Africa’s Small Businesses Look To Positively Contribute To Plastic Management Value Chain

Constance Agyeman, Director of International Development, Nesta Challenges

Globally, women and children continue to be the most marginalised, not only in their societies, but also across businesses curated mostly by men. 

Exacerbated by the global spread of the deadly, novel Coronavirus, the entire world must now grapple with current economic hardships, and ultimate recoveries that are likely to be shaped by doing business unusually. Businesses are now expected to achieve their business objectives with a lot with less resources. 

It will be a long way, moreover for the African continent where population vaccinations are still lagging behind most of the world. The majority of the economically affected and excluded across the continent remain women, children and youth, dominantly young women that are still disadvantaged when economic opportunities arise. And a key area of growing opportunity is within plastics management.

When it comes to plastic, we have all heard of the three R’s, reduce, reuse, recycle. We have seen major developments across sub-Saharan Africa driving this message. We have also seen not only activists demanding a cleaner environment and a plastics-free oceans economy, but we have also seen businesses coming to the forefront of the challenge, solely to develop solutions that will not only be revenue-driven, but also play a key educational role in engaging communities in keeping our environments safer. 

Over the years, largely due to the convenience and rapid rise in industrialisation, plastic has played a key role in creating and sustaining jobs. However, an estimated 80% (15-20 million worldwide) of workers within the recycling sector work as waste pickers.  Roles predominantly undertaken by women and children contending with poverty and marginalisation, made even more challenging due to the pandemic.  Conditions are precarious and often workers are ill-equipped, have limited – if any – personal protection and can be exposed to dangerous situations. 

Due to the growing economic importance of the plastic management value chain, the needs of the sector from both a personal and environmental perspective offer a huge business opportunity, but who is best placed to address this challenge and build the economic value within this sector required across Africa?

Recently we have seen more multinational retail stores discontinuing the use of plastic or discouraging customers from opting for plastic. That is welcomed. What is further welcomed is that Africa does lead on policy intended to ban plastic usage. Greenpeace Africa, reported in May 2020 that of the continent’s “54 states, 34 have either passed a law banning plastics and implemented it or have passed a law with the intention of implementation.”

Leading the charge have been countries such as Eritrea, Benin, Uganda, Tanzania, and Senegal. Though these are encouraging and helpful, there is still a need for more to be done in enforcing laws.  This has also been challenged by the greater use of plastics as a hygienic tool across Africa to help minimise the spread of Covid-19, and lack of alternative cost-effective and accessible materials to replace plastic usage.

In many African countries, particularly in Nigeria, not only is the informal sector large, it is also a major absorber of labour.  In recent times, the informal sector has witnessed rapid growth due to poor economic performance and lack of growth in the formal sector. This shows that the informal sector serves as a reservoir of workers who are readily available for formal employment once the opportunity is provided

This potentially highlights the importance of the role those small businesses must play within the plastic waste value chain, particularly those anchored by women and youth, due to their significant role within the sector. The solutions are in the value of the so-called circular economy, its impact and how available resources can be used to capitalise on the three R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle.  But in order to do this effectively small businesses need to understand the importance of adopting innovation practices, business models, better ways to engage with the experience of women and children and keep them safe.

Out of the three notable R’s, we really need to educate users that arguably the relevant one may be ‘reduce.’ However, with the amount of plastics already in the system, polluting our lands and marine environments it is important that small businesses are able to come up with new ways to use that waste plastic sustainably to make decent earnings. Despite current economic challenges, exacerbated by lack of infrastructure development and investment, the two R’s reuse and recycle present some exciting opportunities for new business in transforming plastic into alternative materials (such as bricks or roads) or additional uses tying into the circular economy, to meet the needs of communities. In these instances instance, self-sustainability is key, and the agility to operate in a tough climate to drive a business’ purpose. 

Various news reports indicate that the value and prices (per kilo) of plastic are dropping across markets such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, and Kenya. That’s a conversation starter on what is next for plastic? The re-think must centre around innovation, progressive development and sustained systems and methods when it comes to the plastics economy. 

As Africa is a youthful continent, with young people likely to bear the brunt of the ongoing impact of plastic pollution from labour, consumer and environmental perspectives, one key starting point would be to invest in our communities. Recognising them as key partners in the dissemination of education, awareness-raising activities and partnerships, that have the real potential to make an impact on the goal to yield positive results on plastics management. 

Littering, burning, exporting plastic waste can be substituted in a continent claiming its global place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), with research and development accompanying 4IR. For example, the rapid advancement of 4IR and Artificial Intelligence have indeed brought hope that most small businesses in Africa are recognising it’s now time for business unusual. Ideally, this recognition should be led by women and the youth, with appropriate support curated towards the start-ups, with less red tape involved. 

There is a definite opportunity for innovation to aid in the improvement of plastic waste management across businesses throughout sub-Saharan Africa in a post-Covid-19 era.  For most African businesses to succeed in this area, there is also an urgent need to invest in infrastructure and technologies that will be able to clean, sort, grind and turn small bits of waste, as plastic transitions into new products. 

Initiatives such as the Afri-Plastics Challenge Prize are encouraging, in getting sub-Saharan African countries to actively look at solutions, not only for revenue generation, but to bring solutions in plastic waste management, solutions underpinned by putting communities, and the environment as apex deliverables. The Challenge should inspire businesses that seek solutions, care for the environment and ultimately profitable, yet remain community centred. 

As a World Economic Forum article rightly encourages, there is promise in the circular economy and what opportunities it brings for the “environment, consumers, businesses and governments.” Since 2019, this conversation has gained traction, with discussions ranging from transforming business models, financials, law and how consumers behave. The article, using data from the Centre of Expertise on Resources, further advises on possible R’s that can drive business innovation, such as to refurbish (improving product), remanufacture (create new product for second hand), re-purpose (reuse product for a different purpose) and recover (recover energy from waste).

The Afri-Plastic Challenge not only offers opportunity, but it grants one that further enhances transformation when it comes to plastic waste management. There is plenty to be done, in a space that more women and youths can take advantage in a sector that needs curated solutions, driven management recognising both opportunity and growth.  

Challenges are forever present, they have been constant and have featured in various sectors across sub-Saharan Africa. If there is one business sector that has often shown how to overcome challenges, it is small business. The sector can innovate, it has ability to bring solutions that protect our future, while ensuring Africa stakes its place in the global space. Job creation through innovation, infrastructure investment, education, technology, post-Covid-19 solutions-thinking are some of the key drivers that have been associated with small businesses. These are enterprises that are sought to take the plastic waste management conversation to the next level, thus encouraging them to partake through an exciting call to win the Afri-Plastic Challenge, but pivotally, to change lives while endeavouring for a better environment, for a continent that puts its people first. 

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