African Universities See Wealth in Waste

Africa is fast becoming urban. By 2050, a whopping 1.33 billion people will inhabit African cities – almost 900 million more than today. Africa’s pace of urbanization is the fastest in the world, which means that, in 20 years, half of the continent’s population will be city dwellers.

And with great numbers of people comes an enormous amount of trash. Lower income cities in Africa and Asia are expected to double their municipal solid waste generation within the next 15 to 20 years, placing a major strain on the continent’s poor infrastructure.

A seemingly daunting challenge and an acute health risk, the growing heaps of trash can actually provide a sustainable development opportunity, which African countries are increasingly embracing.

World Environment Day

In May this year, countries will meet in Nairobi for UNEA 2 – the world’s de facto “Parliament for the Environment” – to discuss how safeguarding our environment can benefit human health, societies and economies. Adopting sustainable waste management practices is not only vital to protecting human health, but can also bring multiple social and economic benefits, advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Recognizing these opportunities, six major universities from five African countries – Kenya, Egypt, Mauritius, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia – established the region’s first University Consortium on Waste Management this year.

Professor David Mungai, a member of the consortium representing the University of Nairobi in Kenya, spoke to UNEP about the purpose of the Consortium in building capacities of African countries to better manage solid waste. He said that the Consortium will “look at best available technologies of dealing with solid waste management and governance, African institutions’ capacity and how can they be more responsive to appropriate and efficient solid waste management services, creating awareness, creating partnerships so that the issue of waste management is given a holistic approach”.

Solid waste management activities – such as garbage collection and segregation, and retrieving recyclable materials – are a major source of income for the poorest, most vulnerable groups. Globally, there are 15 to 20 million people working in the small-scale informal waste sector, often in precarious conditions, exposed to hazardous substances and with no access to health and safety precautions.

“We would like to look at solid waste as a resource. Quite often, we have dealt with solid waste as something that has to be taken to the dumpsite or to landfills, or at the very worst, left in the environment. We would like to promote the conversion of solid waste into useful materials, energy recovery for instance and recycling of certain materials. This can be very important for Africa because it has the potential to create jobs particularly among the young people and women in our African societies,” pointed out Professor Mungai.

In some cases, waste recycling could yield a monthly income of between $130 and $800 per person per month. In a region where over 40 per cent of people still live on less than $2 a day, that is a significant amount.

The Consortium will also play a critical role in bridging the gap between science and policy. It will support African policymakers to develop evidence-based policies on waste management and governance.

“We are talking about policymakers in national governments. Involving them in the research we do to address real problems that are faced in different parts of each of the member countries of the consortium will help provide appropriate solutions to the African situation. There should be no gap between research and policy to tackle the issue of waste management,” said Professor Mungai.

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