How to make the circular economy more inclusive for rural African communities

by Mirabelle Morah / June 2022

Tony Joy founded her social enterprise, Durian Nigeria, to build self-sufficient rural communities by helping them turn their waste products into useful items that could generate income and improve their lives, while also protecting the environment. Tony spoke at the SEWF 2021 Rural Forum and is presently on the SEWF 2022 Youth Advisory Group. In commemoration of the 2022 World Environment Day with the focus on having “only one Earth” and how we can live sustainably in harmony with nature, Tony, from her experience, writes and explains how we can make the circular economy more inclusive for rural African communities.  

*Circular economy involves the sustainable practice of reusing and recycling existing materials (often termed waste) to make new goods and products.

There are several examples of circular economy programmes serving rural African communities such as Texfad Textiles, Ghana Bamboo Bikes and the organisation that I presently lead, Durian Nigeria. However, for real transformation, we need more social enterprise programmes that will bring circular economy into rural communities in a way that these communities will understand it ⏤ and not how we think they’ll understand it.   

Here are two ways we can achieve this.  

1. Localise production

Durian Craft Village
Durian Craft Village

In the manufacturing and creation of goods, localising the production process within a community goes a long way in ensuring that the people within these communities are carried along, thus ensuring zero waste whether in skillset or in local resources. For example, making solar panels with local materials such as bamboo for panel frames can reduce solar production costs, thus increasing affordability for people within rural communities. With a reduction in production price, rural communities’ drive towards a greener world becomes more obtainable.   

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But the drive towards a circular economy indeed comes at a cost and often, it is at a high price. Solar energy is appealing but many people within our rural communities cannot afford it. Let us picture a rural community in Nigeria without electricity supply for years. Then a passionate social venture comes along and introduces them to the concept of solar energy as the way forward. For example, if the average income of a person living in a rural community in Nigeria is about $1 a day, it is evident that this individual (as with many others in similar situations and in similar income brackets) would struggle to access this solar solution, in as much as it is sustainable and provides a better energy source for the future. Access to solar energy is only one example. And this applies to many other sustainable products and services that tend to be unaffordable.   

When people experience the circular economy firsthand, they begin to understand its value in making their own lives and communities better. For example, Durian Nigeria trains rural women to transform their local waste and resources into a means of livelihood. The organisation has a green craft village where women use bamboo to make unique items; we use cocoa pods for making skincare products, fabric waste for designing crafts and use agricultural waste to produce animal feed and fertilisers. At Durian, we’re raising a new generation of rural women who understand the value of what they have and who they are. We sell the products made from sustainable materials and in turn, train the women to use the income generated to protect the resources they have in their communities. And now, our women are becoming ambassadors of preserving the environment because they understand why we need to protect our environments.  

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2.  Engage local people in the production process  

When the locals are engaged in creating a new narrative, they own it and transfer this knowledge to the next generation and they can decide if an idea would flourish or not. A project may likely fail when a social enterprise localises the production process yet, does not engage the people. This is what makes organisations such as Ghana Bamboo Bikes and Texfad successful.

Every year in Uganda and many African countries, farmers plant bananas and after harvest, they leave the stems to decompose. Texfad makes decomposable textiles from banana tree stems or trunks purchased from farmers and in turn the farmers get an extra income from what would have gone to waste. As a result of this sustainable practice, the organisation creates a continuous cycle that positively impacts the environment and rural communities. Likewise, Ghana Bamboo Bike makes bicycles from bamboo which they source from communities, after which they train locals on how to make the bicycles while they sell the bicycles. To sustain the process, they plant more bamboo for every bamboo cut. And this bamboo planting further aids in carbon sinking, protecting the soil against erosion.  

In summary

While the world is moving fast towards achieving the SDGs, which includes building a greener environment, it is essential to remember that rural communities form a considerable part of the population. Therefore, making circular economy programmes more inclusive for rural dwellers will ensure that we achieve the goals faster.   

 ⏤ Written by Tony Joy

Mirabelle Morah is the community and communications manager at SEWF