“I had a Eureka moment about single-use plastics and plastic pollution after surviving a flood and fire disaster around Kwame Nkrumah interchange in Accra, Ghana on 3rd June 2015, when floodwater engulfed the city center and claimed over 230 lives.”
That moment was the beginning of a journey for Derrick Sarfo, founder of Dercolbags and later SPEX Africa, providing an entrepreneurial solution to one of Africa’s Sustainability challenges – waste management.
Today we are beginning our series on Africa’s hidden gems. These are entrepreneurs who have set up businesses and are leading the charge in tackling some of Africa’s most pressing Sustainability needs. For the most part they remain undiscovered and unrecognised.
Our focus in this first piece is on waste management, a seemingly impossible problem for the continent. This is a critical issue that has far-reaching consequences for the environment, public health, economic development, and human dignity.
High-income countries are undoubtably responsible for the greatest generation of waste per capita and are also large exporters of waste. Over a 27 year period, 172 million tons of polymers and plastics were imported into Africa mostly from high-income countries, with Egypt and Nigeria taking the largest share. Despite this, Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest growing regions in the world and as urban populations grow, the demand for effective and sustainable waste management solutions increases.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s total generation of waste is expected to triple by 2050 and currently waste collection stands at only 44%. This figure obviously varies considerably. In Dakar collection rates are one of the highest at 84% while in Lagos only 10% of waste is collected. Within cities, wealthy areas tend to benefit from waste collection services while informal settlements are largely excluded. These poorer areas subsequently suffer the most from respiratory diseases linked to the accumulation of waste and pollution, with women and children the worst affected. However, even when waste is collected, recycling and sorting systems are few and far between. This means the majority of collected waste ends up in open dumpsites.
In the midst of these gloomy facts, we are pleased to shine a light on three innovative businesses that are helping solve Africa's waste management challenges. From converting plastic waste into fashionable and functional accessories, to transforming organic waste into fuel, these businesses are embracing the circular economy, protecting health and, out of waste providing useful resources to others.
Smartpack Exchange (SPEX)
After some researching on the flooding in June 2015, Derrick Sarfo found that choked drainages, predominantly filled with single-use plastics, was the cause of the disaster. “This realization led me to start an environmental impact-driven enterprise, Dercolbags as a packaging firm to provide eco-friendly packaging solutions as an alternative to single-use plastic packages”, says Derrick.
He goes on to add, “Since then, my drive as an Entrepreneur has been to use innovative ways to solve community base challenges focusing on responsible consumption (SDG 12), Climate Action (SDG 13), and life below water (SDG 14)”. As a result, he created SPEX as a packaging service solution to help eradicate single-use plastic packaging from the food delivery value chain.
According to SPEX’s website, Ghana produces over 1 million metric tons of plastic every year with 76% of this waste coming from the food delivery sector in Accra. SPEX was created to address this exact challenge.
SPEX’s solution is simple but effective. Customers order food from restaurants and vendors on the SPEX app. These restaurants and vendors then package the food in a smartpack ready for delivery. Upon delivery the rider exchanges the new order with any old smartpacks the customer has and returns them to a SPEX washing point where they are cleaned and re-sent to restaurants ready to be used again.
Our second African Hidden Gem is Ivorian engineer Noël N’guessan, founder of LONO, who with his team, developed the Kubeko System to help smallholder farms generate income from their green waste.
Creating solutions for the management of organic waste is essential. In high-income countries, dry recyclable waste such as plastic and paper make up about 51% of waste generated. In contrast, in African countries 57% of waste generated is organic waste. This level of organic waste means that composting is a great solution in many parts of Africa and that’s exactly what the Kubeko System achieves.
The Kubeko Compost System, a biodigester, transforms organic waste into compost and cooking gas in as little as four weeks. Around five kilograms of organic waste can provide two hours’ worth of cooking gas and 50 litres of compost. This means that smallholder farmers can generate additional income from the by-products of their harvest without any additional labour. The system can run off either the energy grid or solar power.
Our third African Hidden Gem is Opey Abednego Brandy, founder of PaperDem. The company converts waste that was destined for landfill into fashionable and functional products like shopping bags, school bags, purses, and wallets.
Abednego grew up on a cocoa farm and witnessed first-hand the environmental damage caused by rapid urbanisation and consumption. He decided to take action by creating PaperDem to prevent “waste ending up in landfills, which are not properly managed, and ending up polluting the environment and causing health issues.
PaperDem’s mission is “to lengthen the cycle everyday items go through, prevent them from going to the landfill, and put them back in communities as useful items”.
PaperDem provides employment to local artisans – mostly young people and women - and partners with organisations and local communities to carry out conservation activities including beach clean ups, and tutoring young people on climate change.
Their stories are not told enough. These innovative businesses across Africa are rising to every day challenges faced by the majority of the continent’s citizens. They are not waiting for an outsider to explain the “circular economy” to them. Rather, they are taking the initiative, using their natural and local resources, to transform waste into valuable resources. They are creating their own tables and inviting others to join them – rather than waiting to be invited to someone else’s table.
We are pleased to provide another platform for them to use to amplify their voices. We are looking forward to interviews with the founders who will share more about their background, their motivation, their challenges and what they need to scale up and scale out to share their knowledge and expertise with the wider world.
Written by Rosalind Kainyah MBE and Helen Stickler. Rosalind is an authority on Sustainability and responsible business with over 30 years of combined legal, international, executive and board level experience. Her focus and passion is supporting African businesses to operate sustainably and profitably. Helen is the Co-Founder of Triplo ESG, a Sustainability advice platform that empowers smaller businesses.