ourEconomy: Opinion

How Africa is leading the way to a zero waste future

From Egypt to Tanzania, public waste management schemes are offering green alternatives to privatisation.

Vera Weghmann
6 May 2020
Image: Massa, CC by 2.0

This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Public ownership in times of coronavirus' series with TNI.

The Covid-19 pandemic affirms the need not just for adequate public health care services, but also the many other services that are essential to keep society running and maintain a sustainable environment. Waste management is one such service: if not properly managed, waste can pollute our waters, soils and air. This is the case for large parts of Africa, where up to 45 per cent of the generated waste is simply not collected. Privatisation efforts contribute to a general poor waste service provision. To maximise profit, private providers tend to exclude poorer or rural areas.

Dar es Salaam in Tanzania has been regarded as a leading successful example of privatised solid waste management by UN Habitat, yet in fact, the privatised system failed to keep the city clean. Residents are not satisfied, as it is considered too expensive, unreliable and does not cover the entire area. The privatised waste management service is mainly financed through household payments. Consequently, there is not much incentive for the privatised companies to offer services to people that cannot afford to pay for them, effectively a large part of the population of Dar es Salaam. Similar to how the coronavirus disproportionately affects vulnerable communities because they simply cannot afford to follow necessary health recommendations, this exclusion puts poorer people at a greater risk. Left with no option, the residents are forced to dispose of waste either informally, through illegal dumping into waterways, or by burning it.

Seeking to solve these problems, communities across the continent have developed waste management solutions specifically tailored to meet local and regional needs. In the Egyptian cities of Cairo, Alexandra, and Giza, local authorities, community members and workers have brought waste services back under public control and with it, ended years of inefficient waste management. Other places are re-instating traditional waste management solutions to rid themselves of organic waste.

The struggle against privatised waste management in Egypt

Before the 2000s, Cairo’s waste system was informally managed by a community of Zabaleen Christians. Through a sophisticated sorting system, using among other things pigs to feed on the food waste, the Zabaleen community is believed to have sorted up to two-thirds – 15,000 tons – of Cairo’s overall daily waste. Recycling rates were up at 85 per cent. Despite this success, the government decided to privatise the system as a part of a larger gentrification process, ultimately pushing the Zabaleen out of urban areas. Both Giza and Alexandria had seen the same privatisation happening just years earlier.

It quickly became clear that the new private companies where not able to do the same, efficient work as the Zabaleen. Recycling rates dropped to 20 per cent. Residents were also charged for waste collection services through their electricity bills, effectively giving the companies ‘ownership’ over the collected waste. Frustrated by increased service prices and the loss of work, both residents and the Zabaleen resisted. After years of protests, the Egyptian government eventually accepted that privatisation was a failure, and Cairo, Giza, and Alexandria had public waste collection systems reinstated. In 2011, the latter became the first city to end its private contract with Veolia and establish its own, state-owned enterprise, Nahdet Misr, to operate waste services.

Africa’s zero-waste potential

The Zabaleen in Egypt demonstrate that there is a huge potential for zero-waste programmes in Africa. In contrast to many other places in the world, the continent’s waste composition is characterised by a high percentage of organic waste due to the preparation of fresh food and limited use of packaging. The method of feeding organic waste to animals is old and has been applied also in cities such as Sousse in Tunisia and Moshi in Tanzania. Another striking example is Bamako in Mali, which has reached a high recycling rate through terreautage – the practice of selling unprocessed and partially composted waste to crop and vegetable farmers.

A similar process is taking place in Zanzibar, Tanzania. In September 2017, the island initiated a zero-waste pilot project in which 200 households from low-income areas were selected to perform waste segregation. Eight people were also given the responsibility to educate their peers about waste collection and processing. The workers receive a monthly salary and they can make extra income from selling the compost as well as dry waste such as metal, plastics, glass, and carton paper.

Public alternatives

Algeria and Rwanda represent other good examples of what publicly run waste systems can achieve. Since 2002, Algeria has adopted an integrated waste management programme where infrastructure is financed by the central government and collection is funded by a municipal household ‘junk removal tax’. This publicly run and owned waste management system has led to high waste collection rates in both urban and rural areas. Rwanda, on the other hand, ensures clean streets through the practice of Umuganda – a compulsory community work scheme of one day a month. Although its mandatory nature is problematic, Umuganda is considered to be an opportunity to work together with a common purpose and to catch up with the community.

Both these and the many other examples found across the continent clearly illustrate the power of publicly managed waste systems. By establishing integrated solutions and using local knowledge and expertise, municipalities in Egypt, Tunisia, and Tanzania can deliver high-quality services to a larger amount of the population. Given how important good waste services are to ensuring safe and healthy environments, the argument is therefore clear: to support public alternatives is to support a sustainable future.

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