For years, Kenyans freely used and disposed of plastic bags. The bags were ubiquitous—in the markets, in the gutters and in the guts out of 3 out of every 10 animals taken to slaughter.

Nakuru, a town northwest of Nairobi, was a particular eyesore, with a poorly managed dump site that left bags strewn across the roads. It drove Nakuru resident James Wakibia to desperation and then to activism. Wakibia wrote letters to local papers, posted on social media, launched the hashtag #banplasticsKE and joined local group InTheStreetsofNakuru to petition the Kenyan government to ban single-use plastic bags.

It got people talking.

Finally, in August 2017, Kenya passed a landmark law banning the purchase, sale or use of plastic bags. Offenders risk four years in prison or a $40,000 fine.

“Plastic bags were virtually all over the place,” Wakibia told Africa Renewal. “But now the once-clogged drains are flowing and roadsides are free from plastic bags. There is a visible change.”

The trash and plastics nightmare can be found across the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa produces approximately 62 million tonnes of waste per year, including plastic waste, according to the World Bank. With Africa’s rapid urbanisation and economic growth, environmentalists expect that figure to double by 2025.

New uses found for waste

Yet Africa’s epidemic of waste may very well contain the seeds of a solution to another stubborn problem—the energy shortage.

In sub-Saharan Africa some 609 million people (6 out of 10) have no access to electricity, and about 80% of those in rural areas lack electricity access, according to 2017 data by the World Bank. Manufacturers in sub-Saharan Africa experience an average of 56 days of shutdown time per year due to power outages, the African Development Bank noted in 2017.

To achieve universal energy access, Africa requires an investment of more than $1.5 trillion in the energy sector between 2018 and 2050. Without such an investment, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to an estimated 89% of the world’s energy poor by 2030, according to a 2017 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), an organisation that advises governments on energy policy.

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