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Rethinking waste: Africa’s challenges and opportunities

Rethinking waste: Africa’s challenges and opportunities

Waste management is a growing problem across the continent, but there are signs that Africa is starting to wake up to the urgency – and opportunity – of sustainable waste management. Analysis by David Thomas.

For five decades, the Koshe landfill site in Addis Ababa served as a vast open-air dump for Ethiopia’s sprawling capital. Day after day, tons of rotting food and plastic were poured onto its fetid mounds, to be sifted by scavenger birds, rodents and impoverished informal workers living in its shadow.  

On the night of 11 March 2017, disaster struck. Tons of waste became dislodged from the mound, sending a garbage avalanche of unstoppable force towards the makeshift shacks that workers called home. 

The sun rose the next day to a scene of carnage. Dozens of shacks were submerged in the waste. Emergency workers sifted through piles of steaming rubbish in a desperate hunt for survivors, using a digger when manual labour proved inadequate. Grieving families wept openly as they awaited news of their loved ones. By the time the rescue operation had drawn to a close, 115 were dead.  

As three days of public mourning unfolded, the government announced an inquiry to investigate the causes of the disaster. For many, the landslide was the inevitable result of decades of neglect. Throughout Africa, millions of citizens are forced to use unplanned open-air dumping sites or burning to dispose of their waste. As vast urban settlements continue to swell, scarce collection and processing services are contributing to a mounting waste crisis. 

The human and ecological costs are stark. Toxic liquid seeps into the soil, polluting water courses and drinking supplies. Open-air burning sends plumes of coal-black smoke into towns and villages, sparking respiratory illnesses. While landslides on the scale of Koshe are rare, death, illness, and debilitating injury among informal workers are not.   

As Africa’s urban growth mushroomed by 3.55% per annum over the last two decades – a trend expected to continue well into the future – the problem has only become more acute. Africa’s waste generation is expected to reach 244m tonnes per year by 2025, almost double that of 2012, according to the Africa Waste Management Outlook, a 2018 report from the United Nations Environment Programme and partners. Sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to become the largest area of total waste generation in the world on current trends. Yet municipal solid waste (MSW) collection in Africa was estimated to stand at just 55% of waste generated in 2012 on average, and as low as 20% in some countries.     

Africa’s waste generation is expected to reach 244m tonnes per year by 2025, almost double that of 2012.

“If you look at the expected changes in terms of population, urbanisation, and a growing middle class, we know we will see significant changes in waste generation,” says Linda Godfrey, coordinating lead author on the Africa Waste Management Outlook and a principal researcher at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.  “It almost doesn’t matter what other countries in the world are doing, it will be overshadowed by what happens on the African continent in the coming century. The concern is that the current systems, infrastructure and technology that we have in place are inadequate, and so we’re going to see significant change on a shaky foundation, and that raises particular red flags.” 

As politicians have striven to meet citizens’ basic food, health and education needs, waste collection and processing have been shunted down the policy agenda and deprived of budgetary support. Weak regulation and a lack of legislative oversight have added to the sense of drift.  

“The regret is that it has not got the political priority it deserves,” says Oladele Osibanjo, a waste expert and chief executive of Nigerian consultants Jawura Environmental Services. “Funding for waste management is ridiculously low – they don’t understand the rudiments, the serious ecological and human costs.” 

And yet there are signs that Africa is starting to wake up to the urgency – and opportunity – of sustainable waste management. As governments look for creative ways to tackle climate change, reusing and recycling are becoming increasingly popular. Africa’s urban trash, once deemed worthless, is now estimated to have an annual value of at least $8bn, leading scientists to promote waste as a critical economic resource capable of driving private sector-led growth and employment.  

“We’ve tried to flip the story to say that waste is a resource, it has value for an economy, and if you can recognise that, it does unlock socio-economic opportunities and create jobs,” says Godfrey. “That argument finds political traction with high levels of unemployment and slowing economies. If that’s the way we have to drive this discussion, so be it.” 

Africa’s urban trash, once deemed worthless, is now estimated to have an annual value of at least $8bn, leading scientists to promote waste as a critical economic resource capable of driving private sector-led growth and employment.  

Rethinking waste 

Just minutes from the site of the Koshe tragedy, a state-of-the-art plant looms over the surrounding area. In the control room, Chinese characters flash across an electric ticker.

The Reppie waste-to-energy plant, which began construction in 2014, is a $120m project inaugurated in August that is intended to reshape the future of waste in Ethiopia.   

Planned and designed by Ethiopia’s Cambridge Industries, and developed with consortium partners including state-owned China National Electric Engineering for owner Ethiopian Electric Power, the grey, rectangular structure is an ambitious private sector bid to use the huge amount of waste generated in Addis to generate power, while ending the city’s reliance on Koshe and other dangerous dumping sites. If the project succeeds, Cambridge Industries are considering expansion to cities across the continent.

The principle is simple. Waste is burned in a combustion chamber, which in turn heats tubes of water within the boiler walls, producing steam. The steam is then used to drive a turbine generator that produces electricity. Cambridge Industries says that when fully operational, the plant can receive 420,000 tonnes a year of rubbish – over 80% of the city’s currently collected waste – while generating over a quarter of the household consumption of electricity. That is just one of the by-products that managing director Samuel Alemayehu says will emerge from the truckloads of waste that arrive at its doors every day.  

“We want to create value from everything within the waste stream. The leachate treatment facility treats toxic water from the garbage and converts it into clean water that can be used to water plants or wash the streets. And the super magnets in the ash treatment area sort scrap metal for recycling. The residual bottom ash can be used for construction purposes including brick making,” he says.  

We want to create value from everything within the waste stream. The leachate treatment facility treats toxic water from the garbage and converts it into clean water that can be used to water plants or wash the streets.

Waste-to-energy has its sceptics, including Linda Godfrey, who argues that while it can be part of a portfolio of technologies, it can also prove expensive. The high organic content of much African waste – organic waste accounts for 57% of MSW in Africa – can also make incineration inefficient, Godfrey argues, requiring the pre-separation of materials before burning.     

Nevertheless, Reppie’s ambitions to extract a range of products from waste chime with calls for Africa to adopt a “circular economy” – a system in which resources are used for as long as possible, eking out maximum value, before being recovered and regenerated.  

Until recently, that seemed like a pipe dream, despite African Union calls for African cities to commit to recycling at least 50% of the urban waste they generate by 2023. The African Waste Management Outlook estimates that just 4% of Africa’s 125m tonnes of MSW per year are recycled, recovering a mere $318m in value. But if the recovery rate were to increase to 50%, the value of the reclamation could increase to $4bn. It is those sorts of figures that are rousing the attention of private sector operators such as Cambridge Industries. Godfrey says that the private sector’s involvement will be crucial in the absence of reliable government funding.  

“One of the key messages is that this can’t be done with government alone, it has to be done through public-private partnerships,” says Godfrey. “Many municipalities are bankrupt, they don’t have the ability to lend money or raise capital for investments in infrastructure, so the easiest way it to partner with the private sector. Unfortunately it’s still seen as a high-risk investment area, so we have to change that perception.” 

For Cambridge Industries, government support is crucial for providing consistent delivery of waste to the Reppie Facility. Waste collection in Ethiopia is the responsibility of municipal government, which raises collection fees through a levy on customers’ water bills. Without this reliable waste collection, or waste disposal fees from the government, Alemayehu says that Reppie’s recycling and electricity generation efforts would prove unsustainable as a business concern.

“Here’s the challenge, you need a partnership with government. We prefer it to be a private operation because it makes  a whole lot of things easier and we’re able to move a lot faster, but its profitability depends on the reliability and supply of garbage, and collection is done in the municipalities. Ethiopia and Senegal have done a fantastic job of setting the precedent on how waste collection can be done. But if you can’t rely on garbage collection, or you’re not getting proper compensation on waste disposal, or not getting paid what would have been spent on landfill, then it gets a bit tough.”  

In many countries on the continent, collection services are limited to city centres at the expense of poorly-served suburbs and rural areas. With an estimated 56% of sub-Saharan Africans living in slums, a lack of road access and basic waste infrastructure makes the problem even more acute. In Nigeria, some municipal governments have yet to organise efficient collection financing systems, and remain dependent on variable state or central government support. As a result, some industries, including soft drinks manufacturers like Coca-Cola, are beginning to take an active role along the waste chain, contributing to reuse and recycling initiatives with the active encouragement of government. But if Nigeria is to attract large private sector interest, governance structures and regulation will require a radical rethink.  

“The city councils and municipal governments in Nigeria by law are supposed to take care of waste, but they are not equipped in terms of management and resources.” says Osibanjo. “Some of the laws are antiquated and need a lot of revision, and jurisdictional conflict is a problem. The way the system works is top down – it needs the political class at federal and state level to look at governance structures, regulations and how to operate in an efficient manner.” 

 Reppie’s Alemayehu says that getting the relevant departments around the table is the critical factor in persuading private sector operators that they can turn enough profit.

In many countries on the continent, collection services are limited to city centres at the expense of poorly-served suburbs and rural areas.

“It’s not a sector where you are getting runaway success, where your return is 50% a year. It’s a long-term investment that requires patient capital. But it’s also a very attractive return. The challenge of this type of investment in waste-to-energy is it requires multiple ministries to work together. Municipalities have to sit at the table, the utilities have to sit at the table, the finance ministry, which guarantees the power purchase agreement, has to sit at the table. That’s been the big challenge, they don’t always work very well together, but when they do it’s a rewarding investment for everyone involved.” 

Informal sector 

Welcome as they are, attempts to attract big business to African waste management often overlook the fact that a vibrant private sector already exists in the shape of the hundreds of thousands informal workers who toil in the dangerous conditions of Koshe and other dumps. Risking life and limb to sift through public dumping sites, such workers have long been attuned to the financial opportunities of reuse and recycling.

Many of these informal workers instinctively view attempts to clamp down on open dumping as an unwelcome threat to their livelihoods. Yet alliances between the formal and informal sectors could unlock huge benefits to both groups. In Lusaka, Zambia, the net cost of waste collection is $1.60 per tonne in the informal sector, compared to $10.40 in the formal sector. The expansion of the formal private sector could offer thousands of informal workers regular, safer waste collection roles at reasonable cost.  

“We can start to acknowledge the role the informal sector play and reward them in terms of the resource value and the services they provide in material collection. Because we have an informal sector we are able to introduce recyclable material into the value chain at low cost to government and business, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t exploit the informal sector,” says Godfrey.  

Attempts to formalise the sector by encouraging informal workers to collaborate have not always proved successful – nine out of 10 waste and recycling cooperatives fail, according to South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry. 

But as the quantity of sophisticated waste, including electronics – commonly known as e-waste – expands in Africa, link-ups between the formal and informal sectors will prove ever more crucial to unlocking waste’s true value. 

About 2.2m tonnes of e-waste was generated in Africa in 2016, a number expected to increase exponentially as cell phone and personal computer uptake continues on the continent. While informal workers have long sifted dumpsites for valuable electronic goods, their rudimentary training and limited knowledge of e-reuse and e-recycling means that the true value of electronic goods can often be underexploited.  

Instead, the private sector could invest in efficient dismantling and processing plants while paying the informal sector for collection. Such an approach could unlock value, improve worker safety, and allow for greater data collection around recycling, according to Osibanjo.  

“The waste hierarchy has to build capacity through training. Train and equip the informal sector – they are not familiar with safety issues, there are no safeguards. They don’t know what they are doing is wrong. With support from government and international organisations, they can become the future of waste management in Africa.” 

2.2m tonnes of e-waste was generated in Africa in 2016, a number expected to increase exponentially as cell phone and personal computer uptake continues on the continent

At the Reppie Facility, Alemayehu says that Cambridge Industries hopes to integrate nearby informal workers, including those who make their living off the perilous waste dumps of Koshe, as it pushes to be the long-term lead operator.

“Local waste pickers have to be an integral part of the facility,” he says. “Once the facility moves to an operation team we will announce the mechanism of the work. When and if CIL is the lead operator or owner it is our priority.

“Long-time waste pickers have been documented by the city administration. CIL values the role of local residents and documented waste pickers as an integral part of the production of by-products from the facility In the future it is our plan to extend the inclusion through employment in the adjacent industrial park.”

While that may be too late for the dozens who died at Koshe, it could offer a compelling way forward for the future of Africa’s waste management industry as it approaches a critical juncture.

David Thomas

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Written by David Thomas

David Thomas is acting editor at African Business Magazine. He has also been published in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and South Africa's Cape Times.

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