Ugandan innovators can gain in proposed switch to circular economy 

by Business Times correspondent
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One of the most annoying things for a pedestrian is to have someone in a vehicle chuck out an empty plastic bottle that lands at their feet.

Frequently, the culprit is a passenger on a boda boda and yes, even some pedestrians will throw their bottles into the drainage channels without a second thought, which just goes to show the extent of the problem.

Collecting discarded plastic bottles has become a micro-scale business, earning a very modest income for the usually young men who prowl the city with sacks slung over their shoulders.

In Uganda, like many other countries around the world, we have one set of citizens passionate about protecting the environment while the other is bent on destroying it without even knowing it.

The circular economy is one possible solution to sort out this mismatch and the government wants to adopt it, as spelt out in the National Development Plan III (2020/21-2024/25).

At the end of January, and with financial support from the African Development Bank (AfDB), the process was officially launched in Kampala. 

The Green Growth Development Strategy is intended to deliver ‘inclusive socio-economic development and growth, including job creation while protecting the country’s natural capital and addressing climate change’. 

The money is being sourced from the AfDB managed Africa Circular Economy Facility (ACEF).

ACEF is a multi-donor trust fund predominantly supported by the governments of Finland and Norway. The fund provides technical assistance to both the public and private sectors to mainstream circular economy. However, other international private sector initiatives are also cropping up to directly provide cash for viable small and medium enterprises taking the circular route.

Mobile technology enabled Africa to hop-skip-and-jump much of landlines phase of telecommunications. Adopting the circular economy model could similarly help limit those aspects of industrialization that do harm to the environment.

Speaking at the launch, Dr Joshua Mutambi, the Commissioner for small businesses (MSMEs) in the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives said: “Uganda, being at the initial stage of its industrialization, is privileged to pursue the path toward sustainable transition that enables us to avoid the consequences of resource inefficient industrialization.”

The circular economy can be defined as a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended. In practice, it implies reducing waste to a minimum. A classic example is making toilet paper from recycled paper.

Government technocrats will be working together with the African Circular Alliance to tap the full potential of circularity in Uganda to accelerate progress towards sustainable development goals and climate action.

Dr. Anthony Nyong, the AfDB Director for Climate Change and Green Growth said, “Circular economy roadmaps are policy enablers to direct investments in efficient use of Africa’s natural assets, generating dividends for nature and the people.”

According to officials at the launch, the transition to a circular economy is expected to boost household incomes as well as benefit some seven million young people through the creation of green jobs. 

Out of sheer necessity of earning a living, unofficially, thousands of Ugandans are already walking the circular path.  This is evidenced by thr range of small industrial enterprises found in Bwaise, Kawempe, Ndeeba Katwe and other urban centres.

Those young men with the sacks mentioned earlier and the artisans in Katwe, who use scrap metal to fashion such things as kitchenware, are examples of the activities that drive a circular economy.

Another example is how carpenters take delivery of old furniture then dismantle it to produce a variety of affordable sofa sets suitable for low-income earners.

At the other end of the scale there is another example revolving around what to do with those discarded plastic bottles. A couple of years ago, Coca Cola Beverages Uganda set up Plastic Recycling Industries (PRI) which is located in Nakawa. 

PRI buys some of these bottles, does some sorting then crushes them to produce pellets that can are used as inputs for other items, in this specific case compressing them to make durable pavers.

Further afield, Adidas, the famous German sportswear maker, has a six year deal with the NGO, Parley for the Oceans to use plastic waste to make textile thread from which Adidas manufactures clothes and footwear.

The point here and why more of Uganda’s small business owners should pick an interest, is that there are lucrative opportunities in the circular economy. It all begins with looking at waste and industrial by-products in a totally different, but imaginative way.  

Easily accessible recyclable items include paper, glass, plastic, steel, and batteries, but the list is lengthening as people become more innovative. In China, the price of a small plastic recycling machine ranges from $2000 to $350,000 depending on your needs.

Coincidently, representatives from six German firms involved in the circular economy will soon be visiting Kenya and Uganda, ready to partner, share their experiences and offer some useful tips.

On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, the Nairobi-based German-African Business Association (AV) and AHK Services Eastern Africa Limited, are organizing the visit to take place between February 26 and March 1, 2024.

The firms are Bioconvision (Uganda) Limited; FAUN Umwelttechnik GmbH & CO KG; Joh. Achelis & Söhne GmbH; Lucas-Nülle GmbH; Siemens and Zertric UG (haftungsbeschränkt).

According to German-African Association officials, the delegation is seeking to enter the Kenyan and Ugandan markets or extend their activities in the field of the circular economy. 

The program will include a conference as well as individual B2B meetings in each country. This delegation offers a chance for Kenyan and Ugandan companies to partner with leading German companies in the sector of circular economy.

For larger business enterprises, the main challenges of transitioning into a circular economy are threefold. Sourcing products and materials from the economy and not from ecological reserves; creating value for customers by adding value to existing products and materials and creating valuable inputs for businesses beyond your customer.

In the case of product-based businesses, adopting a circular model can lower your production costs. Using waste materials rather than raw materials tends to be cheaper, particularly if this is waste produced from your own business.

The sustainability agenda now being aggressively pushed by the wealthier northern hemisphere has Africa on the back foot. A recent example is how the European Union is now rejecting any product that endangers forest cover, notably crops like coffee, cocoa and palm oil trees cultivated in forests.

However the advantage is Africans can adapt the circular economy model as short-cut to generating faster GDP growth, just like the way mobile technology unleashed a surge in the services sector.

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