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From plastic pollution to climate change: Africa’s sustainability leadership goes beyond tree planting


The large, beautiful continent of Africa has emerged as a sustainability leader destined to develop in line with the demands of the future. Unfortunately, this continent bears a disproportionate brunt of the responsibility for at least one problem it didn’t create, namely, climate change.

Only four percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from Africa, while sixty-five percent of the population faces the consequences of drought, desertification and other climate issues brought on by global warming.

Yet, many regions of the continent have stepped up to this challenge and others to show that it won’t back down in the face of adversity. Instead, it will strive to overcome it.

The Great Green Wall

Extending the entire width of the African continent, theGreat Green Wallis a solution to climate problems dreamt up by African people. Beginning in 2007, it has now gained widespread support from over twenty countries in the African Union.

The Great Green Wall holds future promise for a region facing great difficulties. Its impact could improve the lives of millions of people. And it’s a novel concept to boot: a living monument, larger than the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Green Wall Initiative is designed to protect the southern edge of the Sahara desert, known as the Sahel region, from increasing drought and desertification. Since the region is one of the poorest areas in the world, planting trees and restoring the landscape will help people resolve conflicts related to extremism that are fueled by scarcity and develop sustainable livelihoods in farming.

Now, the project has achieved international support to the tune of $8 billion dollars. In addition, important international partnerships have formed to support the African Union to realize its Great Green Wall Initiative.

How long is the Great Green Wall?

Upon completion the Great Green Wall will span the African continent, extending a total of 4,400 miles with a width of about 9 miles. Currently,15 percent of the project has been completed.

So far, Ethiopia has had the most success by restoring 15 million hectares of degraded land. Just this year, Ethiopiabeat the world record for tree planting. In 12 hours, the people of Ethiopia planted 350 million tree saplings.

Next, Senegal has planted 11.4 million trees and restored 25,000 hectares of land. Under the Great Green Wall Initiative, Nigeria restored 5 million hectares of land and created 20,000 jobs. Meanwhile, Sudan restored 2,000 hectares of land, and the combined total progress of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger amounts to 2,500 hectares of restored land as well as over 2 million native tree seeds and saplings planted.

Desertification in Africa

In some parts of the world, climate change has already taken a toll, devastating landscapes. The sub-Saharan Sahel region of Africa is a perfect example of this.

Older people living in the Sahel region recall when the lands were once covered in lush green vegetation. However, since the 1970s, the impacts of climate change, population growth and mismanagement of the land have depleted the natural resources of the region leaving many people with no choice but to migrate in search of work.

Recognized as a global threat to sustainable development, desertification prevents subsistence farmers from sustaining their livelihoods. Currently eighty percent of the Sahel region’s population currently works in subsistence farming.

According to a recent study, the Sahara desert has expanded by10 percent since 1920. Its authors singled out manmade climate change as a primary cause for the expansion. Deserts are landscapes marked by low precipitation, averaging less than four inches of rainfall per year. The Sahara itself spans an area as large as the entire continental United States.

Yet, the problem of desertification is not just limited to the Sahel. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates thattwo thirds of Africa’s arable land will transform into dry, barren deserts.

How does the Great Green Wall stop desertification?

While the Great Green Wall is not a quick-fix to the problem--it could take over twenty years to see lasting results--the size of the solution matches the scale of the problem. Trees not only help take carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, they improve the water retention capability of the soils. Many native trees are useful to local communities, as they can be pruned and used as firewood fuel, they provide shade for crops and their leaves can fertilize the ground so that nearby crops can grow more plentifully.

However, landscape restoration takes time, resources and most importantly, attentive land stewards who can tend the areas and protect the trees, ensuring they can grow. In some areas, this can be difficult, because the land must be protected from grazing animals who will otherwise eat the saplings. Some farmers also fret that the positive effects of the project won’t be seen early enough toprevent the next generation from leaving the area in search of jobs elsewhere.

However, in places such as Burkina Faso, local farmers have developed usefulindigenous farming techniques that restore lands through innovative water systems that include pits and rock walls that support the land’s water retention. Meanwhile, in Senegal,farmers are planting drought resistant acacia trees that can also be harvested for gum arabic, which is a commodity used in soda, to boost the local economy. These diverse solutions show how the Great Green Wall uses locally beneficial strategies to address this global problem.

What countries are involved in the Great Green Wall

When the African Union launched the initiative in 2007, the first countries to take part in the Great Green Wall Initiative included eleven countries that lie in the Sahel region: Djibouti to the east, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Senegal to the west.

More African countries have since joined the initiative, totalling over 20 countries with the additions of Algeria, Benin, Cape Verde, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, the Gambia and Tunisia.

In addition to these countries, important international partners providing financial support including Ireland, the European Union and the World Bank Group.

African Countries using Bans to Fight Plastic Pollution

Africa leads the world with its plastic banning regulations. It’s no wonder because it also has some of the most devastating environmental consequences from using plastic. Even though plastic is not good for the environment anywhere, the material particularly burdens the natural environment of developing countries because of inadequate waste disposal systems.

Which African Countries have banned plastic?

In total, 34 African countries have adopted plastic bans and 31 of these countries are located in the sub-Saharan region, one of the poorest regions of the world.

Thestrictest of these laws are in Kenya, where companies or individuals found using plastic bags will be fined $38,000 or face four years in prison. Rwanda also has strict laws, limiting the use of plastic bags and packaging to just the medical and pharmaceutical industries. It implemented its plastic banning law in 2008 and its capital city, Kigali, has been lauded as the “cleanest city in the world.”

An early adopter of a plastic taxing law, South Africa first imposeda fee for thin single-use plastic bags in 2003. Most recently,Tanzania banned plastic bags brought by tourists on June, 1, 2019. It had already banned plastic bags locally. Now, tourists must leave any plastic bags they’ve brought with them at a desk in the airport.

What has changed since the plastic bans began?

Thanks to plastic bans in African countries, the practice ofburning plastic waste has dropped. This has improved air quality by reducing airborne toxins. Moreover, the overburdening of waterways with plastic waste has diminished.

Most of the issues that make plastic an even more difficult issue in African developing countries than other developed countries relate to the inadequate infrastructure in place for managing waste there.

Modern landfill sites contain waste using liners and engineering that can be too expensive for some African countries to maintain, so lightweight plastic in their open dumps can easily fly away. Banning plastic results in obvious improvements to the health and cleanliness of local areas.

Africa’s Renewable Energy Potential

Africa currently produces just four percent of the world’s electricity. The majority of that is produced in South Africa and the northern region of the continent. Meanwhile, almost seventeen percent of the world’s population lives on the African continent. As a result, one in three African people don’t haveaccess to electricity, many of whom live in rural places.

Yet, the conditions of Africa’s climate are particularly suited to renewable energy. Whereas Germany produces almost14 percent of the world’s solar energy compared to 0.8 percent in Africa, on average, there is twice as much sunlight in Africa. The average wind level across the continent also surpasses the level needed to operate utility-scale wind turbines.

However, the issue of access doesn’t just relate to technology. Energy options must be affordable and reliable for them to provide usefulness to the region.Lacking proper infrastructure to build projects, business leaders and governments there require comprehensive plans that start from the ground up for delivering energy to people.

In spite of these challenges, many see Africa as an astonishing space of opportunity for renewable energy, as the prices to develop renewable energy projects, especially solar and wind power, have steadily dropped. Investors hope to see Africa “leapfrog” the fossil fuel energy paradigm so that renewable energy can dominate the region.

This happened when investment for mobile phones bypassed the traditional infrastructure of landlines, so that Africa actually adopted the latest technology before it had embraced older systems of communication.

Now, hooking rural Africa up to power means finding creative solutions that look beyond the traditional energy grid models. Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the poorest regions of the world, expects to havealmost half of its energy come from renewables by 2040.

What are the major renewable energy projects in Africa?

Morocco:Noor Complex Solar Power Plant (580MW) - TheNoor Complex expects to become the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant about the size of the city of San Francisco.

Morocco:The Ain Beni Mathar Integrated Solar Thermal Combined Cycle Power Station (250MW) - opened in 2010, the Ain Beni Mathar was the first Solar Plant in Africa and it has beenawarded by the African Development Bank for its innovation. It combinessolar and geothermal energy generation under one roof.

Morocco:Tarfaya Wind Farm (310 MW) - After opening in 2014, this coastal indfarm now has plans to expand to acapacity of 2,000MW.

Kenya:Lake Turkana Wind Project (310MW) - The recently opened Turkana wind farm,the largest in Africa, supports Kenya’s goal of achieving100 percent green energy by 2020. The project also receivedinvestment from Google.

Ethiopia:Aysha II Wind Farm (120MW) - The fourth wind farm in Ethiopia,Aysha II is currently under construction. It will add to the combined 324MW that Ethiopia generates from its three other wind projects.

Nigeria:Nigeria Electrification Project - Aunique project designed to impact all levels of society by providing hybrid mini grid solar energy networks. It particularly targets 300,000 households and 30,000 businesses that have difficulty accessing electrical power.

Senegal: Parc Eolien Taiba N’diaye SA wind farm (157.8MW) - Thelargest wind project in West Africa and the country’s first utility-scale wind park.

What are some major renewable energy initiatives in Africa?

Desert to Power Initiative:A$10 billion initiative to parallel the Great Green Wall with a solar power zone that could provide electricity to 250 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Renewable Energy Performance Platform (REPP):An initiative that funds 18 innovative,diverse renewable energy projects in the Sahel region in countries such as Tanzania, Burundi, Nigeria and Kenya. In 2018, the UK pledged$126 million in investment to these projects.

New Deal on Energy for Africa:An initiative to mobilize support forAfrican energy projects through the African Development Bank Group that includes renewable energy as one of its main goals.

Sub national Climate Fund:A fund set up to raise$350 million to fund low-carbon energy and waste infrastructure projects in 15 African countries, including least developed countries (LDCs).

How you can show your support for African Sustainability

Considering the promising ambition the different regions of Africa have shown in terms of land restoration, plastic pollution reduction and renewable energy, our natural impulse is to “like” it all and show our support.  

There are many ways to support sustainable development in Africa including eco-tourism, volunteering, donating money to organizations supporting Africa. However, it is important to carefully research the organizations you choose to support, to ensure they work closely with local communities and transparently report how their funds have benefited African communities. Consider starting by showingsupport for the Great Green Wall.

Even if your country doesn’t impose a $38,000 fine for single-use plastic like Kenya does, it’s still a good idea to set your own limits on plastic. Make it a lifestyle by choosing the right containers to sustain your plastic-free daily routines. We’ve got several. Check out our wide selection of durable, reusable beverage containers.

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