Policy Approaches for Accelerating the Circular Economy in Africa

While the circular economy, as a concept, may not yet be well-established in Africa, as it is in Europe or China, circular practices and policies are by no means a new phenomenon in African countries, write Kweku Attafuah-Wadee and Johanna Tilkanen.

Kweku Attafuah-Wadee and Johanna Tilkanen, 2 November 2020

A Wecycler peddle through the streets in Lagos' Surulere district on January 17, 2014. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)

Repair, refurbishment, re-manufacturing and utilizing waste as a resource, particularly in agriculture, have traditionally had a significant role in many African economies.

Recently, the global waste crisis, currently impacting the continent in the form of growing municipal waste generation (197 per cent projected increase by 2050 in Sub-Saharan Africa), inadequate waste collection (municipal solid waste collection rate of only 55 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa), poor recycling rates (8 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa) and specific problematic waste streams such as e-waste (on average only 0.9 per cent recycled across the continent), has spurred high-level discussions and action on circular economy in the African context. These discussions are also intertwined with the push by policymakers to identify more sustainable pathways for development and job creation.

As a response to these challenges, a ministerial-level regional forum, the African Circular Economy Alliance, was launched in 2017 by Rwanda, South Africa and Nigeria. Then, in November 2019, the Durban Declaration for environmental sustainability made by the African ministers for the environment marked the first pan-African policy announcement that included circular economy ambitions for the continent.

In line with these high-level developments, our circular economy policy mapping in Africa shows that many African countries have in the past decade started introducing national policies and legislation that promote the circular economy.

While national plans labelled as ‘circular economy roadmaps’ have not been so far introduced in African countries, a number of countries, notably Rwanda, Gabon, Uganda and Tunisia, have integrated the promotion of circular principles in their high-level sustainable development or ‘green economy’ policies and legislation.

The inclusion of circular economy principles is more common in waste management policies. Currently, 50 out of 54 African countries have at least some level of waste policies, strategies or legislation in place, however, the implementation and enforcement of these policies and their coverage varies significantly.

Nevertheless, a number of countries including South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and Tanzania have developed comparatively comprehensive national waste management strategies that have put the promotion of the circular economy at the core of their plans.

Circular Economy Policy Map

Plastic bans

At the more specific product and material level, policies that ban or restrict the importation, production and use of single-use and non-recyclable plastics are the most ubiquitous of policies that promote the circular economy in Africa.

Currently, as our mapping shows, there are 36 countries with plastic ban policies. Anecdotal evidence on success rates, collated by the authors, seems to suggest that plastic ban policies in Africa have largely had mixed to negative results in curbing the influx of plastic products into the waste stream. A notable exception to this trend can be found in Rwanda where, through a combination of a tough legal regime and strict enforcement, an arguably successful policy is being implemented.

In Kenya, however, the outcomes are more mixed. Since introducing the world’s strictest plastic bag ban policy in 2017-18, officials have highlighted a marked reduction in plastic pollution evidenced by the increasing presence of cleaner streets and waterways in urban areas.

Nonetheless, Kenya still faces an uphill task in curbing plastic bag consumption largely due to illegal smuggling from neighbouring countries. Similar enforcement challenges are being encountered in other countries across Africa such as Cameroon.

Additionally, some countries have faced stiff opposition from local plastic manufacturers to plastic ban policies. The Malawian government, for example, only recently successfully overturned an injunction against its policy that had been obtained by plastic manufacturers that considered it an infringement on their business rights.

Furthermore, minimal engagement with stakeholders on these policies prior to their introduction has resulted in consumers struggling to adapt to possible substitutes. Since alternatives to plastic bags can be relatively expensive and of limited supply, many consumers in countries such as Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, and even Rwanda, still rely on plastic bags.

Extended Producer Responsibility policies

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies are another emerging circular economy policy area in African countries. Most commonly, EPR is linked to policies and legislation on plastics, packaging or electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). So far, 16 African countries have introduced policies or legislation that incorporate EPR at least on some level.

Though Mali and Mauritius introduced EPR policies as early as 2001 in relation to plastic packaging and PET bottles respectively, Nigeria is responsible for introducing the most comprehensive regulatory framework on EPR in Africa, covering eight sectors ranging from food, beverage and household chemicals, to EEE, plastics, metals, non-metallic minerals, vehicles and wood and pulp products. Similarly, in South Africa a consultation is ongoing for the proposed EPR regulations for select industrial sectors.

Despite the extensive coverage of the regulations, significant issues with implementation and enforcement of the Nigerian EPR regulations remain due to the complexity of the local market, poor enforcement of sanctions for non-compliance, inadequate funding and lack of integration of informal workers. Indeed, these issues have been widely identified as common governance challenges in establishing efficient EPR schemes.

On the other hand, good progress has been made more recently in Nigeria on EPR regulations for electronics with the E-waste Producer Responsibility Organization of Nigeria (EPRON) incorporated in 2018 to ensure collective compliance to the regulation, appropriate stakeholder engagement and transparency of the use of funds collected through the scheme.

Circular economy policy prospects in Africa

The adoption of a circular economy approach in the management of resources and policies promoting the circular economy is arguably still at a nascent stage in Africa. Though circular economy-related policies do exist, these policies have typically been developed without a full appreciation of the dynamics required to facilitate their sustainability within an African context.

This trend, however, is changing. African economies are already taking steps to incorporate circularity in their national plans and policies and are forming coalitions to drive the circular economy across the continent.

These developments must be reinforced through greater levels of engagement between international institutions, government, business associations and civil society organizations in the development of viable strategies and policies.

Furthermore, informal sector operators must also be given a prominent seat at the table. As the primary stakeholder involved in resource recovery in Africa, their contribution to policy development would aid in maximizing the viability, and reach, of circular economy strategies and policies.

Additionally, the buy-in of African consumers should be seriously sought after through the promotion of sensitization campaigns that account for prevailing consumption patterns and consumer adaptation mechanisms as well as highlight the economic and environmental benefits of transitioning to a circular economy.

There are already promising signs of international institutions supporting African governments to develop fit-for-purpose circular economy national strategies that factor in key socioeconomic and environmental considerations. For example, the African Development Bank (AfDB) is setting up the Africa Circular Economy Facility – a multi-donor trust fund to fund the proliferation of initiatives across the continent. Similarly, since 2019, the Global Plastic Partnership has been supporting the Ghanaian Government, through knowledge sharing, on avenues for promoting the circular management of plastics.

Though there have been some notable advancements, the incorporation of circular economy approaches in policy and resource management in Africa is still undergoing growing pains. However, the continuing groundswell of new initiatives and interest towards the circular economy, if guided by policies that are appropriately designed to take into account local circumstances and the inclusion of all critical stakeholders, can result in rich rewards in the areas of social and economic development, as well as environmental protection.