Ethiopia is currently building Africa’s first waste-to-energy plant, Reppie, that will convert trash into electricity.
Waste management in Africa is a huge problem. At best, waste ends up in vast landfill sites. At worst, it is simply dumped around Africa’s towns and cities. The result is that not only does the local environment suffer, the planet does too. Plastics and chemicals find their way into the ecosystem, where they lie trapped for thousands of years.
Africa is the world’s fastest-urbanizing continent. But while its city life has helped lift millions out of poverty, the rapid transformation has, however, created a new problem – mountains of urban waste. Now, an Ethiopian entrepreneur is tackling the crisis with Africa’s first waste-to-energy plant Reppie, which reduces noxious and dangerous landfills while powering urban homes.
In many ways, Africa’s developing countries are the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of global warming, with drought being the most obvious example. In 2016, Ethiopia experienced one of its worst-ever droughts, and over 10 million people had to rely on food aid to survive.
Africa needs to act now. And fast.
But where does it start from?
One step in the right direction would, however, be to address Africa’s massive waste problem. And taking the lead, is Ethiopia, home to the first waste-to-energy facility in Sub-Saharan Africa. The facility, called Reppie, is currently under construction in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Reppie will treat waste by combusting it and, in the process, generate clean, renewable electricity. And it won’t just produce power – the combustion process will also sort metals for recycling.
Reppie, a new waste-to-energy plant, is set to revolutionise Addis Ababa's approach to dealing with waste. The plant, the first of its kind in #Africa, is part of #Ethiopia's broader strategy to address pollution and embrace #RenewableEnergy https://t.co/UiQSVPRQZG #BeatPollution pic.twitter.com/7AMLY3XY1b
— Ethiopian Embassy UK 🇪🇹🇬🇧 (@EthioEmbassyUK) November 27, 2017
For the last fifty years, the Koshe dump site has been the only landfill in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. As the city expanded, so did Koshe until it was the size of 36 football pitches, becoming part of the urban landscape. It eventually attracted thousands of waste pickers who make their living from salvaged trash.
Landslide prompts government to take action
The Koshe landfill is a very unstable one. In 2017, a landslide occurred on the dump site, killing 114 people. It became a national tragedy, thus, forcing the government to take action.
Samuel Alemayehu went into political exile in the U.S. with his family when he was a child. But he was exceptionally brilliant and ended up with a scholarship to study engineering at the prestigious Stanford University. He made his fortune in Silicon Valley while still a student.
It was time for Samuel to return home and use his resources and knowledge to do something for his country.
Back home, Samuel Alemayehu looks out over the vast, stinking rubbish mountain in the heart of Addis Ababa.
Birds shriek as they swoop down to collect items from the heaps of waste. Human scavengers, faces grey with dust, pick through the filth as well.
Today, he is one of a group of dynamic entrepreneurs who are helping to usher in a new era of rapid economic growth in what was once one of the world’s poorest countries and where the political system is tightly controlled.
Samuel Alemayehu is a Stanford engineer, former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. He oversees the $120 million project as a co-founder of Cambridge Industries, which together with its Chinese JV partner CNEEC, has joined the Ethiopian government and a consortium of international companies to transform the city’s approach to waste.
“We turn one of Africa’s most challenging social problems, the management of waste, into a source of new wealth,” Cambridge Industries says.
Lighting Ethiopian households
The plant will incinerate 1,400 tons of waste per day. That’s more than 400.000 tons a year.
Once operational, Reppie will meet 30% of Addis Ababa’s annual demand for household electricity, providing electricity to over 3 million people, according to Samuel Alemayehu.
It will also clean 220 cubic meters of waste leachate every day, a toxic liquid that would otherwise pollute the surrounding environment.
And instead of releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere, advanced flue gas treatment will ensure those gases are caught, scrubbed and cleaned to stringent European Union Emission standards.
So, how do you get from waste to electricity?
The process is actually quite simple.
Combusting the waste produces steam. The resulting steam drives two 25 MW steam turbine generators that produce electricity. Together, these turbines can generate 185 GW/hour of renewable electricity every year.
There is an urgent need to increase the power supply, which is currently failing to keep up with Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth of more than 10% a year for the past decade.
The Reppie plant, which meets EU emissions standards, is part of Ethiopia’s broader plan to boost living standards while limiting its emissions, a strategy it refers to as building a “climate-resilient green economy.”
This plan also includes a goal to invest $2 billion annually in expanding the country’s renewable energy generation through 2030, double the current annual spending of $1 billion. The planned financing will include private investment, climate funds and clean energy sales to neighboring countries.
Europe’s already championing a war against waste
Waste incineration is already common in Europe, where nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste is burnt. France has 126 waste-to-energy plants, while Germany has 121 and Italy 40.
But in Africa, so far the only ways to dispose of rubbish have been to pile it up, bury it or dump it in rivers and lagoons. (Click to Tweet!)
The sites have, therefore, become ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos, contributing to the spread of diseases from malaria to yellow fever.
“We hope that Reppie will serve as a model for other countries in the region, and around the world”, says Zerubabel Getachew, Ethiopia’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in Nairobi.
Alemayehu is already working on expanding the reach of renewables on the continent. He has plans to construct similar waste-to-energy plants in Uganda, Kenya, Cameroon, Senegal, and Djibouti.
“African cities have seen explosive growth in the past three decades and have outgrown the infrastructures planned for them,” says Alemayehu.
“We believe these plants will create for African megacities a modern, multipurpose infrastructure, using new technology, which will enable them simultaneously to dispose of waste, generate sustainable energy, clean and reuse water, recycle valuable resources, generate industrial grade steam for use by other businesses and, most importantly, do all this in one facility located safely within city limits.”
How other Africans are tackling waste management
655 miles from Ethiopia, Kenya’s waste management is getting out of hand. In 2016, the country’s capital, Nairobi alone produced about 24.000 tons of waste daily. Illegal dumpsites eventually accommodated 62% of that waste. Mr. Green Africa a Kenyan startup, is, however, trying to solve this problem.
The startup aims to trade recyclables while achieving both social and environmental impacts. Mr. Green does this by tapping into the informal group of waste collectors and integrating them into their tech-enabled business.
Elsewhere in Ghana, its cities have poor sanitation, that costs the country $290 million annually. A good proportion of the waste material is made up of plastic. Despite clogging drains and polluting beaches, only 10% of the plastic waste ever gets recycled.
In 2015, the fear of an eminent plastics ban pushed Nelson Boateng’s company, Nelplast, which makes plastic shopping bags, to think of a way to keep the business alive. Using knowledge learned informally from engineers he had worked with, he came up with a production process that mixes sand with shredded plastic and red oxide to make one-square-foot pavement blocks.
The work for a sustainable Africa, powered by clean energy, has just begun. And it’s starting right in Ethiopia. This plant is Africa’s first. Will other African countries follow Ethiopia’s lead?
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