For a transformed European-African exchange in the era of the circular economy
Looking across the sea from the European continent—say from the Italian coast, where I was born—to the African land, our media and political actors appear only capable of seeing two things: a fleet of fragile ships trying to reach our borders, and a flow of money trying to keep them away. That sea, nowadays, is a sea of despair, death and dreadful human rights violations.
Today we’ll navigate that sea—swimming against the tide—to discover a different story. Not anymore the one of a poor child begging for help, but a story of bottom-up innovation, self-determination and open collaboration. This journey will certainly require less audacity and desperation than the one refugees and migrants are often pushed to undertake, but will still entail a substantial dose of courage. As we are about to discover a new face for Africa, in fact, it is our own, European face that might need to change.
So, if you are ready, come with me, as we start to change the destiny of this sea.
Our vessel? The circular economy.
The New Face: bottom-up innovation and self-determination in a circular economy
The African continent is at a crucial crossroads. As one of the fastest urbanizing regions in the world (56% by 2050) and with an expected population of more than 4 billion people (over 1/3 of world population) by 2100, African countries urgently necessitate a socio-economic model of development able to provide increased standards of living for all African people and able to sustain them in light of the great environmental changes and challenges ahead of us. Without such a model, the prosperity of African communities, cities and societies is at great risk.
It is no surprise, then, that the quest for what this development model should look like is a central topic of concern and discussion in African societies. For the inspired and good-hearted folks, the key question is: how to achieve a model of economic development able to provide tangible and substantial economic, social and environmental benefits? Under the influence of (international) political and economic pressures, power relations and emulating tendencies, it has proven hard for African people to self-determine their answer to this fundamental question.
As of today, the ideological battlefield can be divided in two camps. On one side, those animated by the belief that—in order to achieve the necessary economic growth—Africa must follow the Western industrial model of growth, which has proven to be (partially) successful since the Industrial Revolution. This is a linear economy of take-make-dispose, specialized in the extraction of resources from the ground and their utilization for productive processes, aimed at increasing the range of consumption opportunities for the population. On the other side, instead, there are those who—in light of the persistent environmental and social costs and of the future economic costs of such a model—refuse this conclusion and call for a systemic shift in paradigm: a circular economy.
In a nutshell, a circular economy is a regenerative and distributive economic system, in which value is created through the continuous circulation of all types of resources and energy flows (e.g, natural, material, economic, financial, human), rather than their extraction and concentration. An economy in which resource use is effective and waste is designed out, as what was previously considered waste is turned into value and circulated in infinite loops. In this new story, a circular economy is the plot-twister, the game-changer, the equilibrium-shaker, the mind-opener.
And, the great news is: the circular economy is already taking over Africa!
The humans behind the New Face
Through my ongoing discovery journey into the potential of the circular economy in Africa, I have had the opportunity to become aware of some of the stories, humans and projects behind the blue areas in the above map. These are the stories of bottom-up innovators, young entrepreneurs and community leaders—many of whom strong and inspiring women—who are leveraging the circular economy to provide real answers to the real problems of their local communities. These are the humans creating a path of self-determination and empowerment, sustainable innovation and open collaboration, shaping the destiny of the generations to come.
For people walking on this path, the assumption that economic prosperity can only be achieved through a linear model must be dismissed and turned upside down. Listen, for instance, to Alexandre Lemille, co-founder of the African Circular Economy Network, stating that, as things currently stand—see the intrinsic collaborative spirit and (relatively) low carbon footprint of African societies—Africa has the greatest opportunities to widely implement and benefit from a circular economy. And, what matters the most is that these claims do not remain simple, abstract words, but are already being reflected in impactful projects on the ground.
Here are a couple of examples. In a Circular Conversation, Claire Janisch, founder of Biomimicry South Africa, has shared a story of how biomimicry—golden practice in circular economy in which you learn from nature in order to emulate it—has been applied to the design of a wastewater infrastructure in an informal settlement in the Western Cape. This design used plants and modular systems to treat wastewater, enabling the community to self-manage it, and reducing the severe health problems resulting from human contact with contaminated water. In another conversation, Murielle Diaco—founder of Djouman, a catalyser for sustainable innovation in Africa—has shared stories of African circular entrepreneurs creating value out of agricultural waste (e.g. vegan leather from pineapple waste) and plastic waste (e.g. building material for houses).
These are just two voices amongst the choir of circular innovations that are spreading around Africa. Such innovations are particularly valuable in those informal settlements, where over half (61.7%) of the urban population currently lives, and which usually lack adequate sanitation and waste management infrastructures. In such contexts, a circular economy can not only help to address these problems, but can also contribute to change the economic and social community dynamics, increasing employment and community bonding, and decreasing poverty, segregation and criminality.
Europe and Africa: A new vision for exchange and collaboration
If this is the new face of Africa, what’s the role of Europe in this story? To answer this question, it is fundamental to realize that despite all their differences, these two continents share a common, vital objective: to ensure the prosperity of their citizens and environments in the future. Coupling this with the fact that there is no traced path certain to lead us there, we easily understand that it is not time for ‘teaching’ or ‘advising’ about the right way. It is time to collaborate, to exchange, to experiment, to learn. When the mountain you have to climb is particularly hard and insidious, the only chance of success is to climb it together, as partners, as a team.
This is why we need to focus on collaborating and sharing our knowledge, technology, skills, experiences, problems and solutions. And, this time, it must be a different type of exchange; not anymore an exchange that is profit-seeking in nature, and (unconvincingly) dressed up as ‘international collaboration’. The old mindset will not take us far in our common journey towards a prosperous and regenerative socio-economic system, where all people and the planet can thrive. We need to get closer to each other, learn from each other, and build together the new path.
In September 2018, the European Commission announced a new Africa-Europe Alliance For Sustainable Investments and Jobs, where the term ‘alliance’ was purposely chosen to convey this image of collaboration among equals. Despite my personal dissatisfaction with the chosen term—‘allies’in a political context always evokes in me a war atmosphere—I hope this agreement will bring tangible benefits to all parties involved.
When I talk about exchange, however, the political level is not what I am referring to. Rather, I’d propose to focus on what has been working brilliantly in Africa, Europe and the rest of the world: bottom-up community and innovative initiatives, the grassroots movements. And with this proposition comes an invitation: to connect these initiatives and the social and circular entrepreneurs behind them, enabling them to learn, share and grow. As it is now being done by the African Circular Economy Network, which is creating valuable opportunities for exchange, both inside the continent and between the Global South and the Global North. These are the initiatives needed to take us on top of the mountain, such that we might see, from there, a prosperous future.
It will be sweat, but less blood and tears (...than the alternative)
In the current times, hope is a fundamental ingredient, but naiveté a dangerous mistake. So, better be prepared: it won’t be all rainbows and unicorns, flowers and romance, hugs and tickles. Given the magnitude of the challenges we are called to face and solve—in Africa, Europe and the rest of the world—the path up will be a difficult and dangerous one, in which many obstacles on the way will risk to make us fall. And it is exactly because of this, that being close and learning from each other will prove to be key to find the right solutions for different contexts, under our common objectives.
It will be a difficult path, but—to my eyes—the only one able to create true prosperity, value and virtue for our communities, cities and socio-economic systems. And, certainly, worth undertaking, because the alternative is simply disastrous.
Emanuele B. Di Francesco
This is the the beginning of the discovery journey on the value and experiences of a circular economy in Africa. Want to share your experience as African circular innovator, entrepreneur or community leader? Get in contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Together, we’ll work to change the destiny of this sea.
 United Nations “medium scenario” projections, World Population Prospects 2017: https://population.un.org/wpp/
 Informal settlements are residential areas where (UN Habitat, 2015; Brown, 2015):
Inhabitants often have no security of tenure for the land or dwellings they inhabit - e.g., they might squat or rent informally
Neighbourhoods usually lack basic services and city infrastructure
Housing may not comply with planning and building regulations
 UN-Habitat 2013, https://unhabitat.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/WHD-2014-Background-Paper.pdf