The sheer quantity and poor management of waste is both shocking and yet very much ‘business as usual’ to anyone visiting or working in Africa. With the exception of a very small number of African countries, waste and poor waste management are becoming serious problems and concerns. Urgent solutions are needed before the situation gets completely out of hand.
From an environmental perspective, this affects the quality of soil and soil-filtration ecosystem services, contaminating water supplies. It is also increasingly a public health issue. Indeed, due to the inappropriate disposal of solid wastes and the failure of lining systems, solid wastes generate chemicals and pollutants that reach soils, groundwater resources and the ambient air. Adverse impacts on public health include increased occurrences of cancers, birth defects and reproductive disorders, with a knock-on effect of increasing costs for the public health systems. Moreover, unmanaged waste dumps have become the ‘place-du-jour’ where women and children work, mostly informally and mainly in appalling conditions. These issues, combined with the impact of projected levels of population growth, make unmanaged waste a new plague threatening the African continent.
At the heart of successful waste management is the creation of programmes to transform citizens’ behaviour. Waste is a problem, but if it is approached strategically, it can drive new business opportunities capable of incentivising private investment and management skills, turning it into a veritable gold mine of opportunity for the continent.
Women are pivotal in triggering the behavioural change necessary to shift towards viable business models. Indeed, in some African cities, such as Kampala (Uganda) women are already leading this turnaround. They have started to capitalise on urban waste by using kilns to transform banana waste into charcoal, and have created a new value chain by selling the charcoal to a company which produces easy-to-use briquettes. The same company supplies the women with briquettes on credit to sell in their kiosks for profits, which they keep.
There is potential to scale this successful female ‘business story’ into a model to be replicated in other municipalities across Africa. Several other small urban successes are currently being recorded. However, the great hope for a change in waste management on the continent is to scale up these pilot activities and reach better implementation by public authorities.
Only if well-designed policies and regulations are provided to support these efforts can the benefits be scaled up to both national and social advantage. Targeting capacity and training at public authorities will foster suitable policies involving governments, legislators, the private sector, NGOs and representatives from the local populations in the design and implementation of future African waste policies and strategies.