Taka ni Mali: African inspiration for circular development

By Blake Robinson and Paul Currie, Senior Professional Officers in Urban Systems, ICLEI Africa Secretariat

Harnessing the value and productivity of resources through integrated resource management activities and circular development is vital for more sustainable cities – but what does this mean in practice? Many African cities already show high levels of circular resource use, which can serve as inspiration for others.

Africa’s urban areas face significant and inter-linked social, environmental and ecological challenges. With inadequate services to meet rapidly growing demand, many city residents across Africa face water, energy and food insecurities. Informal settlements constitute over 50 percent of Africa’s built environment and much of the urban infrastructure that will be needed to support urban wellbeing has yet to be built. This presents great opportunities for shaping sustainable infrastructure systems which provide widespread services, support economic productivity and regenerate the environment. These opportunities are well articulated in the principles of circular development, which promote attention to full life-cycle product design, require rethinking why and how we use resources, support multiple forms of value recapture (in the form of reuse and repair) and encourage regenerative practice. While it may seem that African cities face barriers to adopting circular systems, there are already many lessons in Africa for how cities around the world can become more resource productive.

Traditionally African settlements have made use of regenerative and circular principles, with surrounding natural systems able to absorb and process organic waste streams. Traditional knowledge systems share stories and rules for engaging with nature. For example, cow dung has been used for centuries as a soil conditioner and construction material, and scientific knowledge is now also suggesting that it has numerous benefits over artificial fertilizers and cement. As settlements have grown and plastic and other artificial materials have become part of urban lifestyles, the poor waste management and pollution have started to threaten environmental and human wellbeing. The adoption of circularity principles provides the opportunity to rethink how we wish African cities to grow.

To explore how circular development could shape African cities, ICLEI Africa and the African Circular Economy Network, with support from GIZ, jointly hosted the “Urban Resources and Circular Development Roundtable” in Accra, Ghana in early October. Representatives of nine African cities joined the roundtable to share insights on their sustainable resource initiatives and identify African principles of circular development. When visualizing resource flows in cities, and sharing potential interventions for shaping these flows, it became evident that African cities have a vibrant and diverse array of existing circular practices. Starting with the circularity principles developed by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the participants realized that circular development involves much more than recycling: Taka ni Mali – waste is wealth.

A number of initiatives in Accra demonstrate principles of circularity that could be further developed, replicated and scaled to create jobs, generate local economic activity and reduce waste. For instance, the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative demonstrates the principle of substitution by manufacturing bicycle frames from locally grown bamboo as a substitute for metal and other energy-intensive materials, which are often imported and have a large carbon footprint.

Another example is the Safi Sana facility in Ashaiman that creates waste-to-energy and nutrient recovery by extracting biogas and nutrient-rich sludge from a combination of toilet and market waste via anaerobic digestion. The biogas is used to generate electricity which feeds into the grid, and the sludge is dried and used to grow high value seedlings for resale.

In short, the key takeaway for African cities was that application of circularity principles should consider traditional knowledge and new modes of governance to improve the performance of socio-technical resource management systems. Through this approach, African cities can stimulate circular development by combining local ingenuity with the latest technical advances from around the world to better manage resources, improve quality of life and reduce environmental impact.