How current economic barriers and so-called a continent ‘developing itself’ could turn into major opportunities and benefits for a Circular-Africa?
If there is one continent that sees what is considered insurmountable barriers in the current linear economy, offering opportunities towards a more collaborative and environmentally friendly economy, namely circular, it is Africa.
A linear economy is based on the extraction of raw materials, transformed in a production line of goods destined to be possessed by consumers and then thrown away. Here, the two ends of a linear economy, namely, the extraction and accumulation of waste, are very present there while the creation of economic value — between the phases of manufacturing parts, transformation into finished goods and above all sale of these products which will be consumed by Africans themselves — takes place elsewhere. On top, consumer goods come at a very high price level due to often difficult logistical routes.
In this case, Africa is, like other continents, constantly at the mercy of manufacturing plants concentrated in China and Southeast Asia in a pattern that is only measured through economic gains without considering environmental and social dimensions.
In a re-localized economy, regenerative and restorative by design, such as the circular model, the creation of value is preserved locally. Should you now embed the environmental and social dimensions, namely first of all, the control of greenhouse gas emissions as well as the creation of jobs, it no longer necessarily makes sense to send raw materials overseas without the guarantee of collecting most of the economic value to create since the control over pollution and waste, the economic opportunity of reusing and remanufacturing locally by creating jobs that last become your new priorities.
Indeed, a continent considered to be the most exposed to climate change and having a dynamic youth has every interest in innovating locally, and therefore producing, in order to then offer goods and services, in priority to neighboring markets, namely Europe and the Middle East. And this without replicating the models of the past for the development of industrial fabrics — which are now obsolete from an environmental and social point of view -. It is rather a question of rethinking the economy by intelligently integrating the other dimensions.
As discussed at the start of this article, the lack of infrastructures, industries, and commerce is often seen as a disadvantage in today’s linear economy. It is now proving to be a magnificent occasion in a new model where everything has to be reinvented, from the bioeconomy to the manufacturing of tomorrow’s goods, or rather their remanufacturing. Any country is capable of setting up a network of factories to flood the world with objects of all kinds. Here, the subject is quite different. Africa could draw inspiration from the remanufacturing of products already marketed, in new forms such as access to its use and no longer to its property, such as the modularity or scalability of these goods, or even its sharing in collaborative mode in order to do more with less. An industrial fabric of manufacturing and remanufacturing of products in a system of maintaining these goods — sold in the neighboring continents of Africa and maintained in order to last longer — could prove to be economically fruitful. Indeed, remanufacturing involves the least use of virgin materials and the intelligent redesign of products that become maintainable and scalable. It requires less extraction, generates little or less waste and creates jobs. In addition, customer relations are increased tenfold: factories are constantly in touch with the needs of their markets in order to remind some to repair, redistribute or recondition — or even better, remanufacture those produced so they come as new again. Everyone wins: the consumer gradually detaches himself from the object since it is made available to her/him, at lower prices, in new conditions and this continuously, African remanufacturing factories also win as they will be in constant contact with their customers while controlling access to stocks of components and products for future remanufacture supplies. If you add to this model the symbiosis of these industrial networks to be created from scratch, Africa could very quickly become a model continent from a circularity point of view.
Because linear barriers are transformed into circular benefits:
1. A young population: problematic in a model where humans are devalued in front of machines which aim to create ever more economic efficiency to the detriment of the environment. Such a workforce becomes an advantage in an economy of care and in preservation of the material;
2. Developing economies: one could question the origins of the term “developing” but the focus is here in the acknowledgment that industrial and logistical infrastructures have yet to be built. Reinventing them to accommodate the economy of tomorrow is much easier than having to transform a model that has made the good days of many continents but whose dismantling or transformation can prove costly and time-consuming;
3. A low ecological footprint: in 2015, the continent exceeded the threshold of a one-planet ecological footprint while others are way beyond two planets. Even if the current economic growth means that the continent will obviously grow its footprint further, it can still be more easily controlled if Africa adopts a circular economy model, a model that it has never really left to date thanks to traditions or due to economic scarcities;
4. Low-tech hubs: from Nairobi to Lagos, clusters of start-ups abound around low-tech, these technologies that meet the needs of the markets while using very little energy, or even energy renewable. More and more, low-tech is considered a solution to our next shortages of energy sources;
5. Collaborative populations: last but not least, collaboration between people and communities will be the key to the success of an economy based on the care of materials, the regeneration of ecosystems and access to goods and services to improve people’s livelihoods. The fact that African societies have developed ancestral systems of collaboration is an undeniable advantage.
And many examples have always existed: In Rwanda, every last Saturday of the month, Umuganda is the gathering of local communities who carry out specific activities, whether it is the collection of waste, the construction of a building or the repair of roads. In South Africa, Ubuntu depicts “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”. Collective thinking, cooperation in addressing a specific challenge or sharing access to a product has always existed in the continent. This is mainly a matter of preserving these ways of thinking and influencing other continents to learn from Africans as circular practices cannot just come from the better designed solutions. Unless thinking and behaviors change, nothing will.
With these five foundations to preserve, creating virtuous local loops seems within reach.
Everything that is considered to be inefficient in a poorly thought out economy becomes undeniable advantages in the safeguarding of the economic value by the relocation of the industrial fabric tailored for local needs to be reinvented in order to prepare the economy of tomorrow.
Africa has all the assets to succeed. It needs visionary leaders caring for everything and everyone.
The good news is that his youth are teeming with ideas and projects as demonstrated by the African Circular Economy Network (www.ACEN.Africa) by identifying many start-ups that are creating the foundations of this new model.
With all these recognized advantages, the continent could even show a new path: that of an economy not only circular but socially inclusive according to an approach that would be associated with human development as depicted in the graph from the Elsevier Academic Journal article: “Making Circular Economy works for Human Development” (Desmond, Lemille, Schröder, May 2020).
This is a vision. A utopia will say some. Just remember: the utopia in 2020 is to think that business-as-usual will continue.