Converting Waste into Resources: Why should Africa tap into China’s expertise?

Green finance for a net-zero energy system
Alexander Ayertey ODONKOR

Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Sahel and West Africa Club suggest that by 2050 cities in Africa will accommodate an additional 950 million people, representing the world’s fastest urban population growth. Admittedly, the continent’s bulging urban population brings significant economic gains to the region; however, this situation is a two-edged sword.

In fact, while the burgeoning urban population improves the continent’s economic fortunes – largely as a result of soaring economic activity which is desirable, it concomitantly increases the amount of waste in towns and cities. This presents an onerous task of managing extra waste in urban areas, increasing the severity of a canker that has plagued African towns and cities for many decades.

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) – epicentre of the continent’s largest urban population growth – the region’s solid waste is expected to increase at a rate higher than any other region in the world. Data from the World Bank indicate that by 2050 SSA’s volume of solid waste will increase to 516 million tonnes per year; this is triple the 174 million tonnes per year recorded in 2016.

The continent’s increasing amount of the waste is having a ruinous impact on the social, economic and environmental landscape of Africa – many pockets of waste across cities, small and medium-sized towns and towering waste-heaps in dumpsites and landfills sites across the length and breadth of Africa are polluting the environment; posing severe health risks, as they have become breeding grounds for several diseases which are major causes of annual death for both children and adults in the region. With waste management increasingly becoming a pressing issue in Africa as the urban population grows rapidly, how can policymakers and city planners effectively address this challenge?

Undoubtedly, governments across countries in Africa are making significant contributions to provide a solution for this problem; but at the heart of this challenge is insufficient technological innovation and an inept management capacity that cannot solve a puzzle of this magnitude. To succeed in this area, policymakers should recognise waste as a secondary resource.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   In the case of Africa, transforming waste into resources will provide several solutions to the continent’s pressing demands – which include meeting the region’s rapidly growing energy demand through waste-to-energy, addressing poor sanitation, and also achieving climate targets and sustainable development goals via waste recycling.

For example, recycling food-waste into fertiliser will protect the environment and address hunger. Again, while recycling e-waste, garments and plastics will prove to be key circular solutions in accomplishing sustainable development goals, as they will create more job opportunities and also protect the people’s health and the environment in the long-run, the African continent lacks the technological innovation and the required management capacity to exploit this opportunity.

The United Nations Environment programme has revealed that about 70 to 80 percent of the municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in Africa is recyclable, but only 4 percent is being recycled currently. Again, over 90 percent of waste produced in Africa is disposed of at uncontrolled dumpsites and landfills – mainly because the continent’s waste collection procedure is ineffective, with an average MSW collection rate of 55 percent.

This outcome is a clear indication that African countries have to scale-up their waste management capacity before they can reap the full benefits associated with converting waste into resources. While there are a few countries Africa can draw lessons from, relying on China’s expertise in changing waste into invaluable resources is the ideal model. Why is an Africa-China collaboration the solution?

As Africa’s largest infrastructure investor and also the country with the world’s largest installed Energy from Waste (EfW) capacity – together with a stellar experience in recycling waste from a population of more than 1 billion – tapping into China’s expertise in technological innovation and waste management is the African continent’s surest pathway to sustainable waste management.

Why is this true? While China’s installed EfW is equivalent to 40 percent of the combined total of all OECD countries, from 2013 to 2017 the country recorded an average of 1 GW per year – which represented the largest form of bioenergy capacity. Again, with China’s population size, the country’s experience in recycling gargantuan amounts of domestic waste, e-waste and plastic waste into resources such as fertiliser, fibre, polymer, metals and energy will be a huge boost to Africa’s waste management conversion.

With this vital technological expertise, it is important for African governments to engage the Chinese government and strengthen collaborations between engineering and waste management firms and universities in China and their counterparts in Africa – promoting research and  academic exchange programmes whereby students from Africa will be given an opportunity to study waste management and related disciplines in China, with the ultimate goal of returning to their respective countries after graduation and improving the energy from waste management capacity in the region.

These academic programmes, seminars, conferences and research between China and Africa will improve the continent’s waste management legislation, strengthen organisational structures of waste management agencies, increase public awareness and promote accountability, which are all essential for enhancing the region’s conversion of waste to resources.

About the Author

Alexander is an economic consultant, chartered economist and chartered financial analyst


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