The Role of Partnerships in Facilitating Circular Trade in Africa

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This article was authored by Safae Irghis and received contributions from Miguel Peters

As the world grapples with issues related to the environment and the need for sustainable development, the concept of a circular economy has gained significant popularity in recent years. Nowhere is the use of circular concepts more crucial than in Africa, a resource-rich continent with complex social and environmental challenges. Partnerships are emerging as a significant catalyst in accelerating circular trade across Africa as states attempt to convert from linear consumption patterns to circular models.

Understanding Circular Trade: A Path to Sustainability

No nation can single-handedly establish a circular economy. Instead, there is a collective dependence on international trade to ensure affordable and reliable access to a diverse range of materials, goods, and services that facilitate circular practices. This encompasses the trade of items that enable circularity, such as equipment for remanufacturing and recycling, expertise in circular design, leasing and rental services, repair services, intellectual property rights, reasonably priced second-hand goods, recycled materials, as well as non-hazardous waste and scrap suitable for reintegration into primary production. Additionally, this includes regeneratively produced food, diverse biomass, and upcycled products. The convergence of these trade streams can be conceptualised as ‘circular trade’.

Navigating Challenges of Circular Trade in Africa

While the concept of circular trade holds immense promise for advancing the circular economy, it is not without its share of regulatory and technical impediments. Distinct disparities in industrial capabilities, innovation capacity, intellectual property frameworks, trade infrastructure, and digital trade capacities among nations have positioned developed countries more favourably to reap the benefits of circular trade compared to their counterparts. Moreover, the absence of universally recognised definitions for end-of-life products, standards for waste quality, compliant processes for reverse supply chains, and regulatory frameworks further hinder future partnerships for capacity enhancement, the establishment of circular trade-enabling facilities, and the formulation of trade and economic cooperation agreements. Addressing these intricate regulatory and technical challenges necessitates concerted collaboration, particularly within African nations, to ensure equitable advantages for all stakeholders in circular trade and cross-border reverse supply chains.

Circular Trade: Addressing the Surge in Critical Raw Materials Demand

The projected fivefold escalation in demand for Critical Raw Materials (CRM) by 2050 on a global scale is propelling numerous countries to explore avenues for additional resource acquisition. In the contemporary global economy, the significance of Critical Raw Materials cannot be overstated. Essential minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and copper are pivotal in fueling critical processes like digitalisation, the advancement of renewable energy technologies, and the ongoing expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure. The mounting requirement for these minerals, collectively termed Critical Raw Materials (CRMs), is rapidly gaining momentum due to concerted endeavours by governments and enterprises to attain net-zero emissions targets. This surge in CRM demand has spurred developed nations to diversify their resource base locally, aiming to curtail dependency on exports and fortify economic resilience.

In light of this, African countries endowed with substantial mineral reserves are urged to transition from the traditional raw material export model to a more forward-looking strategy centered on the export of value-added African manufactured goods and services, Secondary Raw Materials (SRM), and non-hazardous waste amenable to reuse and remanufacturing. However, it is paramount to regulate circular trade judiciously, as unregulated practices could inadvertently foster hazardous and low-wage labour, encompassing activities like illegal waste trade or informal recycling and repair operations. Such unchecked practices could potentially expose workers to perilous substances and other occupational hazards.

Moreover, it is crucial to acknowledge that the efficacy of circular trade might not be universally applicable. Engaging in a trade involving suboptimal second-hand goods, such as pre-owned electronics or diesel vehicles, could trap recipient nations in counterproductive and financially burdensome consumption patterns. Therefore, collaborative initiatives aimed at promoting circular trade must be engineered to maximize opportunities for dignified employment and sustainable economic growth, while concurrently mitigating the risks of labour exploitation and ecological harm.

Fostering Circular Trade through Regional Partnerships

Regional partnerships have emerged as instrumental forces in facilitating the growth of circular trade, an essential component of sustainable economies. These alliances bring together neighboring countries with shared economic interests, providing a collaborative platform to address the complexities of circular trade. By pooling resources, expertise, and infrastructural capabilities, regional partnerships create an enabling environment for the seamless flow of goods, materials, and knowledge across borders.

At the heart of regional partnerships is the promotion of circularity within a localised context. By aligning policies, regulations, and strategies, neighboring nations can collectively create a harmonized framework that supports the circular economy’s principles. This approach not only streamlines trade practices but also minimises regulatory barriers, enabling businesses to focus on innovative solutions and sustainable production. Additionally, regional partnerships enhance market access for circular products, fostering economic growth while reducing environmental impact.

Collaborative efforts within regional partnerships also amplify capacity-building endeavours. Knowledge exchange and skill-sharing initiatives empower participating countries to leverage one another’s strengths, addressing common challenges in circular trade. From building resilient recycling infrastructure to enhancing waste management practices, these partnerships drive mutual growth and competence. Ultimately, the role of regional partnerships in facilitating circular trade extends beyond economic considerations, fostering a sense of shared responsibility toward sustainable development and fostering a more interconnected and resilient future.

In conclusion, Circular Trade holds the promise of reshaping Africa’s economies while also tackling urgent environmental issues. Partnerships play a vital role in pooling the strengths of various stakeholders to surmount challenges and seize opportunities within the circular economy. Through collaborative efforts, knowledge exchange, innovation drive, and policy advocacy, partnerships serve as a crucial catalyst in steering the continent toward adopting circular trade practices. This transition not only paves the way for a more sustainable future in Africa but also contributes to global environmental well-being.