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Unlocking the Circular Economy Potential of African Island States

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Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA) – An employee at the Myplas plastic recycling facility in Bellville, Cape Town, South African sifts through plastic bottle for recycling purposes.

By Mialy Andriamahefazafy, Alex Benkenstein and Pierre Failler

The circular economy is defined as an ‘economic system that replaces the “end-of-life” concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in production, distribution and consumption processes’.

The circular economy is increasingly identified as being central to achieving sustainable development.

The three principles of a circular economy are: the elimination of waste and pollution; the circulation of products and materials (at their highest value); and the regeneration of nature. With this concept becoming more prominent, a number of global circular economy initiatives have been launched. These include the Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency, the Global Plastic Action Partnership, the Circular Electronics Action Partnership and the Global Battery Alliance.

In many African countries, the circular economy is still a nascent concept. Nevertheless, there is growing recognition of its importance to the continent’s development. Two regional circular economy networks have been established – the African Circular Economy Alliance and the African Circular Economy Network – while the concept is also coming more to the fore in regional forums and institutions such as the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment and the African Development Bank.

The circular economy has also been highlighted as a priority area for co-operation between the AU and the European Commission. Circular economy initiatives on the African continent have mainly been focused on waste management and, to some extent, renewable energy, while there is growing investment in regenerative ecosystem restoration activities. Within the region, South Africa has been one of the leaders in adopting circular economy principles in sectors such as waste management, renewable energy and manufacture. Other countries such as Nigeria, Rwanda, Ghana, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt have undertaken research and begun implementing projects and programmes, particularly related to waste management and renewable energy.

This policy insight explores opportunities related to a circular economy for African island states. African island states have experienced a dramatic increase in resource extraction and waste generation in recent decades, while at the same time facing growing challenges in the context of climate vulnerabilities and ambitions to develop sustainable blue economies.

The policy insight highlights five key action areas that should be prioritised in integrating the circular economy concept into these states’ sustainable development agendas.

The state of the circular economy in African islands

An analysis of circular economy baselines for African islands shows that they are heavily dependent on the extraction of natural resources and accumulate considerable amounts of waste. Domestic resource extraction in these island states has increased over the past 40 years – and by more than 500 percent in countries such as Cabo Verde and Comoros.

Marine living resources, in particular, are being harvested at significant scale, with an annual production of around 500,000 tonnes in these islands. The aquaculture sector in the Indian Ocean Commission countries alone is estimated at €23.3 million ($24.5 million) annually. Activities that can improve life cycles in the countries involved in aquaculture include waste management and water treatment, both of which are in need of improvement. In terms of material flow, more developed African island states such as Mauritius and Seychelles have higher material consumption and waste per capita than developing African island states. They also have a high amount of plastic usage per capita, with plastic pollution being a major threat to the ecosystems of African island states.

Existing circular practices in waste management Initiatives to reduce consumption and waste

The imperative to ‘reduce’ in a circular economy refers to both the design and the utilisation of products. In the pre-use stage, various eco- or sustainable design principles are applied to ensure that products last longer, have multiple uses or life cycles, and require less materials. With regard to utilisation, ‘reducing’ speaks to the need to consume fewer products and ensure that those products that are procured are used for longer periods, rather than being quickly discarded.

For African islands, there are multiple opportunities to consider the design and use of products in a way that reduces both demand for inputs and the resultant consumption and waste. In recent years there has been a growing emphasis on reducing plastic use and waste. Islands such as Seychelles have implemented environmental education programmes on reducing plastic consumption and waste generation, and ensuring better waste management. Mauritius has put in place a financial incentive to reduce the consumption of plastic through an excise duty on non-biodegradable plastic food containers. The scheme imposes a tax on single-use plastic food containers, and has achieved a significant reduction in the use and production of these products. Various island states such as Cabo Verde, Madagascar and Seychelles have imposed outright bans (with certain limited exceptions) on plastic bags, polystyrene boxes, plastic utensils and plastic straws.

Waste collection and valorisation as a ‘reuse’ circular economy strategy

In a circular economy, the concept of ‘reuse’ covers various strategies, from resale and direct reuse to re-purposing and repair. For African islands, the reuse strategy is key in ensuring circularity and reducing reliance on imports.

Efficient and well-organised waste management systems are crucial in supporting reuse of products and materials. Several African island states have established initiatives that ensure the valorisation of waste collection. For example, companies in Comoros and Madagascar (Mouniat Compost and Madacompost) collect municipal organic waste for sorting and recycling. Mauritius has established a home composting scheme that provides compost bins to households to encourage source segregation of waste and promote composting.

Other schemes mobilise the ‘reuse’ strategy. In Mauritius, initiatives such as The Good Shop specialise in resale, repair and repurposing. They collect objects considered as waste and then either recover constituent materials or repair and re-sell products. Many of these companies make products available for a modest price after being customised for a second life. In Madagascar, a company (Fakofia) collects metal and plastic waste to resell components to local handcraft businesses.

African Islands widely adopting recycling strategies at different levels

Recycling has been integrated into various countries’ waste management policies, including through the creation of recycling centres. Indian Ocean Commission countries have also developed a regional strategy targeting specific types of waste, notably plastic, batteries, oils and tyres. Recycling activities also take place within communities (Seychelles), in the private sector (Mauritius, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Comoros) and at the state level (Cabo Verde).

Recovering energy and e-waste parts as an emerging circular economy sector

The ‘recover’ strategy in a circular economy involves retrieving valuable or hazardous material during the post-use phase. For example, this strategy involves energy or metal compound recovery processes. A common practice in less developed countries such as Madagascar, Comoros and Guinea-Bissau is the recovery of metal and other components by informal recyclers. These recovery activities target different types of metal, as well as e-waste. In more advanced countries such as Mauritius, the private sector is a key player in developing recovery activities. In Mauritius, private companies are involved in recovering energy and metal from old batteries and e-waste. They have developed processes to collect and recover material from e-waste, with these materials then being reused for refurbishment purposes or for an entirely different use. While such practices can play an important part in circular economy practices, governments should regulate them better and mitigate their potential negative impacts on human health and the environment.

The ‘natural regeneration’ aspect of the circular economy

A key feature that makes the circular economy an innovative yet grounded opportunity is the principle of natural regeneration. This entails ‘the promotion of the self-renewal capacity of natural systems with the aim of reactivating ecological processes damaged or over-exploited by human action’. Healthy ecosystems provide a range of ecosystem services that support communities and broader society. It is therefore important that these ecosystems are protected and restored.

Challenges in adopting a circular economy

Despite the fact that circular economy-related initiatives and activities are under way in various African island states, challenges remain in achieving a more comprehensive transition to a circular economy. The first challenge is limited knowledge of the circular economy at different levels of society, including among policymakers, governance actors, businesses and the general public. The circular economy concept is still abstract to many and some may question its relevance, especially for developing island states, given its origins in the Global North. At the level of the general public, apart from a handful of islands such as Mauritius where the concept is being integrated into various policies and initiatives, there is little knowledge about the circular economy. Island populations are, however, increasingly aware of the need for environmental protection and waste management, including the importance of avoiding food waste and single-use plastic products.

Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency(ANA) – A recycler pulls his trolley along a local road in Pretoria, South Africa

For the circular economy to drive systemic change in African islands, the following key actions are necessary at different levels of society:

  • Action 1: Anchor the circular economy within policy frameworks and regulations
  • Action 2: Increase awareness of circular economy principles and methods
  • Action 3: Use waste management as an opportunity to improve material stock management
  • Action 3: Use waste management as an opportunity to improve material stock management
  • Action 4: Put natural restoration at the centre of the economy
  • Action 5: Incentivise businesses to transition to circular practices


The circular economy is still an abstract concept in many African countries, including islands. However, it presents crucial opportunities for these islands, especially for countries that want to achieve sustainable and inclusive Blue Economies. Circular economy principles can help African islands develop ocean-based activities that are both regenerative and based on better management of material stocks. These considerations are particularly important as countries consider the development of Blue Economy activities such as seabed mining, marine bioprospecting or offshore oil and gas extraction, which may have long-term negative impacts on natural capital flows.

The circular economy also presents significant opportunities for job creation. While technical capacity in some countries in the region may be limited in certain specialised circular economy activities, there are many opportunities to adopt circular economy practices in the short term that can create jobs. Skills development should be promoted to take advantage of circular economy activities in the medium and long term. By promoting circularity, the problem of waste generation and management – and plastic waste in particular – can be addressed holistically. Finally, the circular economy is also an opportunity for learning exchanges and sharing experiences between islands. Such exchanges should include policy actors and private sector stakeholders. As African island states seek to promote sustainable Blue Economies, circular economy principles can support these efforts by reducing reliance on imports, improving waste management and promoting a strong focus on regeneration of natural assets.

Andriamahefazafy is a Malagasy researcher working as a Research Fellow at the Centre for Blue Governance, University of Portsmouth.

Benkenstein is the head of the Climate and Natural Resources programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Failler is Professor of Economics in the Faculty of Business and Law and Director of the Centre for Blue Governance at the University of Portsmouth.

This is an edited version of a report published on South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).