Kenya is emerging as a leader in the fight against plastic pollution and is among the first countries in East Africa to limit single-use plastics and sign the Clean Seas initiative to rid waterways of plastic waste.
Juliette Biao, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Director for Africa lauded the country for banning plastic bottles, cups and cutlery in its national parks last year, a move that followed a country-wide prohibition on plastic bags. She also called the country’s efforts to stem the flow of plastic into its waterways an important step in reducing marine litter.
“Kenya has invested heavily in both policies and law enforcement to win the fight against plastic pollution. The result of this investment is today boosting Kenya’s environmental stewardship in Africa and the world,” said Biao.
Her comments came during the virtual convening of the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly, the planet’s top environmental decision-making body. Every two years, the assembly unites the UN’s 193 Member States, policy-makers, civil society, scientists and the private sector to take action on urgent environmental issues. The virtual session in February 2021 will be followed by an in-person meeting in Nairobi in 2022.
Like many countries, Kenya has long struggled with plastic waste, which dots its Indian Ocean coast and often abounds in its lakes. In Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city with some 2 million residents, 3.7 kilos of plastic per capita leach into bodies of water annually.
Turning the tide
Working closely with communities and in partnership with the private sector as well as UNEP, Kenya’s national and devolved county-level governments are establishing a plastic waste management programme – one that could be scaled and replicated across the East African community and beyond.
Kenya grabbed headlines in 2017 when it banned single-use plastic bags. That was preceded by the country’s decision to sign on to the Clean Seas initiative, making it one of the first African nations to commit to limiting plastic in its waterways.
And, as of June 2020, visitors to Kenya’s national parks, beaches, forests and conservation areas are no longer able to carry plastic water bottles, cups, disposable plates, cutlery, or straws into protected areas.
It’s not just its fight against plastic that makes Kenya a green pioneer: the country was also an early adopter of the Green University Initiative. For over a decade, universities around the country have focused on greening their campuses, while enhancing student engagement and learning. Higher education offerings in environmental science, management and policy are also available at both public and private institutions.
The green dividend
By expanding its efforts to green its economy, Kenya could use sustainability to power economic growth, create jobs and lift people out of poverty.
“Since the commencement of our engagement with polythene bags and PET bottles, Kenya has witnessed increased investment in plastic recycling and several new players have come onboard. We have upscaled environmental awareness on plastic pollution together with our partners and are proud of initiatives such as The Flipflopi, which has demonstrated successful recycling of plastics,” said Chris Kiptoo, Principal Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Kenya at the UN Environment Assembly.
Two of the country’s largest industries – agriculture and tourism – could also provide sources of environmental innovation and job creation.
Sea of economic opportunity
Such ambition extends beyond the country’s shores and back into the waters, as the upcoming second expedition by the recycled plastic lumber dhow the Flipflopi aims to demonstrate. Kenya also has an opportunity to drive growth by creating a sustainable blue economy, using its maritime resources to create jobs and spur economic growth while ensuring the health of the ocean ecosystem.
Addressing Africa’s first Sustainable Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi in 2018, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta committed to putting in place policies that harness the economic potential of Kenya’s oceans and coastline. He called for strong action to reduce the waste and plastic pollution that threaten food security, public health, and marine life.
According to a 2018 policy brief published by the United Nations Development Programme, the Western Indian Ocean, covering the Kenyan coastline and most shorelines of East Africa, generates more than US$22 billion annually in goods and services, including fisheries, maritime transport, trade, tourism and waste management. Kenya’s economic share was estimated at $4.4 billion annually.
With the right policies, especially those that invest in sustainable infrastructure and protecting ecosystems along its maritime territory (which stretches nearly 230,000 square kilometres); Kenya could boost the value of its blue economy.
“As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN Environment Programme, I encourage Kenya as host of the global leading environmental authority to continue showing the world that environmental stewardship should be demonstrated through actions and not words,” said Biao.