Enabling a circular economy is a complicated challenge that governments, communities and businesses globally are struggling to solve. But as Dow’s work in Africa proves, solutions exist — and success comes when organizations and communities collaborate to create change rooted in local context.
And in many cases, the continent’s ongoing development has become an accelerant to ingenuity rather than a hindrance, allowing these nations to circumvent systemic challenges with scrappy entrepreneurialism. This so-called “leapfrogging” is the phenomenon of communities bypassing outdated Western ways of doing things to gain a competitive edge. African nations have taken this approach with solar energy, banking access, electricity grids and communication infrastructure. For example, when governments from Ethiopia to Nigeria failed to install telephone lines to connect communities, residents skipped the need for such infrastructure and jumped straight to cellular connection with the onset of mobile technology.
Along similar lines, Africa is poised to tackle circularity challenges in a new way through local ingenuity and a culture of entrepreneurship.
Leapfrogging in waste management
So, could this leapfrogging mentality be applied to accelerate the transition to a circular economy in the developing world? Adwoa Coleman certainly believes so. The chemical engineer has held roles in both Africa and the US for the last 10 years. In a recent role at Dow, she used her skills to find solutions to waste collection, reuse and recycling challenges as Africa Sustainability and Advocacy Manager for the company’s Packaging and Specialty Plastics business.
“The primary challenge in Africa, when it comes to circularity and sustainability, is that these concepts can be very abstract,” Adwoa told Sustainable Brands™. “A significant number of people in African countries live way below the poverty line — so, these topics are not top of mind. Instead, people are thinking about where clean water is going to come from, if they have shelter, what they can do to create a livelihood for themselves and their families.”
Many people in Africa do recycle to support their livelihoods, however. Millions of waste pickers make a living by collecting recyclable materials that can be reused or recycled. In the developed world, government-regulated waste-management companies generally do this work — collecting waste outside homes on certain days of the week. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only around 50 percent of waste is dealt with in a similar fashion. In places such as Ghana and Ethiopia, informal waste sector workers are critical for managing waste in the region.
Coleman’s role involves rallying Dow’s resources and working with African entrepreneurs to harness their ingenuity and resilience to leapfrog the inadequacies of the region’s waste-management infrastructure. Partnerships in the area focus on integrating technology “without having to go through the motions of some of the learnings that other developed economies are facing in their circularity journey.”
An app to aid waste pickers
Logistics play a key role in determining the value of plastic waste materials. For example, transporting the material just an extra 2-3 kilometres can require enough fuel to override the value of the material for waste pickers.
In Kenya, Dow initiated a pilot to address logistical issues by leveraging mobile systems and technologies. Dow’s IT team developed an app that helps optimize the logistics for the pick-up and collection of recyclable materials with technology similar to that of ride-sharing services. The company trialled the use of the app in Kenya with Mr. Green Africa.
Kenya has served as a beacon in the fintech space for developing and leveraging fintech for many years now, largely thanks to M-Pesa — a mobile banking system that bypasses the need for traditional banks and bank cards, and allows people to trade and receive payment for waste.
“In Mr. Green’s current business model, registered waste pickers can come to a trading point where they can sell their waste,” Coleman explains. “Once the waste is weighed and inspected, they receive payment immediately through M-Pesa, based on the quantity and the advertised price.”
The pilot with Dow unlocked an additional collection mechanism to enable consumer participation through residential collections and pick up of recyclables all controlled via an app: “It reduces the carbon footprint from logistics, reduces time spent moving from place to place, and also optimizes the collection frequency to ensure a significant amount of material has been accumulated before the collector goes to get something, so it’s worth their while,” she says.
Learning from others, leading by example
As policymakers and legislators around the world look to other nations for inspiration on how to solve the circularity challenge, Coleman is keen to see more African nations lead the way by exploring the benefits of extended producer responsibility (EPR) — which puts the onus on the waste producer to pay for and deal with waste collection and recycling. Applied in Africa, where governments often lack resources to invest in waste infrastructure, EPR has the external funding potential to implement solid waste-management systems that would enable a circular economy.
“EPR could help to unlock [circularity] in a way that is meaningful to the local context,” Coleman says. “It is not about doing a copy and paste. It is about looking at what has been done, analyzing the gaps, and working out how to implement EPR locally.”
How to solve a problem like flexible packaging
Unlocking the value of more waste streams is a crucial part of the circularity puzzle. In many African countries, dealing with the ubiquitous flexible packaging — used widely for thin, sealed plastic bags or sachets that package everything from soap and water to washing powder — remains complex. Yet, compared to PET bottles, this kind of flexible packaging is not an attractive waste to collect, since it can clog up machines and there is little demand for it at end of life.
Coleman and her team have led a project to specifically tackle this issue. In partnership with Omnik, Wecyclers and the Lagos Business School Sustainability Centre, Dow’s Project ReflexNG pilot in Nigeria was designed to convert 300 million sachet water pouches, which otherwise would have ended up in the environment or landfill, into the raw ingredients for new products.
“We realized that in order to bring flexibles back, we had to put value on it. We had to make people realize that by throwing these used sachets away, they are essentially throwing away money.”
It worked; and the material — 100 million sachets to date — started coming back to Dow and Omnik, a converter in Nigeria, which dedicated a line in its facility to further develop post-consumer recycled (PCR) resin capabilities. As a result, the PCR quality is improved, so it can be utilized for new products. For instance, Dow is working with a large brand that has committed to ensure that its detergent sachets are made using 30 percent recycled plastic.
“They are happy with the results and will commercialize things soon,” Coleman says. Project Reflex has now been extended to cover Egypt and Guinea, as well.
The transition to a circular economy is a complicated challenge that governments, communities and businesses all over the world are struggling to solve. But as Dow’s work in Africa proves, solutions exist — and the best results come about when organizations and communities seek inspiration from each other and collaborate to create change rooted in local context.