Back to the earth
Organic waste and soil degradation are two prominent issues for Accra and the rest of Ghana. Joanna Bingham, CEO of circular economy charity Footprints Africa, explains how one company in the country’s capital is offering an innovative solution to the problem.
Accra, the capital city of Ghana, in West Africa, has a particularly pungent waste problem. In the bustling metropolis, 65 per cent of the 2,385 tonnes of waste produced daily is organic materials. When this waste is dumped in landfill, it often decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen) releasing methane, a greenhouse gas ten times more harmful than CO2.
Accra has no waste segregation at the municipal level and landfills are completely choked. Collection is unreliable and waste piles up at markets and in gutters causing flooding and disease. There is nowhere for the waste to go and, as a coastal city, it’s not hard to guess where a lot of it ends up. The same is true for sewage treatment. 73 per cent of the urban population share (often rudimentary) sewage facilities and faecal sludge is drained mechanically by trucks. Horrifyingly, an estimated 95 per cent sludge ends up untreated in the environment (the average is 80 per cent worldwide!). Given 72 per cent of the Government of Ghana’s sanitation budget in 2017 was provided by donors, it is clear that an expensive city-wide sewerage network is not a realistic solution.
Outside of the city, at the other end of the value chain, there’s a second, much less discussed challenge in the system: soil. The nutritional quality of soil directly impacts the nutritional quality of food produced. Due to climate change, current land management practices and application of chemical fertiliser, which reduces organic carbon content, soil quality is degrading dangerously. The continent which has seen the most dramatic falls in soil quality is Africa and in 2014 the Montpellier Panel estimated the economic loss of degraded soils on the continent to be $68 billion (£56.2 billion) annually.
However, it’s time to move away from the poverty-stricken picture of Africa, which is doing the continent where innovation is flourishing such a disservice. In Accra, there is an amazing business that has developed a new model. Safi Sana takes the organic waste piling up in markets, abattoirs and community toilets and converts it into biogas, nutrient-dense fertiliser and irrigation water. The methane that pollutes our ozone, they turn into renewable energy. Critical nutrients such as phosphorous being lost to landfill, they return to the soil.
Safi Sana’s founding father is a Dutch NGO, Aqua for All, which, having experienced multiple water and sanitation projects, identified a gap for a model that could address sanitation challenges, cycle nutrients and be financially sustainable. In partnership with the local municipality, which provided land; the African Development Bank, which supported construction; and universities and research institutions for testing; in 2010, Safi Sana was born.
Aart van den Beukel, Managing Director at Safi Sana, expresses his pride at the company’s work: “By combining an innovative factory where the input is linked to output Safi Sana can create a business model which has benefits for the environment, social impact and actually achieves sustainable waste treatment.”
The company, which treats around 45 tonnes of waste every day, 30-35 tonnes of which are faecal matter, uses the biogas to generate sufficient electricity to power its facility with the surplus sold back to the grid – equivalent of 2,200 kilowatt hours-worth of biogas – providing its primary source of revenue.
It also produces 850 kilogrammes of its brand of fertiliser, Asase Gyefo, comprised entirely of organic matter. Asase Gyefo contains plentiful micronutrients, which are critical for soil (and human) health and the nutritional quality of food, whereas chemical fertilisers, such as NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium), contain the key macronutrients advertised in the name but rarely contain micronutrients or organic matter, which support the retention of nutrients in the soil. Safi Sana provides farmers with a detailed breakdown of the micronutrient composition of the fertiliser, and trains farmers in its application, providing instruction to over 1,000 farmers so far.
Furthermore, Safi Sana’s anaerobic digestion is one fifth the cost of sewer-based solutions for treating urban faecal sludge and comes with the added benefit of removing harmful substances from the environment, cleaning up communities and reducing the costs of doing so. Its outputs return much-needed nutrients to the earth and supports farm productivity; field trials conducted by the company showed 30 per cent yield improvement and an extended shelf-life of crops, reducing waste further.
It hasn’t been without setbacks. The lack of waste segregation has caused challenges. As van den Beukel shared: “Faecal waste, generally, is abundantly available but clean organic waste sources are more scarce and, if available, often mixed with other waste since they do not have a value for the producer.” Working directly with industrial partners would help them achieve a purer input stream, “especially the bigger food processing industries,” added van den Beukel.
Even once the waste is turned into valued products, challenges do not subside. Safi Sana has experienced low sales of its fertiliser, both because the most degraded soils are in the hard-to-reach north of Ghana and it is therefore prohibitively expensive to ship fertiliser to where there is demand, while government subsidies for chemical fertiliser make it hard to produce organic fertiliser economically. Meanwhile, the company often has to flare biogas produced from its organic recycling process as the national grid isn’t always able to accept it, throwing away valuable resources.
Unfortunately, the model is not yet financially sustainable. The company required grants to support the total set-up costs of €3 million (£2.75 million). Van den Beukel estimates that, without contribution from the government, the company would require three plants to secure the scale required for profitability. This would allow the sharing of fixed costs, such as technical experts and a remote monitoring system, across larger operations, bringing the unit costs down.
However, company management feel strongly that, for the impact to be sustainable and scalable, government should contribute, for example, a fee per tonne treated, given that Safi Sana is playing a critical role towards reducing the government sanitation burden and developing a cost-effective model with lower running costs that lowers costs across the system. Management states that this in turn would attract funding from Development Finance Institutions to scale up the model.
Safi Sana recognises that creating an effective circular economy requires collaboration. It is openly in the market for partners and is currently pursuing discussions with private sector players (in waste and engineering) to scale up in new locations, with NGOs that support this type of development, and, of course, with governments and Development Finance Institutions for financing that is appropriate to the model.
Safi Sana’s model is of clear benefit on multiple levels for the environment, for the government, for the economy and for citizens, and reduces not just the financial cost of waste management, but also the cost to the environment in terms of pollution and soil degradation. Whether a financial model that equitably shares the costs of its operations between all those that benefit can be developed remains to be seen. But for the moment Safi Sana remains a shining example of how an innovative solution to waste management can provide a resource for all.