Building a Better, Smarter and Sustainable Africa for the Circular Economy

H abitat for Humanity International, through it’s ShelterTech Accelerator program in Kenya recently hosted a session on the circular economy during the Sankalp Global Summit 2020 held on Friday 6th November 2020. The session sought to gather insights from stakeholders in the sector and innovators in the housing sector building solutions for the circular economy. These innovators contributing to the discussions were; Daniel Luis Paffenholz, CEO and Founder of TakaTaka Solutions, Mtamu Kililo, CEO and Co-Founder of Mycotile and Nzambi Matee, Founder of Gjenge Makers.

Key stakeholders joining the conversation were; Philip Thigo, Advisor to Kenya’s Deputy President and Member of the World Economic Forum Global Futures Council, Christina Jäger, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Yunnus Environment Hub, Balmoi Abe, A Pan African Winning Social Heritage Architect and Etta Madete, Representative of Architectural Association of Kenya and Architectural Designer at BuildX.

The sessions were moderated by Jonas Tesfu, CEO and Co-Founder of Pangea Accelerator and Jane Otima, Associate Director for Market Systems and Entrepreneurship at Habitat for Humanity International — TCIS.

Why is this conversation important?

Over the past few years, Habitat for Humanity International has had a growing focus on Sustainable/Green Housing in line with UN SDGs 13 — Climate Action — Urgent Action to combat climate change. Currently, housing needs grow in direct proportion to population growth and it is believed housing can play a key role in promoting a circular economy by reuse of waste material for housing. This is borne from the need not just to rethink how we build but also how we utilize existing housing stock/spaces. Habitat for Humanity believes that: If investors step into the housing innovations space, they’ll find opportunities for profit, advisory services and impact in many domains, along with a business case being established by pioneer entrepreneurs and investors.

The Terwilliger Centre for Innovation in Shelter has already begun the journey working with successful startups and companies products and/or innovative solutions to solve waste management issues which are of interest to corporations globally, hence a win-win. However, despite progress made in the sector, there still remains key barriers in realizing a more circular and sustainable Africa.

Increasing Knowledge on the Circular Economy

According to a poll carried during the session, 61% of respondents believed that one of the major barriers to the circular economy was lack of knowledge on sustainability issues or too little focus on the sector. This sentiment was echoed by different panelists, Daniel Luiz for instance, noted that ‘good waste’ being recycled is still far lower than the waste we produce which he attributed to less uptake from the market and the sector thus not realizing the value of a circular economy. Christina Jagger added to this noting the need to have more examples as the term ‘circular economy’ hardly resonated with the public. She held the belief, along with other speakers, that having more good businesses and more storytelling on what the circular economy is and how it works will make it easy to be adopted by individuals and businesses, hence be an economy.

Africa has been leading in the circular economy

Panelists during the stakeholder session agreed that Africa has a strong history linked to the circular economy but due to rapid urbanization has been evolving towards a less circular economy. Balmoi Abe, a Social Heritage Architect pointed out that; a lot of the problems we talk about in urban settlements are far from what happens in local communities especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Adding that, from a cultural sense, Africa needs to recreate the status quo using the existing indigenous knowledge and innovation which are key elements to realizing a circular economy.

Etta Madete, also warned on the danger of rapid urbanization at the expense of the environment, noting that if we do not start to build in a circular way, we will deplete our resources. On the flip side, Mtamu Kililo, saw it as an exciting untapped opportunity, noting that in the agri-waste value chain in Kenya, for example, there is an opportunity to produce a lot of different diverse products for the market as well as build completely new products.

Creating a multi-stakeholder approach for the circular economy

Further building on the different interventions needed, founder of Gjenge Makers, Nzambi Matee highlighted the access to financial support for her business as a key barrier and encouraged more investors in the space to support startups in the circular economy. However, sentiments from the panelists pointed at a wider approach, Christina insisted on the need for a blend of bottom up and bottom down approach in adopting the circular economy, that is, involving investors, corporations, and the government to interact with startups and social businesses. She highlighted the importance of capacity building these businesses especially on technology and scale in order to realize impact.

Etta Madete gave her two cents encouraging different experts to be aware of the context we are in when it comes to adopting innovation. She advised on the need to have a longer term view on open sourced and accessible technology which can be scalable over the next 10–20 years. Her belief is that through this the technology becomes not only accessible but also the norm.

From a policy point of view, Philip Thigo expanded this further by looking at the need to have agile governments through encouraging a multi-stakeholder approach where all actors are involved i.e. innovators, corporates, public sector etc. so as to to address policy challenges in the circular economy.

Next Steps

While progress has been made in the sector, a general consensus was reached that there was need to encourage more innovations in the sector in order to build this into a functioning and robust economy. It was agreed that more impact investors should be encouraged to look towards supporting more circular economy focused startups and as a result attract government interventions on policy dimensions and thus realize a more circular Africa.

About Sankalp Forum

The Sankalp Forum is one of the world’s largest inclusive development platforms convening global inclusive development dialogues with entrepreneurs, impact investors, philanthropists, corporates & governments to achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030. This year’s event was a virtual 5-day event bringing experts to have constructive dialogues for global impact.

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