It is common knowledge that Africa is blessed with a wealth of human talents, nature full of biodiversity, and a rich deposit of wide-ranging mineral resources that serve the world, making it potentially the wealthiest continent on earth. However, there is an area of potential wealth creation that we tend to overlook, and which we need to harness for the benefit of everyone. The area is the waste lying in garbage bins, markets, roads, and landfills, where it harms both people and the planet. We need to start turning our waste into opportunities that preserve our planet and create jobs for people. Recycling is the answer to this problem.
By recycling materials that can be reused or repurposed, we can prevent them from harming our environment. Unfortunately, many African cities are still struggling with garbage littered on the roads, in trenches, and outside industrial areas. The garbage collected from most homes ends up in landfills, rivers, and oceans, harming plants, animals and eventually humans. We need to invest in promoting recycling across African households, markets, trading centres, and industries to put a stop to this and generate income therefrom.
Effective recycling involves collecting and sorting plastic or glass bottles and containers, including caps used for food, beverages, household/school/industrial/medical products, metal products, cardboard, paperboard, and more. There are various ways to recycle, such as upcycling, downcycling, precycling, and e-cycling. Upcycling involves adding value to discarded materials to create higher-value products than the original ones. Downcycling involves breaking down products into individual elements and materials that can be salvaged for reuse, typically producing a product lower in value than the original. Precycling calls for minimizing waste in the first place by avoiding the accumulation of items we do not need. E-cycling involves reusing or distributing electrical equipment for further use instead of disposing of them at the closing stages of their lifecycle. For example, computers and cell phones that are still operational could be passed on to individuals or organizations in need, which we have plenty of in Africa.
Recycling on a large scale will allow us to protect Africa’s natural resources, reduce pollution, conserve more energy, and generate new employment and income opportunities for many Africans, like in other countries. For instance, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI)’s 2021 economic impact study highlighted the numerous benefits of the recycling industry. For instance, the industry contributed nearly $117 billion to the US economy, with more than 506,000 well-paying jobs directly and indirectly supported by recycling, and $35.70 billion in export-related economic impact in 2021 alone. Imagine the endless possibilities for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Africans when we decisively tap into the wealth of recycling.
Today, we have award-winning Young African entrepreneurs leading recycling solutions for their communities. For instance, Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane from South Africa founded Repurpose Schoolbags in 2014. Their multi-functional school bags are made from 100% recycled plastics. A solar panel that charges during the day while the child is walking to school is incorporated into their bags, which later provides light for the children to use for study and homework at night. They are marked with reflective strips for safety to ensure the children are easily visible when walking to school in the morning. The group collects plastics from landfill sites and local schools that run campaigns encouraging students to bring plastics to school to be upcycled. The plastics are then taken to their workshop, where they are processed into textiles, sewn into bags, and then distributed. They produce around 20 bags per day.
In Nigeria, Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola and her co-founders started WeCyclers in 2012, using low-cost cargo bicycles to provide convenient waste collection services to households in the country. Growing up in Africa’s most populous city, Lagos, Bilikiss saw firsthand the challenge and threats posed by poor waste management. This inspired her to start a company that offers waste collection services, especially in low-income settlements where environmental conservation is also an opportunity for the communities to earn money from their waste. Today, WeCyclers mobilizes families to collect plastic bottles, plastic sachets, and aluminium cans, which are put together, measured for their weight, and collected on specific days of the week. Families are incentivized with points sent directly to their mobile phones for every kilogram of materials provided as incentives (such as cell phone minutes, essential food items, and household goods). Wecyclers combines all collected materials and sells them to local recycling processors, bridging the gap between the recycling companies and communities that provide waste as their raw material.
In Senegal, Yaye Souadou Fall founded E-Cover, which repurposes and recycles tires into valuable products such as shoe soles, tiles, and floor mats, to mention but a few. Seeing how tires and plastics littered her community, Yaye was inspired to start the venture to give a solution to this problem. Through upcycling in an eco-friendly manner, E-Cover is purposefully alleviating poor waste management through marketable goods.
In Uganda, Andrew Mupuya, was under 16 when he founded Youth Entrepreneurial Link Investments (YELI). At the time, the Ugandan government had announced its intention to ban plastic bags. Inspired by this policy, Andrew started collecting used plastic bottles and plastic bags, which he sold to retail shops and recycling plants to earn a living to support his family. He realized that the demand for plastic bags had decreased, and businesses were looking for alternative packaging bags and seized the opportunity to produce paper bags. Despite many challenges, especially capital, YELI grew exponentially, making over 20,000 paper bags weekly and employing over 20 people to serve tens of clients, including restaurants, retail stores, medical centres, and multinational companies like Samsung. In 2012, he was awarded the Anzisha Prize of $30,000, a prestigious award given to young African entrepreneurs who have developed and implemented innovative solutions to social challenges or started successful businesses within their communities.
Many more young Africans are creating innovative products from everyday waste, providing employment for thousands of people across the continent and protecting the environment as a result. As Andrew Mupuya says, it starts with you!
Managing waste is a necessary and urgent public good. Governments in Africa need to ensure that this wealth-creating opportunity is fully utilized. We need national policies mandating and enforcing recycling as essential. And we also need to invest in the required infrastructure and skills to build and grow the recycling industry and incentivize citizens to embrace recycling.
Let us rise to create more opportunities and save our planet by extracting the value out of garbage.