According to a publication by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Africa was only recycling 4% of its waste in 2018. Back then, so the UNEP stated, it was the vision of the African Union (AU) to recycle at least 50% of Africa’s waste by 2023. As reemphasized in an article from 2020 on the Environmental Law Insights blog by Baker McKenzie, it is expected that Africa’s waste will have quadrupled by 2050. Until 2020, it had at least achieved to collect 44% of its waste, but more so in cities than in rural areas. Whereas various countries, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Namibia and Rwanda, have been outlined to “promot[e] resource recovery domestically”, waste is still oftentimes “openly dumped”, with the latter making formal waste management highly ineffective despite its growing existence. Based on the importance of solid waste management in Africa, this article will attempt to understand what artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) could contribute.
The Temporalities Of Waste: Food Insecurity Vs. Waste Dumping
Reducing waste does not start after consumption. Indeed, it starts during production, because waste stems from the unreasonable use of resources of any kind (i.e. time, energy, natural resources etc.). As Ndung’u and Signé have pointed out, African start-ups have been using IoT technologies in order to make farming more efficient and reduce food waste through “data-driven ‘precision farming’ techniques”. Both, this solution and the definition of waste illustrate that waste management is a broad term with different temporalities. Whereas waste dumping constitutes a serious issue, so does food insecurity. In both cases, AI and IoT technologies can be deployed for creating more efficiency and more sustainable outcomes with positive impacts on both the environment, biodiversity and different livelihoods.
Tackling Food Insecurity: Smart and Sustainable Farming in EU-Africa Trade
As Abbott, Checco and Polese demonstrate, smart-farming, for instance, is both connected with challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, smart-farming could make a particularly important difference with regard to supporting smallholder farmers, who produce 70–80% of food in Africa and across the globe. On the other hand, smart farming technologies, such as sensor networks with the capacity to predict floods, rely on electricity and mobile hardware availability. In addition, they can be a pricey solution under certain circumstances. While the latter may sound discouraging, it might instead be a reason to keep innovating this field and build up pools of expertise on smart farming in Africa. As was emphasized during the EU-Africa business forum on 16th February 2022 by Janusz Wojciechowski, the EU Commissioner on Agriculture, “farming is a largely private sector activity, with high public importance”. For the latter reason, public-private partnerships are urgently needed to especially support rural areas and smallholder farmers in Africa.
The launch of the AU-EU agrifood platform commemorated the latter in 2020 and the EU-AU Summit 2022 highlighted that (smart-)farming must also be sustainable. In order to ensure the latter, especially since African farmers fear that compliance with sustainability standards could demand more from them than they can afford to change in a rather short period of time and on limited resources, investments must be encouraged and African start-ups and entrepreneurs arguably need to receive extra support to develop technologies for smallholder farmers in rural areas and beyond. Whereas this has not been directly emphasized in efforts to talk about sustainable farming, the latter must arguably also include technologies, which forego food waste prior to consumption (i.e. by increasing productivity) and as African farmers have demanded, a coherent policy framework is necessary in order to protect them for keeping being included in Africa-EU trade.
The latter underlines not only that the EU has an important role in supporting Africa with smart and sustainable farming, but also that any failure to support Africa might – unless the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) allows for food to be more effectively distributed across the African continent – lead to creating food waste at a certain point in time, namely when farmers would be penalized for not complying with sustainability standards and trade would (temporarily) discontinue. Whereas strengthening domestic food production might be key for Africa to become self-sufficient and less reliant on food imports, African-EU trade could be used as a catalyzer for the promotion of farmers’ rights and workers’ rights in agricultural production in Sub-Saharan Africa. Especially since increasing self-sufficiency, wages, living standards and smart-farming might constitute interdependent processes, it might also be worth analyzing how software, which could for instance be provided by African and EU start-ups, can also be standardized to a certain extent and be made more widely available to smallholder farmers in Africa.
While the latter should not interfere with farmers’ right to sovereignty, including with regard to decisions about local production, it should support them in becoming more efficient and for maintaining the opportunity to keep participating in trade with EU countries as the latter are scaling up on sustainability standards in agricultural production. As Nigussie et al. emphasize, food security is at risk due to a variety of aspects such as “natural resources degradation, population growth, exposure to climate risks and [the] vulnerability of (…) agricultural systems”. AI and IoT technologies can effectively tackle some of the latter issues. As the researchers argue, this can for instance happen through the use of smart irrigation management systems, which collect data by “monitor[ing] various soil, water body, plants, and microclimate parameters using distributed sensors”. Notably, “low-power wireless connectivity technologies” (i.e. LoRaWAN, Sigfox etc.) and IoT nodes do not have to be expensive and sensors have the capacity to monitor a variety of water-, soil- and microclimate-related parameters making up for the lack of weather stations. In a nutshell, there are a variety of technologies that can make farming more successful and predictable as a way to forecome food/resources waste prior to consumption.
Tackling Municipal Solid Waste Management and Changing Recycling Habits
As Ayeleru, Fajimi, Oboirien and Olubambi point out in a 2020 article, municipal solid waste (MSW) has increased in the absence of proper “waste management (WM) infrastructures”, which calls for forecasting solutions that might be able to reverse this process. MSW forecasting can be facilitated in a number of ways including through a machine learning (ML) approach that offers tools such as Linear Regressions, Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs), Decision-Trees, k-Nearest Neighbors (kNNs) etc. With ANN modelling being the most frequently deployed solution, it also has been found to provide some of the most reliable predictions next to the Supported Vector Machine (SVM) ML approach.
Different from the latter researchers, Xia, Jiang, Chen and Zhao emphasize that ANN and kNN can also be used for waste bin detection. Especially when transportation costs increase as waste collectors drive from one empty bin to the next, this tool is particularly useful to also decrease CO2 emissions from transport, where a bin system is already properly working. Indeed, as an article on Deutsche Welle hints, this is not the case in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Nairobi, for instance, trucks and bins are argued to be too little in scope with COVID-19 related waste (i.e. masks, chemical waste, protective medical clothing, needles etc.) having increased overall waste by a decent amount. The latter fact emphasizes that AI and IoT-based solutions to WM in Africa must understand how communities contribute to both waste collection and waste dumping.
Changing patterns can be hard, but De Graft Management Ltd., which states that it consists of property, asset & waste technology experts, has proven that tech innovation can tackle the WM issue at its root. As explained on the Urban Agenda Platform, Kiambu Municipality in Kenya has been cooperating with De Graft Management Ltd. “to develop an artificial intelligence-enabled technology to engage waste stream stakeholders in a single, centralized, secure cloud-based online platform”. Among others, the technology which De Graft Management Ltd. was going to provide for the Kiambu Municipality was explained to be able to: 1) automate waste disposal, collection and recycling, 2) process complaints about WM, 3) improve safety based on regular and reliable waste collection, 4) improve communication and workflows among various stakeholders, 5) provide incentives for efforts to properly recycle, 6) provide analytics on recycling, collection etc., 7) provide WM training etc.
The above shows that tackling the waste after consumption issue is also related to changing habits among different community members. The latter might become increasingly important in the upcoming years as Africa’s population is growing. As highlighted in an article about solid waste management by the World Bank, digital and smart solutions to WM are no panacea – however, they can also contribute to estimating the costs of WM, which will probably increase over the next decades, unless cost-effective solutions will serve to tackle the significant increases in waste, which especially Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia and Pacific are projected to experience until 2050. Especially after Nigeria, Japan and the UN signed an agreement on sustainable plastic value chains in Nigeria in February 2022, there is hope that tech-based solutions will continue to find their way into the country. Ironically, while Japan is engaged to combine WM solutions with robotics, it is also one of the top ten countries, as is Nigeria, with the most plastic waste worldwide.
If you are a start-up, a SME or an investor with an interest in scaling up in Africa with an innovative waste management solution, we would be particularly pleased to support this effort on the legal side! We employ legal experts with knowledge across various African jurisdictions and have long-standing experience with giving advice on topics such as labour and immigration, tax and customs, contracts and negotiations, corporate governance and compliance as well as data protection. Next to our African offices, we have an office in Germany since 2020 and are interested in strengthening the cooperation between the two regions in the renewables sector, among others, to promote local development. Contact us today for an initial consultation!