there are no efficient municipal waste collection, and collection of waste is done by the informal sector who are called the waste pickers. So we thought, how do we reach them? And one way is to set up recycling facilities for plastics in these countries,” she explained to Ventures Africa.

So far, Serioplast has invested in South Africa by setting up a recycling plant in conjunction with Oxfam; in Nigeria in partnership with Wecyclers; and is currently looking to invest in Egypt.

Recycling beyond plastics

Recycling efforts are not only in plastics, although it is most popular because it constitutes the most challenge. In Nigeria and across the continent, recycling efforts are ongoing with organic waste, metal, electrical and electronic waste(e-waste), glass and paper. There are few Nigerian companies that recycle paper. They include Lagos-based Boulos Enterprise, Star Paper Mills in Aba, and Tofa Paper Mills in Kano. These companies make tissues, envelopes, carbon paper, paper towels, and books from recycled cartons and newsprints, saving trees, energy, water, and the production of more solid waste.

Abayomi Ademola is a small scale paper/carton recycler based in Lagos. He buys and sells waste cartons to paper milling companies across Nigeria standing as a broker between waste carton collectors and paper mills. Abayomi has a network of collectors in different states across the country who source for waste cartons and deliver them to his clients in whatever city they are in. 

For example, his network of collectors in Lagos, Ogun State and Ibadan gather waste cartons and deliver them to paper mills who do business with Abayomi in those cities. 

Abayomi pay collectors N35,000 per tonne of carton and resell to paper mills for more than double the price. On average, he sells about 80 to 100 tonnes monthly. 

Carton stacks to be recycled by papermills. Credit - Demilog Integrated
Carton stacks to be recycled by papermills. Credit – Demilog Integrated

Before now, he had a collection centre where waste cartons were dropped off, and he’d often travel to other cities to source for cartons if he’s unable to reach his target for a month’s supply in Lagos. But he soon realised that brokering was more cost-efficient, and he shut down the hub temporarily.

Ademola admits that there is some sort of stigma attached to the business as most people feel it is downgrading to deal with waste. “People look down on waste recycling. They ask me, “Why are you recycling waste when there are other businesses to do?” But Ademola loves his line of business, which he says is lucrative, affords him a lot of time and is quite fulfilling. “The fact that I am making good money while creating jobs for people and taking care of my environment is fulfilling,” he told Ventures Africa. 

As for scrap metals and electrical and electronic waste, Delta Steel Company, Universal Steel, and Nigerian Spanish Engineering are some major recyclers in the country. Scrap metals and e-wastes are recyclables for which a local and international market exists, yet not fully exploited. Like plastic waste, e-waste poses a major challenge but also a huge economic opportunity. 

As of two years ago, Nigeria was generating 290,000 tonnes of e-waste, a 170 percent increase from what it generated in 2009, according to the UN Environment Program (UNEP). This is besides the over 71,000 tonnes of used electronics that are shipped into the country from the West annually. 

Currently, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world with an estimated 49 million tonnes generated in 2018, all containing precious metals and other secondary raw materials worth $62.5 billion. This wealth of discarded treasure provides an opportunity for sustainable mining, an activity that is already taking place in Nigeria, albeit informally. Over 500,000 tonnes of discarded electronics are processed annually in Nigeria by about 100,000 e-waste pickers. The process is typically unstructured, unregulated, and dangerous. But apparently, financially rewarding. 

E-waste pickers in Nigeria make up to N10,000 a week according to this report by UNEP, selling a kilogram of aluminium for N220, a kg of brass for N700, and a kg of copper for N1,500. Their customers purchase these metals in bulk and in turn sell to local and foreign clients for substantial amounts of money. 

In June, Nigeria’s National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) partnered with UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility to launch an ambitious $15-million initiative to kickstart a financially self-sustaining circular economy approach for electronics in the country. 

The aim of the initiative is for stakeholders to work together to “develop cost-effective value retention businesses, including recycling and disposal systems for electronic products while ensuring that informal e-waste collectors and recyclers, have opportunities to improve their livelihoods, working conditions, and their health and safety.” 

The initiative will also support the implementation of the extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation which tasks manufacturers to be responsible for their products throughout their lifecycle, emphasizing extended use, recovery, recycling, and waste prevention. 

Meanwhile, in Kigali, Wastezon, a social enterprise, is reducing the number of e-wastes that end up in landfills through the use of blockchain technology. The company’s application connects consumers with recyclers and product manufacturers to transact recyclable e-waste in a safe, environmentally friendly way. The process is simple; consumers register and put up their used electronics along with a sales price, and recyclers can offer to buy them. creating a direct link from households to recyclers.

So far, in it’s one-year of operation, Wastezon has helped transfer over 400 tons of e-waste from 110 households in Kigali to formal recyclers. 19-year-old founder, Ghislain Irakoze says there are plans to train and integrate e-waste pickers and also to include plastic and organic waste transactions on the app in the future.

Besides the presence of privately-owned recycling startups like Wastezon, Rwanda has a government-owned e-waste recycling facility, the second largest of its kind in Africa. The $1.5 million facility was set up in 2017 to improve e-waste management in the country, harness the economic opportunities they present, and reduce environmental pollution.

In the last few years, Africa has also recorded a good number of garbage plant projects. Early this year, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka created and launched an organic waste power generating plant. The plant, a 100 kVA refuse-derived fuel (RDF) gasification generator, gives a steady supply of electricity to the university and nearby communities.

This innovation has significant potential to advance power generation with alternative renewable energy in Nigeria, something the country is in dire need of. With an electricity demand of 98,000MW, an installed capacity of 12,522MW, and an actual output of about 4000MW, Nigeria has a power deficit of 94,000MW with only 45 percent of its population able to access electricity.

Generating 542.5 million tons of organic waste annually, Nigeria has the potential of yielding about 25.53 billion m3 of biogas which translates to about 169 541.66 MW of electricity. Exploring this potential with the production of bioenergy on a large scale will greatly increase the country’s electricity grid.

In August 2018, the Ethiopian government inaugurated a $120 million waste-to-energy plant in an attempt to curb the city’s mounting waste problem and increasing landfills that led to the death of over 100 people the year before. 

According to Cambridge Industries, the plant is meant to eliminate over 80 percent of the municipal waste delivered to it while maximizing energy recovery to deliver renewable power. Energy will be generated from 1,400 tonnes of waste daily to produce 185 million kWh of electricity annually to power about 30 percent of households in Addis Ababa. 

A near similar plant owned by New Horizons Energy is also in Cape Town, South Africa. The plant converts over 500 tonnes of solid waste into various products, including organic fertiliser, liquid carbon dioxide, compressed biomethane, and refuse-derived fuel.

However, while these waste recycling initiatives and projects are great, they are not the solution. They are only a part of it. The world cannot recycle itself into sustainability. The capacity to do that does not exist. Hence the need for manufacturers to adopt a design approach that is regenerative; to design products that can be ‘made to be made again’ by eliminating resource inefficiencies during production. 

Rethinking how we produce, use and consume 

A woman sits near a heap of PET bottles. Credit - Coliba
A woman sits near a heap of PET bottles. Credit – Coliba

African governments need to enforce policies that cover product cycles and promote the production and use of eco-friendly packaging. Policymakers need to get actively involved in the manufacturing process; manufacturers in Africa have too much freedom. The only country in Africa that is successfully enforcing the production and use of eco-friendly packaging while phasing out plastics, is Rwanda. Last month, Rwanda announced a total ban on all forms of single-use plastics, following its decade long ban on polythene bags

There’s also the need to minimise waste by changing consumer behaviour. Both Bilikiss and Ogunbiyi suggest reverting to the way we lived before the proliferation of plastics. “I understand that the proliferation of plastics is as a result of increased urbanisation and a fast-paced lifestyle. But we need to readjust and re-adopt our old ways of packaging and preserving things,” Bilikiss said. “Let’s go back to wrapping with leaves, and storing things in gourds, and woven sacks and baskets.”

Ogunbiyi also suggests placing levies on single-use plastics and charging households according to the amount of waste generated, a ‘more waste, more money’ system of waste collection.“That way, people will learn to repurpose items and also be forced to reject single-use plastics and packaging at points of purchase,” she said. 

Rethinking the way we produce, use and consume can generate new opportunities and create new jobs, while preserving increasingly scarce resources. African countries like Nigeria in dire need of economic diversification and additional revenue streams, need to tap into the potential of a circular economy with increased participation in terms of supportive policies, more recycling, and regenerative design.

According to Bilikiss, “The future is waste, not oil. In the next 10 years, waste management and recycling is going to be the industry that people would clamour to invest in.” Perhaps, she is right. The global waste management market is expected to reach $530.0 billion by 2025, according to a report by Allied Market Research, a 6.0 percent CAGR from $330.6 billion in 2017.