Sustainable business in Africa (VI/VI): Turning waste into value

By Samuele Tini, Host of The Sustainability Journey podcast

This is part six of a six-part series on sustainable business practices in Africa. You can find part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here.

The world will be turning all eyes on Ottawa this month for the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution.

However, while diplomacy is slowly taking us towards a binding agreement, changemakers around the world are already working to tackle plastic pollution.

Africa in particular, stands at a critical moment in history. The African century (Stanley , 2023) is here, and rapid urbanization, population growth and increased levels of consumption, coupled with weak waste management systems, contribute to an acute plastic problem.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), we produce 400 million tons per year, Africa alone produces (2015 data) 19 million tons of waste, almost all mismanaged (Moyen Massa and Archodoulaki, 2024) and it finds its way into the environment and in aquatic ecosystems (Akindele and Alimba, 2021). Plastic poses increased environmental risks, it exacerbates social inequalities, poses health risks and has a huge cost for society. According to WWF, and just for South Africa only, “the minimum life cycle cost that was imposed on South Africa by the plastic produced in 2019 is approximately $60,72 billion” (Sadan and De Kock, 2021) .

However, the challenge presents as well opportunities for business to provide solutions. And one interesting business case study is in Kenya, where I met with Sonia Orwa the CEO of Mr. Green Africa, a company that has impact at the core since its foundation almost ten years ago. Sonia remarks, “Mr. Green was created to turn waste into value…the social and environmental impact is the core of our business”.

Mr. Green’s model is based on three pillars: inclusive sourcing, Local processing and closing the loop. Its core is constituted by the 7,000 informal waste pickers that daily come to the collection centre with plastic and receive in return higher payments than in the market and even loyalty points to be redeemed to purchase protection equipment or even groceries. The focus on waste pickers is the cornerstone of Mr. Green’s innovative business model, which merges environmental sustainability and social empowerment. In fact Sonia recognize that waste pickers face multiple challenges since they are mainly operating in the informal market with limited or no protection or adequate compensation. Mr. Green has committed to ensuring a stable and reliable income with fair prices. The objective is to get all their pickers to get at first the minimum wage in Kenya, around 15,000 Kes per month (around 120 dollars) and then to get them all to living wage with its planned expansion capacity.

Mr. Green is able to collect and process around 6,000 tons of plastic per year, and its next expansion will be 20,000 tons. While the numbers seem impressive, they are only a tiny fraction of the total waste. In fact Sonia remarks that “only 9% of the plastic that is produced is recycled. Imagine there is 81% of it still in the environment” and more appalling is the daily waste production in Nairobi at 5,000 tons per day and half of it is plastic. Even if we stop using plastic today, “Mr Green will remain in business for the next 50 years”.

After collection comes the second part of the process, which is cleaning, sorting and shredding the different types of plastic. Currently Mr. Green has the capacity to recycle four classes of plastic Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), and Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE). They are, however, working on expanding their capacity.

The third pillar is the sale of the recycled material to companies and here Sonia pointed out that “Mr. Green’s core value is really that it’s locally sourced, locally processed and goes back into the local value chain”. The majority of their clients are in Kenya, and just PET is exported. Mr. Green has created several collaborations with big brands like Unilever to have the first 100% recycled packaging or Shell and Total Energies to improve their lubricant packs up to 30% from recycled plastic.

And the impact of Mr. Green does not stops in Kenya. It is as well “the first waste management company in Africa to be B Corp certified” and the certification “has given us a benchmark of where we want to go and how we can get there”. As we have seen in our previous articles in the series, companies use the certification as a strategy tool for improvement and Mr. Green set some ambitious goals before and after the certification. In fact at the heart of the process there is a continuous improvement process, summarized in the score for certification. “When we first got B Corp certified, we just made it, qualifying with a score of 80 point. And then we set goals that in the next two years, we need to be able to get to above 100”. In order to reach there, Mr. Green has ambitiously focused on providing all pickers a the living wage, on expanding its capacity and fostering impact and collaborations. It nows as well reaches up to 5,000 individual consumers, who are also slowly embracing recycling and delivering plastic waste.

The certification has also brought some tangible benefits for the company, especially in attracting some investments, which aligns with the findings from the research we discussed in the first article. The certification has a strong business case for emerging economies and can lead the way in sustainable and socially responsible practices. As Sonia rightly points out, this is about setting a precedent and encouraging a wave of change across the continent.

Sonia has ambitious plans to expand her reach to other African countries and become a Global South player. With new partnerships, like with Danish Refugee Council, Mr. Green will provide training and improving livelihoods of refugees, and setting up a collection centre in the refugee camp on Kakuma in Kenya. Recycling R

equires a very high capex investment in fixed assets and to lower costs to fund its ambitious expansion plan, Mr. Green is looking at plastic credits for innovative finance. Plastic credits “can be understood as transferable units representing a specific quantity of plastic waste that has been collected from the environment and subsequently recycled or safely disposed of (GIZ, 2022). Credits, similar to carbon credits, can then be purchased by companies or individuals to lower their plastic footprint.

Mr. Green is a clear business case for solutions to our environmental and social problems, and the movement of the business for good. With its case, we have concluded this first series in collaboration with B Lab Africa, showcasing how innovative companies are rewriting business as usual and fostering stakeholder capitalism in emerging markets. Their stories clearly indicate that it is possible to have profitability and doing good, contributing to promoting a new economic model for the most dynamic area of our planet. It is time to leapfrog the old extractive models for growth and embrace, as Spring Valley Coffee, Upendo Honey , Emboo River and Mr. Green Africa have shown, a regenerative model that considers all stakeholders and has profound social and environmental impact without compromising profitability.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

References
Adebiyi-Abiola, B., Assefa, S., Sheikh, K., & García, J. M. (2019). Cleaning up plastic pollution in Africa. Science, 365(6459), 1249-1251.

Akindele, E. O., & Alimba, C. G. (2021). Plastic pollution threat in Africa: Current status and implications for aquatic ecosystem health. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 28, 7636-7651.

GIZ (2022) Position paper on Plastic credits [online]

Moyen Massa, G., & Archodoulaki, V. M. (2024). An Imported Environmental Crisis: Plastic Mismanagement in Africa. Sustainability, 16(2), 672.

Sadan, Z., & De Kock, L. (2021). Plastic Pollution in Africa: Identifying policy gaps and opportunities. WWF.

Stanley, A. (2023) African Century.

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