When will Africa’s fast-growing cities get on top of their garbage problems?

A beach in Lagos.
A beach in Lagos.
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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“I am going over to London, to learn how English carry dustbin.”

Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s 1978 song Perambulator features a sharp reference to how government officials in some African countries fly around the world at taxpayers’ expense to learn basic skills they should already know. Fela used waste management to hammer home a point about poor leadership and an over-reliance on importing western practices.

Several stories in the past few weeks reminded me of that line. Waste management is one of the biggest challenges facing the continent and its fast-growing cities—and has been a problem for a long time. African cities are urbanizing at a rapid rate, adding nearly 350 million new city-dwellers by 2030. A billion more people are expected to be living in African cities by 2063. These cities don’t have the infrastructure to deal with the tons of waste generated every day right now, much less when millions more move in.

Ghana may be the world’s fastest-growing economy this year, but its biggest city, Accra, is struggling to get on top of its garbage problem. The president is determined for Accra to be Africa’s cleanest city, but the reality does not match the ambition. “Accra’s gutters are persistently clogged, despite pressure on government and promises in return,” we wrote in a recent feature. “A common complaint through the city is that when people clean out the gutters, waste will sit in a pile nearby and eventually find its way back.”

Nairobi, a city of similar size to Accra, has fought is own long battle with waste management. Last year, Kenya banned plastic bags, in an attempt to cut one of the main sources of non-biodegradable waste in most cities. It was following the lead of Rwanda, which has long banned plastic bags and whose capital Kigali is often hailed as one of Africa’s cleanest cities. But Nairobi is a much larger and complex city than Kigali, and has struggled even to implement the plastic bag ban to date.

And in Fela’s home city of Lagos, the state governor seems determined to rid the city of its decades-old waste problem. But that has got caught up in political controversy, after questions have been raised about the effectiveness and cost a 10-year contract with a Dubai-based company. It’s not quite a “Perambulator” scenario yet, but it’s not far off and large parts of the city remain overwhelmed by tons of waste.

Poor waste management is linked to health problems and environmental damage, of course, but also hinders broader economic growth in developing countries. The World Bank estimated in 2012 that 18 African countries, with a combined population of 554 million, lose around $5.5 billion every year due to poor sanitation. That was equivalent of forgone annual economic growth of between 1% to 2.5% of GDP. That is undoubtedly a problem worth prioritizing.