AFRICA’S LONG ROCKY ROAD TO RENEWABLE ENERGY
Individuals and conservation groups are working across the continent to stop littering, eliminate single-use plastics, recycle and use waste to generate energy and embrace sustainable energy sources
FOR years, Kenyans freely used and disposed of plastic bags. The bags were in the markets, in the gutters and in the guts of three out of every 10 animals taken to slaughter.
Nakuru, a town north-west of Nairobi, was a particular eyesore, with a poorly managed dump site that left bags strewn across roads.
It drove Nakuru resident James Wakibia to desperation and then to activism. Wakibia wrote letters to local papers, posted on social media, launched the hashtag #banplasticsKE and joined local group InTheStreetsofNakuru to petition the Kenyan government to ban single-use plastic bags.
It got people talking.
Finally, in August 2017, Kenya passed a landmark law banning the purchase, sale or use of plastic bags. Offenders risk four years in prison or a $40000 fine (R571000).
“Plastic bags were all over the place,” Wakibia said. “But now the once-clogged drains are flowing and roadsides are free from plastic bags. There is a visible change.”
The trash and plastics nightmare can be found across the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa produces 62million tons of waste a year, including plastic waste, according to the World Bank. With Africa’s rapid urbanisation and economic growth, environmentalists expect that figure to double by 2025.
Yet Africa’s epidemic of waste may contain the seeds of a solution to another stubborn problem – the energy shortage. In sub-Saharan Africa some 609 million people
(6 out of 10) have no access to electricity, and about 80percent of those in rural areas lack electricity access, according to 2017 data by the World Bank.
Manufacturers in sub-Saharan Africa experience an average of 56 days of shutdown time a year due to power outages, the African Development Bank noted in 2017.
To achieve universal energy access, Africa requires an investment of more than $1.5 trillion in the energy sector between 2018 and 2050. Without it, sub-Saharan
Africa will be home to an estimated 89percent of the world’s energy poor by 2030, according to a report last year by the International
Energy Agency (IEA), which advises governments on energy policy.
To meet demand, exploration is under way to convert the mounting piles of rubbish into much-needed energy – and some countries are showing how that can be done.
This year Ethiopia completed the Reppie thermal plant, Africa’s first waste-to-energy plant, which has the capacity to incinerate 1400 tons of waste a day. The plant handles 80percent of Addis Ababa’s waste and converts it into electricity that, when the plant becomes fully operational, will serve 3 million people – providing 30percent of the capital city’s needs.
To execute the $120m project, the Ethiopian government partnered with China National Electric Engineering, which worked with Cambridge Industries and its managing director, Samuel Alemayehu, a Stanford-educated engineer and former Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
“The Reppie project is just one component of Ethiopia’s broader strategy to address pollution and embrace renewable energy across all sectors of the economy,” said Zerubabel Getachew, Ethiopia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN. “We hope Reppie will serve as a model for other countries in the region and around the world.”
With only 4percent of the continent’s waste being recycled, Africa’s waste management is still in its infancy, according to a 2018 report by the UN Environment and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a South Africabased research organisation.
South Africa may be an outlier. PET Recycling, a South African company, reported in 2016 that plastic bottle recycled tonnage had grown by 822percent in the country since 2005.
“Currently South Africa does not have mandatory punitive legislation in place which makes separation of recyclables (from the waste stream) in homes, offices, restaurants and bars compulsory. Mandatory separation at the source will ensure greater recycling success in years to come,” said Shabeer Jhetam, an executive director at the Glass Recycling Company.
Without legislative backing, Wakibia is sceptical about sustainable practices across Africa.
“I think the biggest hindrance to environmental protection is when politicians have vested interests,” he told UN Environment.
“For example, many politicians are shareholders of companies engaged in lumbering, or dealing with plastics. So it becomes hard for them to support any initiatives calling for sustainable forestry or a ban on single-use plastics.
“I’m glad the government of Kenya has called for massive tree planting across the country. I hope they will walk the talk.”
The sun could be another source of sustainable energy in Africa. Africa has 117percent more sunshine than Germany, the global leader in solar energy. Owing to its decreasing cost and increasing convenience, solar energy is projected to become the world’s largest source of energy by 2050, states a 2017 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Lighting Africa, a World Banksupported project started by music icon Akon, his childhood friend Thione Niang and Malian philanthropist Samba Bathily, hopes to provide solar energy solutions to 250 million people across subSaharan Africa by 2030.
Since its establishment in
2014, Lighting Africa has provided electricity access to nearly 29 million people in 25 African countries, including Benin, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Sierra Leone.
Morocco leads the pack in solar energy in Africa. With 32percent of its energy needs currently coming from renewable sources, the country is on track to hit 44percent by 2020.
Morocco’s solar energy ambition is anchored on the $9billion Ouarzazate solar power station, also called Noor power station, in the DrâaTafilalet region.
The power station is expected to produce electricity for over 1 million homes by the end of this year. The Spanish consortium TSK-AccionaSener is helping to develop the project.
However, some countries’ reliance on fossil fuels for energy and revenue may be hampering investments in renewables.
Nigeria, for example, produces and sells about 2.2 million barrels of oil a day, which accounted for 69percent of its revenues in 2017, reported Nigeria’s Central Bank.
Without the capacity to refine sufficient oil for domestic consumption, Nigeria subsidises fossil fuel production by up to $2.5bn yearly, notes the IEA, which warns that such subsidies put undue strain on governments’ budgets and create obstacles for emerging low-carbon businesses and the renewables sector.
Angola, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, among other countries, each subsidised fossil fuel production by more than $1bn in 2015, states the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development.
Even South Africa increased its subsidy for fossil fuels from $2.9bn in 2014 to $3.5bn in 2016, despite a commitment the country made at the 2009 G20 summit to phase out subsidies, notes the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, whose members are the world’s richest nations.
South Africa is also home to 31billion tons of recoverable coal, the sixth largest store in the world.
Both the Paris Agreement and Goal 12 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development require countries to focus less on fossil fuels and more on renewables.
African governments are concerned that phasing out subsidies could trigger hikes in the cost of petroleum products and electricity, leading to social unrest. |
AN IVORIAN woman collects plastic bottles to sell for recycling from the general waste at the Akouedo recycling depot and landfill site in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Plastic pollution has reached epidemic proportions. | EPA
TSHWANE landfill workers and independent waste collectors all working at the Onderstepoort landfill site. Only 4 percent of Africa’s wassste is being recycled. |