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The Circular Economy in Africa: Setting the Scene with Joanna Bingham and Deborah Nartey

Conversations in Europe around the Circular Economy are dominated by white, Western voices, businesses and organisations. Across the African continent, however, innovation is arising simultaneously across diverse countries and cultures, reminding us that so many circular practices are nothing new. The opportunities – and the challenges – lie in valorising what’s already happening informally, while addressing the power imbalances of a post-colonial world. 

We explored all this and more during series six of our podcast, which focuses on the Circular Economy in Africa. For the first episode, we talked to Joanna Bingham and Deborah Ohui Nartey of Footprints Africa, which helps companies improve their social and environmental performance using the B Corps framework, and undertakes research to highlight case studies and best practices. “We look for practical solutions that are already working and share those solutions, so people can reform or improve on their businesses, and how they engage with other people and the environment,” explains Deborah. 

Footprint’s initial report looked at the state of play in the Circular Economy across different parts of Africa. In doing the research, they noticed a big focus on waste being used to create new products, rather than being designed out of the system altogether. Entrepreneurs are turning plastic water bottles into bricks to make houses, for example, or converting organic waste into animal feed and compost for crops. 

Despite the vast diversity of the African continent, Deborah and Joanna noticed some common themes emerge in their report. “Entrepreneurs are not sitting around waiting for the money or the means to [realise] their initiative,” says Deborah. “Instead, they use whatever they have to build the machines they need for the product they want to make.” In another example from Ghana, a company making shoes from waste fabric used a water pump from the local water plant to create a makeshift press. At the same time, the repair culture that’s inherent to many African societies is not valorised in terms of its power to keep materials in use at their highest value. “I think there's definitely a rethink required there,” says Joanna. “Everyone thinks about businesses... and doesn’t see how this value of networks is incredibly powerful to delivering the Circular Economy goals.”

While some value is captured in this way, however, much of it is lost through export. “We don’t have the machinery and the means to do what needs to be done to add value to [the waste],” says Deborah. Old mobile phones, for instance, are taken from low-income countries like Ghana and shipped to places like the Netherlands, where the equipment exists to deconstruct them. “Africa is a continent of vast wealth and incredible resources – and it is enormously exploited,” adds Joanna. “That's a really important framing... We need to use the amazing opportunity that the Circular Economy presents to give more self-determination to countries, [so they can] evolve in ways that suit them and that makes sense within their context of young populations, of resource wealth, and decentralised, rural populations.” 

Another way the complexity of power relations plays out is in the imposition of societal values. When working in African countries, outside funders and developers are often quick to suggest ecological solutions such as mud houses or composting toilets – which are connected with poverty in the local context. Many people feel patronised by such suggestions and have aspirations of concrete buildings and flushing toilets, for example. “It's a really interesting challenge, because people's aspiration shouldn't be denied,” says Joanna. After all, why should people in the “developing” world be denied the everyday luxuries taken for granted elsewhere – especially when “developed” countries account for the vast majority of global CO2 emissions.   

In our globalised world, this context is crucial, because it applies to all of us, everywhere. From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, the current, linear economic system is powered by exploitation and extraction, which usually takes place in low-income countries to maintain the wealth of higher-income countries. The Circular Economy brings opportunities to address these power dynamics through systemic change and create truly sustainable ecosystems, in communities, businesses and nature. This is just one of the ways that social and environmental justice are indistinguishable. As Joanna puts it: “Humans are not separate from nature. Business is not separate from the community.”

“We are working towards a regenerative world where business doesn't have to stand on its own, but it is used for force for good,” concludes Deborah. “[A world] where people take responsibility for the product they are making and the solutions they are initiating, get to know how it impacts the environment and the people around them – and how that impact is going to be reflected in years to come.” 

PS: check out a small pro bono project we did in partnership with Footprints too.

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About the author

Barry O'Kane

Barry is the founder of HappyPorch. With 20 years in the web development industry as a programmer and agency owner, he has a preternatural ability to decipher the systems and processes code that holds many teams back from achieving their goals. Partners say Barry gets to the root of issues quickly and makes it downright easy to deliver good work.    

While he's unbelievably grounded, it's not uncommon to find him sailing through the trees as he paraglides his way round the world.