Africa, circular spirit.

Africa, circular spirit.

Murielle Diaco is founder and CEO of Djouman, one of the leading platforms catalysing innovation for sustainability in Africa. She decided to launch Djouman in order to show the innovating face of Africa and provide the people working on African sustainable development with the resources they require. She strongly believes in the ability of African people to solve the challenges on the way to an inclusive, restorative and circular economic model.

Hi Murielle, it is a great pleasure to have you here for a conversation, exploring together the potential of the circular economy for Africa. To start with, might you tell us about the background that led you to found Djouman?

I was born in Switzerland, my parents are from the Ivory Coast and we moved back there when I was six years old. I grew up in Ivory Coast and came to Europe to continue my studies once I was done with highschool. I have an engineering background and once I graduated in financial engineering I worked for six years in investment banking. It was interesting but at some point it was not in line with my values anymore. So, I decided to leave this sector, without being sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to work towards creating impact in Africa. I did a MBA in sustainable development to broaden my perspective and network, and this allowed me to discover a lot of different sectors I was not aware of, such as social business—that you can do business and still have a strong impact on communities and the environment.  For my thesis, I decided to make a study on sustainable innovation in Africa, and this is where everything started with Djouman. Having the opportunity to exchange with a lot of sustainability practitioners, entrepreneurs and different organizations in Africa, I identified that there were a lot of barriers for them. This is when I decided to work and address those weaknesses that I saw in the ecosystem.

And this is how Djouman enters the picture. Which goals does this organization have and which activities does it organize?

The idea is to be an accelerator, a catalyser of sustainable development in Africa, using collaboration and entrepreneurship. Concretely, we provide support to start-ups and SMEs in Africa, or projects that are operating in Africa; we work with impact projects, either environmental or social impact. Together with local partners and experts in our network, we help them on business related issues, strategy, organization, business development, marketing; everything that makes companies stronger and more efficient on the market. We also help the project bearer to increase their impact, for instance by having a methodology to measure the impact they have. We are still a start-up with only 5 people in the team: 2 in Paris, 1 in Cameroon, 1 in Benin and 1 in the Ivory Coast. Then, in almost all countries, we have partners with whom we work on specific projects and provide support to start-ups. This is the ‘commercial’ side of our activities.

We are also working on creating a community of changemakers in Africa. The idea is to gather like-minded professionals, entrepreneurs, experts, scholars, students and to bring them different resources so that, firstly, they can be informed about sustainable development issues in Africa, and secondly they can find as well opportunities to grow their own projects. We provide them with connections in Africa or with external organizations that are interested in sustainable development and sustainable development goals.

These are our historical activities, and now we are initiating projects on our own or with partners in the co-creation of local initiatives. One of these initiatives is called AgroBootCamp, an on-the-field training for young people on green entrepreneurship and agro-ecology. For seven days they stay on a laboratory farm, and are initiated to sustainable practices in agriculture and to the production of renewable energy; there is attention on global warming and climate change issues and on how they can become vivid actors of the next economy. We already run 2 editions of AgroBootCamp in Benin; the objective for 2019 is to be able to do the same in Benin and then expand to other five countries in Africa.

Opening up the discussion about the potential for the circular economy in Africa - what does the circular economy framework represent for Africa, in relation to the challenges and opportunities the continent is currently facing?

The circular economy has always been part of the way African people conceive of the environment. But because we live in a globalized world and because the Western development model is now referenced in Africa as well, people tend to give up this vision of circularity and even the way they live and respect the environment. It tends to disappear, little by little. Today, when you talk about circular economy to African people, they think that it is something new or something coming from Western countries; they see it as something completely different that they can’t relate to. So, there is always a phase of re-appropriation, where you have to explain them what the circular economy is and then they will realize that indeed they were already living in a circular framework and that they are giving it up. So, the circular economy has very strong roots in Africa, but with modern life being more and more present in Africa, we have to re-educate people so that they can live more in line with circular economy principles.

There are challenges because now people in Africa do as everyone else: they produce—well, they actually import because it is usually produced elsewhere—they consume and they throw it away. There are huge challenges because of lack of efficient ways of treating waste and of tackling issues related to waste management, be it domestic waste or industrial waste. These challenges are difficult because there is not a legal framework to regulate waste management and because they don’t have the technical means to treat waste efficiently. They import technologies from Western countries, technologies that are very expensive. So, waste management is a big challenge.

On the other side, there are a lot of opportunities linked to the circular economy in Africa, and some actors have already decided to seize those opportunities. You know that agriculture is still very important in African economies, and some producers are now looking at their waste in order to create value out of it.  For example, agricultural waste can be used as organic fertilizer, to produce building materials and clean energy. It is coming to shape, but slowly because people have to reintegrate this value that waste is not just something that we dispose, but we can create new value out of it.

Looking at the opportunities side, you just mentioned agriculture and waste management. Are these the two main sectors in which you see the circular economy having the greatest potential for Africa? Or there are other sectors too?

Yes, I think in agriculture there is a huge potential. Africa has the potential to develop more and to make its agriculture more efficient. To find value and to create value out of agricultural waste is a great opportunity for Africa. Some laboratories and start-ups are already looking at this sector and at ways of creating new products and services out of agricultural waste. On average, probably 60% of the population is involved in agriculture, so the impact for the population is quite big as well. If you look at farmers today, they really are climate dependent and, as the climate is changing, they are at risk when they produce normal kinds of crop; if the weather has not been very nice, they can lose a lot and they can be at risk for themselves and their families. So, if we find complementary revenues out of transforming the waste, this can create a big impact for them. It goes in the direction of alleviating poverty and making communities more resilient, even to climate change.

Another sector which can be more prone to circular economy is the recovery of plastic waste. We know that today plastic pollution is a huge problem in Africa, it is polluting everything, and there aren’t strong national strategies to control and fight plastic pollution. We are seeing in different countries initiatives emerging where they try to structure value chains from plastic waste collection and transformation into more value-added products, like furniture and building materials. They are even exploring how can they mix plastic waste and other materials like concrete to create stable houses for the poor. I think that the problem of plastic waste could be turned into solutions, and even solutions for the poorest people in these countries. It can create both economic opportunities and create better living conditions for the base of the pyramid.

Economic opportunities and better living conditions for the poor...both highly needed in Africa and everywhere else in the world. A question going back to what you mentioned before about the reappropriation phase, necessary to make African people realize their familiarity with the circular economy or, phrasing it differently, with a way of living in line with circular principles. How do you make this realization come about? Which examples do you use?

One approach is to talk about the more restorative kind of approach. A circular economy is connected to a restorative economy, and in African cultures, the restorative economy is probably more understood, because before the environment was sacred! People had to take care of what they were doing, taking great care and paying attention to different types of plants. Take the way in which people were consuming food and relate it to packaging. People were cooking food and then using the leaf of different kinds of crop, like banana or cassava, to use it as a package. In this way, the packaging was perfectly biodegradable and made of something that would have become litter otherwise. So, if you use very concrete examples of how you can use simple things and use them to the maximum value—not to leave something without any use—they will understand it more easily. For example, when it comes to packaging this kind of approach is very easy to grasp for them as well as the fact that when you do farming and grow crops the leftovers of your production are going back to the earth, because it’s a way to nurture it. This kind of ideas are very simple to explain.

There are also more social types of circular economy, when you think of interdependency links between different types of workers. For example, one worker will use some tools or machinery that others have already used and are not using anymore. Think of local communities in which people are sharing and utilizing to the maximum value some tools and where there are traditional and communitarian financing schemes. When you tell people about this kind of initiatives and approaches, they see that indeed there is value in going back to a circular economy, but the challenges are also very important. There are more and more industrial companies that are doing their job and selling their products, which often are single-use products. Then people tend to like the products because the marketing is done very well.

Are the ‘industrial companies’ that you just mentioned foreign companies?

It’s Western companies, Asian companies and also local African companies; it’s always the same. I think it is more related to the industrial model we are living in, and this is where I think we have something to do: to sensitize people that it is not the only way to go! There are other alternatives than just going industrial, we can still do transformation at a lower level where we will protect the people who are working and the environment, as well as producing better products for local uses. There is a lot of lobbying to do in favour of small industrial production rather than big plants without any kind of human spirit.

This is a crucial point as Africa finds itself at a crossroads, either following the Western development model or creating its own, unique development path. In this respect, the circular economy and sustainable innovation might play a fundamental role. Looking at the broad picture, what is it needed to make African people realize the huge opportunities in front of them?

I think there are a lot of things to do. It can start with the education, also for the children; it should be taught to children and students at schools. Of course, everybody today is talking about the environment and climate change, and I know that in some countries they have programmes for children to raise their awareness on these issues, but it is always very theoretical. If we can teach to children that this is how we should consume or behave in the circular economy, that would facilitate things going forward. This is the same for high-schools, universities, engineering schools. It is a fact that even here in Europe there is a very small number of schools that are teaching about the circular economy, about eco-design, which is completely left on the side. This is a shame because everybody is continuing to produce and design things in a linear way.

Coming back to Africa, what can make a strong impression on people is some companies doing circular economy that emerge and do very well from an economic point of view, generating income and providing jobs for local communities as well. Some companies can show the example that if you are thinking circular you can do very well, and that will drag lots of people towards this model. People need to see that this is a model which is working, which provides a lot of benefits—economic, social, and environmental—and only then they will be convinced of that. Because today there are no such examples, it is always a bit theoretical when you talk to people; it’s abstract, people can’t really realize how it will fit into the way of evaluating and judging what is a successful company and what is a successful initiative. So, we have this mission to bring to life and to make grow such kind of initiatives, which will show the world and, especially Africa, that if you are going circular, it works fine and there is a lot of good impact for communities, the environment and as well for creating economic growth.

And where do you see these early innovations able to show the example coming from?

I think there can be leaders in the agricultural sector. I will give you the example of one project that is going on in the Ivory Coast: a SME which is transforming pineapple leaf into vegetable leather. The leather has the same quality as animal leather and it’s 100% from vegetable sources. The entrepreneur behind this is very young, he is probably not even 25 years old, and he is doing very creative and innovating things, trying to develop these initiatives. Originally he was producing crops, which he was selling on the local market, and then he started thinking of ways of recovering and valorising the residues of his production. This is how he thought about the vegan leather and he is also transforming residues into ecological charcoal. Normally people use wood charcoal and this contributes to deforestation.

This kind of initiatives are very good but today the entrepreneur is limited by many factors while he is looking for financing and he is trying to increase his activities. He is not supported locally because there are not a lot of financing schemes appropriate for those kinds of initiatives. If we manage to bring this company to the next level and the company is doing very well, with global recognition and is generating sustainable revenues, this can be a great example to show people that you can do agriculture and find other revenues by using and transforming the waste of your production. These kinds of examples are very inspiring and can make others think differently.  

Indeed, it is certainly inspiring.  You already mentioned some, which are the challenges on the way for having more of this kind of innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa? And what is needed to overcome them?

Regarding the barriers, the big part is linked to getting access to finance, as well the fact that—I think this is not only in Africa—usually the problem is that they have difficulties to make the product known to the market. Typically, it’s marketing that is very difficult for them; how to market a product. And how to get partnerships as well, because they are small companies that cannot do everything on their own, and they have difficulties to find the right partners who can help them go to the next level, find new clients, and go international. One solution would be to work more in network because, even though they don’t have great financial means, they can always find other like-minded professionals who would help them developing their business. I think that it is the interconnections with other practitioners, entrepreneurs and organizations which is lacking.

They lack as well some kind of expertise locally, for example when it comes to innovation. Sometimes they need some machines for prototyping or some materials that they cannot always find in local laboratories and universities, so they need to travel abroad to find those kinds of materials to work with. I think the real problem is interconnection and the lack of information. For some, they could work with other African countries, but they don’t know that in those African countries they have certain facilities and resources. For example, they don’t know that in Morocco there are a lot of laboratories where they can go and do their research; it’s probably easier for someone from Ghana or Ivory Coast to go to Morocco than to come to Europe to do the research. So I think that one thing we have to work on is better interconnection between African countries and that can help to overcome some of the barriers.

This seems to me a fundamental point, as it stresses the importance for collaboration at a continental level among the different African countries, in order to benefit from different kinds of expertise, infrastructures and so on. Broadening the circle of collaboration from local communities to African countries is a key message, isn’t it?

You got the point, that’s exactly it. We have to work more in a collaborative way among African countries, because we have very similar issues as well and we have to find our own model with our own experience. I think that one key to African development would be more integration within the continent.

This well connects to the policy level. Obviously, some African countries face great political problems, but are there virtuous countries putting out policy plans around the circular economy and sustainable innovation?

From a policy point of view, all countries realize that they have a problem with waste management; everyday they see waste being disposed everywhere. They have passed some laws to ban single-use plastics, but the problem is that even if they pass the law, they don’t enforce it; people continue to use plastic bags. This is because they decided to ban plastic, but they gave neither alternatives to people nor incentives to producers to convert to more eco-friendly alternatives. So, in most African countries, policies are not strong enough to make things change.

There is only one country where things have worked: Rwanda. In Rwanda they banned plastic bags, but they also have incentives for people and for industrials to go to more sustainable alternatives. They did a great awareness campaign to the population, and people gave up the plastic bags. If you go to Rwanda, it is one of the cleanest countries in Africa, so this works very well. There was a real political will to move towards a more sustainable society. The example of Rwanda is one example that other countries must follow, but it is very difficult for others to do the same.

And then, if you want to spot some initiatives, there are actually plenty in each African country in relation to the circular economy; a lot in recovering plastic waste—because it is a huge challenge—and a lot in the agricultural sector as well. They are quite new innovations, still under constructions, and mostly relate to the eco-design of products, designed to last a very long time and to be used differently at the end of their life-cycle.  These innovations are still experimental and not on the market yet.

Are there also circular ideas being implemented in the construction of buildings and, more holistically, at a city level?

At the city level, there are some initiatives but so far I have not really seen results. For example, I know that in Ivory Coast two cities have the label of ‘Sustainable Cities’. They wanted to be greener and more inclusive, but so far there are no results; it is just announcement. Probably we have to give them more time, but I don't really know how they are working.

Concerning the building sector, there are some initiatives to integrate old practices to build with local resources, like the soil. They are trying to bring a new aesthetics to it and to have more contemporary efficiency of building with soil; it’s very nice and I know they are doing those kind of constructions in Mali, in Niger and in Togo. It is very encouraging because it is an answer to so many different issues. If you are using soil for construction, it is cheap, a local resource, environmentally friendly, and you think as well of the end-of-life of these buildings. Moreover they are more suited for local climate and extreme heat; there is also an energy type of consideration that we need to take into account. So, I think it is very encouraging, but it is still very marginal as most of the constructions are still in concrete. We have to go further; there is a long way to go.

Yes, and I am sure this stands for everybody, not only Africa. We are now at my last question, which is a two-parts question hinging upon your dual nature—if you concede me to put it this way—as African and European. The first part is the African one: which message would you send to African people in this fundamental moment in the socio-economic transition of Africa?

My first message to African people is to rediscover what we were doing before, rediscover our wealth and the way we were living and working in collaboration with the rest of the environment. We must rediscover this link with the environment and rethink our way of living, of building cities and of working to be more in peace with the environment. I think that we have a lot to learn from our past. And the second message is to really embrace who we are and not to try to copy others; cultural diversity is a good thing and in Africa we tend to push it on the side. I think this is a kind of global tendency; we all want to do like American people. But it’s important to embrace our own culture and to see what is good in it. Be proud, Africa!

The second part is the European one: which role would you like Europe to have?

I think that it’s important for Africa not to be closed, but to be open in terms of collaboration with Europe. We can learn a lot from Europe, from their experience of what has been going on, and there is also a lot of technology transfer that can be done. It can be mutually beneficial for both European and African countries to work together on a more sustainable and valuable type of relationship. We know that Europe is very rich of technology and know-how, and we can always benefit from this expertise as African people. But, on the other hand, European countries can learn a lot from Africa too; we can always find ways of working together and creating sustainable activities in Africa as well as in Europe, making it sustainable for both continents.

I am quite positive about collaboration with Europe and other countries, but I think it must be done in a different mindset. Not in a mindset where Africa is always begging and waiting for help, but more in a way that we can learn from each other. We are probably different and have different ways of thinking and doing, so we can take the best out of each other and try to create more sustainable models out of it.

Thank you Murielle, this is a beautiful and inspiring message. I am happy and grateful to have had this conversation with you, starting to depict a new face for Africa.

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity and taking the initiative to write something different on Africa and show another face of Africa. This is very much needed!

...setting the example for European-African collaboration, I guess! Thank you, and good luck with all your projects, Murielle!

December 2018

More info:

- Djouman:

- Agro Boot Camp: